Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why your school cafeteria lunch was nasty

[Public] schools typically receive a little less than $3 for each meal served to a child eligible for a free meal. And that total must pay not only for ingredients, but for lunchroom staff, kitchen equipment, the manager’s salary, and all the reports and other paperwork required by state auditors. The average school is left with about a dollar to spend on food.
--Margot Sanger-Katz, Boston Globe, on cheaper than cheap food

Harvard economics department's new t-shirt

See the Harvard Crimson article

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Relational retirement investing

In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time with friends and more time enlarging friendships with people who were ready to be my friends. In retirement you tend to depend on friends even more than when you were younger. For a retiree, having good friends is very important.
--Stan Hinden, retired Washington Post reporter and author of How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire

The death of pickpocketing in America

Marcus Felson, a criminologist at Texas State University who has spent decades studying low-level crime, calls pickpocketing a "lost art." Last year, a New York City subway detective told the Daily News that the only pickpockets left working the trains anymore were middle-aged or older, and even those are few and far between. ...

In a 2001 story, the New York Times reported that there were 23,068 reported pickpocketing incidents in the city in 1990, amounting to nearly $10 million in losses. Five years later, the number of reported incidents had fallen by half, and by the turn of the millennium, there were less than 5,000. Today, the NYPD doesn't even maintain individual numbers on pickpocketing. ...

Experts offer a few explanations for the gradual disappearance of pickpockets in the United States. Crime nationwide—from pickpocketing to homicide—has been dropping since the mid-1990s. People carry less cash today, and thanks to enhanced security features, it's harder for thieves to use stolen credit or debit cards than it was in the past. And perhaps most important, the centuries-old apprenticeship system underpinning organized pickpocketing has been disrupted. Pickpocketing has always perpetuated itself by having older hooks—nicknamed "Fagins," after the crime boss in Oliver Twist—teach younger ones the art, and then absorbing them into canons. But due to ratcheted-up law enforcement measures, including heftier sentences (in some states, a pick, defined as theft from the body of another person and charged as a felony regardless of the amount taken) and better surveillance of hot spots and known pickpockets, that system has been dismantled.

This is not the case in Europe, where pickpocketing has been less of a priority for law enforcement and where professionals from countries like Bulgaria and Romania, each with storied traditions of pickpocketing, are able to travel more freely since their acceptance into the European Union in 2007...
--Joe Keohane, Slate, on why it's OK to keep your wallet in your back pocket

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Learning to be a better human through a Turing test

Each year for the past two decades, the artificial-intelligence community has convened for the field’s most anticipated and controversial event—a meeting to confer the Loebner Prize on the winner of a competition called the Turing Test. The test is named for the British mathematician Alan Turing, one of the founders of computer science, who in 1950 attempted to answer one of the field’s earliest questions: can machines think? ...

Instead of debating this question on purely theoretical grounds, Turing proposed an experiment. Several judges each pose questions, via computer terminal, to several pairs of unseen correspondents, one a human “confederate,” the other a computer program, and attempt to discern which is which. ... Turing predicted that by the year 2000, computers would be able to fool 30 percent of human judges after five minutes of conversation, and that as a result, one would “be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”

Turing’s prediction has not come to pass; however, at the 2008 contest, the top-scoring computer program missed that mark by just a single vote. When I read the news, I realized instantly that the 2009 test in Brighton could be the decisive one. I’d never attended the event, but I felt I had to go—and not just as a spectator, but as part of the human defense. A steely voice had risen up inside me, seemingly out of nowhere: Not on my watch. I determined to become a confederate. ...

[Joseph] Weintraub’s program, [the first winner of the Loebner Prize,] shifting topics wildly and spouting non sequiturs and canned one-liners, came off as zany, a jokester, a much more “human” personality type. At least I used to think so—before I learned how easy this was to mimic.

As Richard Wallace, three-time winner of the Most Human Computer award (’00, ’01, and ’04), explains:
Experience with [Wallace’s chatbot] ALICE indicates that most casual conversation is “state-less,” that is, each reply depends only on the current query, without any knowledge of the history of the conversation required to formulate the reply.
Many human conversations function in this way, and it behooves AI researchers to determine which types of conversation are stateless—with each remark depending only on the last—and try to create these very sorts of interactions. It’s our job as confederates, as humans, to resist them.

