Sunday, March 27, 2011

How much money is enough?

For four years, the Gates Foundation has supported an effort by [Boston College's Center on Wealth and Philanthropy] to determine exactly how the American wealthy think and live... The project has produced one of the most remarkable documents in the center’s history: a survey that invited the very rich to write freely about how prosperity has shaped their lives and those of their children. From the anonymity of their home computers, the respondents wrote anything from a few words to a few pages, volunteering not only their net worth and sources of wealth but also their innermost hopes, fears, and anxieties. ...

Roughly 165 households responded, 120 of which have at least $25 million in assets. The respondents’ average net worth is $78 million, and two report being billionaires. ...

[R]espondents turn out to be a generally dissatisfied lot, whose money has contributed to deep anxieties involving love, work, and family. Indeed, they are frequently dissatisfied even with their sizable fortunes. Most of them still do not consider themselves financially secure; for that, they say, they would require on average one-quarter more wealth than they currently possess. (Remember: this is a population with assets in the tens of millions of dollars and above.) One respondent, the heir to an enormous fortune, says that