One of the classic stateless conversation types is the kind of zany free-associative riffing that Weintraub’s program, PC Therapist III, employed. Another, it turns out, is verbal abuse. ...

[A]rgument is stateless—that is, unanchored from all context, a kind of Markov chain of riposte, meta-riposte, meta-meta-riposte. Each remark after the first is only about the previous remark. If a program can induce us to sink to this level, of course it can pass the Turing Test.

Once again, the question of what types of human behavior computers can imitate shines light on how we conduct our own, human lives. Verbal abuse is simply less complex than other forms of conversation. In fact, since reading the papers on MGonz, and transcripts of its conversations, I find myself much more able to constructively manage heated conversations. Aware of the stateless, knee-jerk character of the terse remark I want to blurt out, I recognize that that remark has far more to do with a reflex reaction to the very last sentence of the conversation than with either the issue at hand or the person I’m talking to. All of a sudden, the absurdity and ridiculousness of this kind of escalation become quantitatively clear, and, contemptuously unwilling to act like a bot, I steer myself toward a more “stateful” response: better living through science.
--Brian Christian, Atlantic Monthly, on the art of human conversation

Monday, February 21, 2011

Learning economics through Monopoly

[The board game] Monopoly was taken seriously in Shorey House at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s. ...

The precise details of our classic game are blurred by the alcohol consumed that night and the years that have passed since then, but this much is recalled. We decided that Monopoly was hostile to a free market because it restricted the number of houses or hotels one could buy. We voted that a player could buy as many hotels as a property could physically bear and rents would be raised proportionally.

But the bank soon began to run out of money. So we did what any government would do. We began printing more of it, by scribbling $500 on scraps of paper. We printed a lot of money.

Prices shot up, which we all knew, even in that inebriated state, was the consequence of expanding the money supply. (After all, the great economist [Milton Friedman] told us, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.”)

The inflation became so extreme that we eventually voted to alter the rules again: we’d cut the money supply. Any money we printed that came back to the bank would be taken out of circulation.

A severe depression kicked in, of course. Prices plummeted and it was a race to liquidate assets. One by one the players quickly went bankrupt, and sometime around 4 that morning the game was over.
--Damon Darlin, NYT, on the laws of economics holding true in a board game

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Promoting insects as food

Will Westerners ever take to insects as food? It's possible. We are entomologists at Wageningen University, and we started promoting insects as food in the Netherlands in the 1990s. Many people laughed—and cringed—at first, but interest gradually became more serious. In 2006 we created a "Wageningen—City of Insects" science festival to promote the idea of eating bugs; it attracted more than 20,000 visitors.

Over the past two years, three Dutch insect-raising companies, which normally produce feed for animals in zoos, have set up special production lines to raise locusts and mealworms for human consumption. Now those insects are sold, freeze-dried, in two dozen retail food outlets that cater to restaurants. A few restaurants in the Netherlands have already placed insects on the menu, with locusts and mealworms (beetle larvae) usually among the dishes. ...

The first insect fare is likely to be incorporated subtly into dishes, as a replacement for meat in meatballs and sauces. It also can be mixed into prepared foods to boost their nutritional value—like putting mealworm paste into a quiche. And dry-roasted insects can be used as a replacement for nuts in baked goods like cookies and breads.

We continue to make progress in the Netherlands, where the ministry of agriculture is funding a new $1.3 million research program to develop ways to raise edible insects on food waste, such as brewers' grain (a byproduct of beer brewing), soyhulls (the skin of the soybean) and apple pomace (the pulpy remains after the juice has been pressed out). Other research is focusing on how protein could be extracted from insects and used in processed foods. ...

Not long ago, foods like kiwis and sushi weren't widely known or available. It is quite likely that in 2020 we will look back in surprise at the era when our menus didn't include locusts, beetle larvae, dragonfly larvae, crickets and other insect delights.
--Marcel Dicke and Arnold Van Huis, WSJ, on tasty Dutch treats. See also the previous post on land shrimp.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

How to build an extraordinary memory

The answer lies in a discovery supposedly made by the poet Simonides of Ceos in the fifth century B.C. After a tragic banquet-hall collapse, of which he was the sole survivor, Simonides was asked to give an account of who was buried in the debris. When the poet closed his eyes and reconstructed the crumbled building in his imagination, he had an extraordinary realization: he remembered where each of the guests at the ill-fated dinner had been sitting. Even though he made no conscious effort to memorize the layout of the room, it nonetheless left a durable impression. From that simple observation, Simonides reportedly invented a technique that would form the basis of what came to be known as the art of memory. He realized that if there hadn’t been guests sitting at a banquet table but, say, every great Greek dramatist seated in order of birth — or each of the words of one of his poems or every item he needed to accomplish that day — he would have remembered that instead. He reasoned that just about anything could be imprinted upon our memories, and kept in good order, simply by constructing a building in the imagination and filling it with imagery of what needed to be recalled. This imagined edifice could then be walked through at any time in the future. Such a building would later come to be called a memory palace.

Virtually all the details we have about classical memory training — indeed, nearly all the memory tricks in the competitive mnemonist’s arsenal — can be traced to a short Latin rhetoric textbook called “Rhetorica ad Herennium,” written sometime between 86 and 82 B.C. It is the only comprehensive discussion of the memory techniques attributed to Simonides to have survived into the Middle Ages. The techniques described in this book were widely practiced in the ancient and medieval worlds. Memory training was considered a centerpiece of classical education in the language arts, on par with grammar, logic and rhetoric. Students were taught not just what to remember but how to remember it. In a world with few books, memory was sacrosanct.

Living as we do amid a deluge of printed words — would you believe more than a million new books were published last year? — it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to read in the age before Gutenberg, when a book was a rare and costly handwritten object that could take a scribe months of labor to produce. ... If you were a scholar, you knew that there was a reasonable likelihood you would never see a particular text again, so a high premium was placed on remembering what you read. ...

In the 15th century, an Italian jurist named Peter of Ravenna is said to have used thousands of memory palaces to store quotations on every important subject, classified alphabetically. When he wished to expound on a given topic, he simply reached into the relevant chamber and pulled out the source.
--Joshua Foer, NYT Magazine, on using the easily recalled to remember the hard-to-recall

Friday, February 18, 2011

How to stop wasting time on the Internet

After years of trying various methods, I broke this habit by pitting my impatience against my laziness. I decoupled the action and the neurological reward by setting up a simple 30-second delay I had to wait through, in which I couldn't do anything else, before any new page or chat client would load (and only allowed one to run at once). The urge to check all those sites magically vanished--and my 'productive' computer use was unaffected.
--Mouseover text from the above xkcd comic

John Beshears, David Laibson, Brigitte Madrian, and I wrote about this kind of self-control mechanism in our 2005 paper, "Early Decisions: A Regulatory Framework":

For some goods, convenience can be undesirable. Ex-smokers prefer not to have a spare pack of cigarettes in their cupboard. Dieters prefer not to have a bowl of candy on their desk or a gallon of ice cream in their freezer.

We recognize the conflicts between our long-run goals (e.g., “I want to stop smoking”) and our momentary desires (“I’d like to smoke right now”). The long-term perspective is patient (“I want to start a healthy diet”), while the short-run perspective is indulgent (“I’ll have dessert tonight despite the future consequences”). A failure of self-control occurs when the short-run preference leads to behavior contrary to the long-run plan. ...

In this paper, we discuss a range of regulations that buttress consumers’ long-term behavioral intentions and reduce the likelihood that momentary impulses will undermine those intentions. All of these regulations, which we call Early Decision regulations, encourage consumers to make forward-looking decisions that they cannot easily reverse later. ...

To illustrate our approach, we will discuss five different classes of Early Decision regulations: location-based regulation, time-based regulation, delay-based regulation, self-regulation, and hybrid regulation. ...

Delay-based regulations work on the principle that impulse purchases are motivated primarily by a transitory desire to immediately consume the regulated good. Hence, consumption would be significantly reduced if a delay were built into the purchase process, so that a current purchase did not create an immediate opportunity for consumption. For example, consider a mail-order system for cigarettes, with delivery lagged by some number of days. In such a system, consumers could buy as many cigarettes as they wanted, but they would not be able to buy and immediately smoke on impulse. A decision to buy today would only enable consumption at a lag. Such a system would work well for a consumer who was happy to commit not to smoke next week but could not resist smoking right now. With cigarettes only available by mail, such a consumer would be able to commit not to smoke in the future by simply not ordering cigarettes in advance.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Touching the political third rail

You're gonna to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security. Oh ho. I just said it and I'm still standing here. I did not vaporize into the carpeting, and I said it.
--New Jersey Governor Chris Christie defying political death

Jeopardy! champion characteristics

Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It's very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman.
--Ken Jennings, Slate, on the kinship he shares with IBM's supercomputer

Method acting vs. special effects

During last year's debate over whether the blue people in James Cameron's Avatar were delivering actual performances or not, it was a commonly heard opinion from the acting community that "acting is the best special effect." The actors meant it as a way of pulling rank, but what if the statement were actually true? What if what lay behind our current fad for physical transformation in our actors was a desire to keep up, not with the illustrious example set by Marlon Brando, but with that set by Industrial Light and Magic? You've read the statistics, proudly trumpeted by the stars' publicists during the run-up to awards season. How Hanks lost 55 pounds for Cast Away. How Clooney put on 30 pounds for Syriana. Crowe gaining 63 pounds for Body of Lies. Bale losing 70 pounds for The MachinistThink of the language critics use to praise these performances—"immersive," "transformative," "revelatory"—and you hear distinct echoes of the way we talk about special effects. ...

It's telling, for example, that the current vogue for actorly metamorphosis didn't really kick in until after the release of Jurassic Park in 1993. ...

Trying imagining a lesser-known actor in The Hours, or Cast Away, and you begin to see that Kidman and Hanks' performances are as much adjuncts to their status as celebrities as to their skills as actors. They might best be understood, in fact, as a form of cinematic trompe l'oeil, wherein the audience is both fooled and not fooled at the same time, for we never forget that it's Theron under that make-up, or Hanks that's lost all that weight—indeed, to do so would be to defeat the point of the exercise, which is to marvel over the distance traveled by a well-known face or name. ...

Just as it is possible to exit the latest blockbuster going, "The special effects were great, but the movie blew," so it's possible to find Portman's performance exactly the kind of stunt that wins awards but be unsure what it connects with, emotionally, besides Nina's intense desire to be given the part of the Swan Queen and her determination to do anything to get it.
--Tom Shone, Slate, on physical transformation as special effect

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Deficit reduction theater 2

Neither Mr. Obama nor Congressional Republicans are tackling the large entitlement benefit programs [Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid]. ...

Mr. Obama and Republicans are left, then, competing to cut just 12 percent of the federal budget, the so-called nonsecurity discretionary spending that Congress appropriates each year. ...

Some administration advisers wanted [Obama] to propose specific changes to fix Social Security, which has accumulated surpluses to date but before long will begin paying out more than it takes in from payroll taxes.

But, Democrats say, Mr. Obama and his political team figured that Republicans are unwilling to talk compromise this soon after their return to power in the House and that a president facing re-election next year would be unwise to risk proposing bold but controversial ideas, like small reductions in cost-of-living adjustments for future Social Security beneficiaries, only to be rebuffed.

Mr. Ryan, the House Republican budget chairman, rejected that reasoning. ...

But asked whether House Republicans would propose a bold budget this spring that would truly rein in future deficits as the fiscal commission proposed, Mr. Ryan demurred. “I wish I could tell you the answer to that,” he said.
--Jackie Calmes, NYT, on much ado about nothing done

Monday, February 14, 2011

The perils of online dating

As it is succinctly explained in “When Strangers Click,” an absorbing documentary about Internet dating (to be shown Monday on HBO2), women are terrified of meeting serial killers online; men are terrified of meeting women of above-average weight.
--Ginia Gellafante, NYT, on gender-differentiating fears

Social media serfdom

The funny thing about all these frothy millions and billions piling up [to Facebook, Tumblr, Quora, Huffington Post, etc.]? Most of the value was created by people working free. ...

I ended up thinking about all this when I was encouraged to sign up for Quora, the burgeoning question-and-answer social site, by some of my more tech-minded friends. As I was going through the registration, I had a “hey, wait a minute” moment: right now, my in-box is full of all manners of questions and requests I can’t get to, some of them from my own family. What in the world am I doing wandering out into a community of strangers to answer and post questions?

It will be interesting to see how the legions of unpaid bloggers at The Huffington Post react to the merger with AOL. Typing away for an upstart blog — founded by the lefty pundit Arianna Huffington and the technology executive Kenneth Lerer — would seem to be a little different from cranking copy for AOL, a large American media company with a market capitalization of $2.2 billion.
--David Carr, NYT, on enriching the rich for free

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The smell of outer space

The final frontier smells a lot like a Nascar race—a bouquet of hot metal, diesel fumes and barbecue. The source? Dying stars, mostly.

The by-products of all this rampant combustion are smelly compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These molecules “seem to be all over the universe,” says Louis Allamandola, the founder and director of the Astrophysics and Astrochemistry Lab at NASA Ames Research Center. ...

Though a pure, unadulterated whiff of outer space is impossible for humans (it’s a vacuum after all; we would die if we tried), when astronauts are outside the ISS, space-borne compounds adhere to their suits and hitch a ride back into the station. Astronauts have reported smelling “burned” or “fried” steak after a space walk, and they aren’t just dreaming of a home-cooked meal.

The smell of space is so distinct that, three years ago, NASA reached out to Steven Pearce of the fragrance maker Omega Ingredients to re-create the odor for its training simulations. “Recently we did the smell of the moon,” Pearce says. “Astronauts compared it to spent gunpowder.”
--Lizzie Schiffman, Popular Science, on eau de space

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bans on hiring smokers

More hospitals and medical businesses in many states are adopting strict policies that make smoking a reason to turn away job applicants, saying they want to increase worker productivity, reduce health care costs and encourage healthier living. ...

The new rules essentially treat cigarettes like an illegal narcotic. Applications now explicitly warn of “tobacco-free hiring,” job seekers must submit to urine tests for nicotine and new employees caught smoking face termination. ...

[E]mployees who smoke cost, on average, $3,391 more a year each for health care and lost productivity, according to federal estimates.

“We felt it was unfair for employees who maintained healthy lifestyles to have to subsidize those who do not,” Steven C. Bjelich, chief executive of St. Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau, Mo., which stopped hiring smokers last month. ...

The head of the Cleveland Clinic was both praised and criticized when he mused in an interview two years ago that, were it not illegal, he would expand the hospital policy to refuse employment to obese people.
--A. G. Sulzberger, NYT, on hiring consequences of rising health care costs

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Giant among midgets

Your paper, "Behavioral Economics Perspectives on Public Sector Pension Plans", was recently listed on SSRN's Top Ten download list for LSN: Pension Law (Topic). As of 02/10/2011, your paper has been downloaded 15 times.
--A typical ego-massaging email from SSRN

Monday, February 7, 2011

Corporate free speech and the media

In the year since the Supreme Court handed down its 183-page decision in Citizens United, the liberal objection to it has gradually boiled down to a single sentence: The majority was wrong to grant First Amendment rights to corporations.

That critique is incomplete. As Justice John Paul Stevens acknowledged in his dissent, the court had long recognized that “corporations are covered by the First Amendment.” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, listed more than 20 precedents saying that.

But an old and established rule can still be wrong, and it may be that the liberal critique is correct. If it is, though, it must confront a very hard question. If corporations have no First Amendment rights, what about newspapers and other news organizations, almost all of which are organized as corporations? ...

Consider this telling exchange between Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and a lawyer for the Obama administration at the first of two arguments in Citizens United. The lawyer, Malcolm L. Stewart, said Congress had the power to regulate corporate speech about political candidates under the First Amendment.

“Most publishers are corporations,” Justice Alito said. “And a publisher that is a corporation could be prohibited from selling a book?” ...

In the end, though, Mr. Stewart gave a candid answer.

“We could prohibit the publication of the book,” he said.
--Adam Liptak, NYT, on the difficulties raised by regulating corporate speech

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Cuban immigrant fathers

The de la Torre family story bears the markings of the classic immigrant overachiever narrative. The father, Angel de la Torre, was an internist in Cuba who fled his homeland for political reasons in 1960. He arrived in Florida with no money and no English. When he started over his medical training, he chose cardiology. ...

Angel was a demanding dad. When [now-CEO of Caritas Christi] Ralph would proudly present a test grade of 97, his father would ask, “Did anyone in the class score a 100?” ...

Ralph’s father wanted him to return to Jacksonville, Florida, to join a highly respected cardiac surgery group. More than just a successful physician, Angel was an innovative medical organizer, understanding how to line up referral networks to build a powerhouse practice. ... [T]he deal ... would put the 33-year-old surgeon [Ralph] on track to earn an annual salary of more than $1 million within two years...

Late in his time at Mass. General, [Ralph] had begun dating a surgical resident named Wing Cheung. ... Because Wing would be tied to Boston for several years, Ralph worried that if he left he might miss out on the woman of his life. So he began dropping hints to his father about a possible change in plans. Angel was hearing none of it.

When Ralph told him about his feelings for Wing, his father replied: “Fine. You can fly her down every weekend.” ...

Ralph flew to Florida to break the news. “Dad,” he said, “I need to build something of my own.”

His father was furious, or rather a higher order of furious that Ralph calls “Cuban mad.” Ralph didn’t budge. ...

One day several years back, de la Torre’s father came to Massachusetts for a visit. After Angel complained about the lousy coffee maker in Ralph’s kitchen, they went to Starbucks.

Sitting across the table in the coffee shop, the patriarch groused about the price of the espresso – $2.12 for something that cost 50 cents in Little Havana! – but then he leaned in and softened his expression. “I realized over the last couple of years that I never should have worried about you,” Angel told his son. “We could drop you into a tribe of cannibals, and you’d either get eaten within the day or you’d become king of the cannibals.”

Given how sparing with praise his loving but exacting dad had always been, that comment, Ralph says, was one of the most meaningful compliments he’d ever received. Then his father returned to complaining about the ice and cold in Boston.
--Neil Swidy, Boston Globe, on the tiger mother in Cuban fatherly form

Crying etiquette

“There are certain rules, a manhood code about when you can and cannot cry,’’ said [professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Kansas Robert] Minor, who is on the board of the nonprofit American Men’s Studies Association. “It’s OK to cry once you have already proven, particularly to other men, that you have fulfilled the manhood code. . . . That’s after they have defeated another man.’’ ...

And there’s another group of politicians who are not allowed to cry: women. Imagine if Pelosi wept her way through Wednesday’s gavel passing, instead of Boehner. People are still talking about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tears at a New Hampshire campaign stop...

As with so many things, crying has gone in and out of fashion. Tom Lutz, the author of “Crying: The Natural & Cultural History of Tears,’’ said many epic heroes cried, including Odysseus, Aeneas, and El Cid. In the 18th century, crying was considered a mark of a man’s refinement, and in novels of the time, he said, “You will find men weeping all over Europe.’’

“Lincoln and Douglas wept . . . during their debates,’’ Lutz said. “It was considered part of what a great orator would do.’’
--Beth Teitell, Boston Globe, on who's allowed to cry when

The neurology of uncontrollable crying

John Boehner, the Ohio Republican and Speaker of the House, has become the subject of widespread attention because of his proclivity to cry publicly. The Washington Post has reported that Boehner cries at gala dinners, during retirement speeches, and even during victory speeches, and that people “brace themselves each year for Boehner’s tear-filled speeches.” A New York Times article pointed out that Congressman Boehner cried during a 2007 debate over a military spending bill. Recently, he drew national curiosity when he wept uncontrollably during a “60 Minutes” interview with CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl. ...

While I have no reason to suspect that a medical condition is behind Congressman Boehner’s weeping, it turns out that there are indeed afflictions that can lead to crying, and they are unrelated to depression or drinking alcohol. ...

Pseudobulbar affect has been described in patients since the 19th century. For example, Charles Darwin observed that several distinct types of brain lesions could “induce weeping.” ... Neurological studies have shown that the electrical stimulation of certain deep brain structures around the brainstem induces crying that persists until the stimulation is terminated. The brain damage involved in pseudobulbar affect appears to disrupt the communication between the frontal lobes, where the emotion of crying may be controlled, and the “crying center” in these deep brain structures. The result is a loss of control, as if a driver could no longer work the brakes. (In some cases, the result is uncontrollable laughter, an equally disturbing anomaly.) It should be pointed out that pseudobulbar affect is amenable to treatment, and some patients have been treated successfully with the recently FDA approved drug Nuedexta.
--S. Allen Counter, Boston Globe, on a pill to treat your weepiness

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Economics vs. feminine wiles

Any free riding in your household?

[Caltech economist Colin Camerer]: No. Here’s why: I am one of the world’s leading experts on psychology, the brain and strategic game theory. But my wife is a woman. So it’s a tie.
--Colin Camerer on the limits of our kung fu

Hacking the Nasdaq

Hackers have repeatedly penetrated the computer network of the company that runs the Nasdaq Stock Market during the past year, and federal investigators are trying to identify the perpetrators and their purpose, according to people familiar with the matter.

The exchange's trading platform—the part of the system that executes trades—wasn't compromised, these people said. However, it couldn't be determined which other parts of Nasdaq's computer network were accessed. ...

"So far, [the perpetrators] appear to have just been looking around," said one person involved in the Nasdaq matter.
--Devlin Barrett, WSJ, on the cyber-vulnerability of our core infrastructure

Thursday, February 3, 2011

One flesh, one bank account

Slate is doing a series on how couples manage their finances: separate, together, or a combination. ...

[In] general, I think that the benefits of splitting off money are greatly overstated, while the drawbacks are real. ...

[S]eparate accounts [don't] mean that you won't fight about money. Instead, they mean you'll fight about what is a "joint" expense, and what is the responsibility of individuals. ...

The way I see it, there are no individual expenses; that ended when 130 of our nearest and dearest watched us swear to love, honor and cherish. If Peter had no income at all, he would still need clothes, haircuts, and the occasional night out with friends; likewise with me. That's one of the things we both signed on to provide the other person. So who cares whose income it comes out of?
--Megan McArdle, Atlantic Monthly, on the illusory benefits of separate spousal accounts

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The holy iPhone grail

I took the Verizon iPhone to five cities, including the two Bermuda Triangles of AT&T reception: San Francisco and New York. ...

In San Francisco, the AT&T phone dropped the call four times in 30 minutes of driving; the Verizon phone never did. The Verizon iPhone also held its line in several Manhattan intersections where the AT&T call died. At a Kennedy airport gate, the AT&T phone couldn’t even find a signal; the Verizon dialed with a smug yawn.

[M]ost people don’t care about overseas compatibility or simultaneous calling and surfing or Verizon’s tactics. They want an iPhone — an iconic, beautiful, fast, elegant iPhone — that doesn’t drop calls.

Now, after years of pining, they have it at last.
--David Pogue, NYT, confirming that AT&T sucks

Yale's advance planning

[Yale] University’s Emergency Operations Team, which plans for natural disasters and other major incidents, has developed an extensive plan and operations protocol for every potential disaster that could strike the campus, meticulously assessing the risks of explosive devices, shooting rampages and attacks on visiting VIPs. ...

They included a 35-page Emergency Operations Plan as well as files concerning risk assessment and evacuations specifics, even detailing how the University would set up a field hospital during a mass illness and how to construct a monument after a large-scale campus tragedy.
--Everett Rosenfeld, Yale Daily News, on not-so-spontaneous responses to campus tragedies

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bing plagiarizing Google

Google accused Microsoft Tuesday of copying its search results, an accusation to which Microsoft responded to with a blase, “So What?”

Google’s anti-webspam engineer Matt Cutts accused Microsoft on stage at a Bing-sponsored event of copying Google’s results by watching what people search for using the Internet Explorer 8 toolbar and click on at, and then mimicking those results on

In fact, Cutts said, Google suspects that much of Bing’s improvements have come from copying Google. To test this hypothesis, Google manually set up fake results pages for very random queries, sent 20 engineers home to search on those terms using a computer with the IE8 toolbar, and weeks later those same fake results for those random results showed up on Bing.
--Ryan Singel, Wired, on Microsoft taking a page out of its anti-Mac playbook. HT: Franklin Shaddy

Stating the obvious = major progress

More important, perhaps, the government told Americans, “Enjoy your food, but eat less.” Many Americans eat too many calories every day, expanding their waistlines and imperiling their health.

While the recommendations may seem obvious, it is nonetheless considered major progress for federal regulators, who have long skirted the issue, wary of the powerful food lobby.
--Andrew Martin, NYT, on authoritative diet advice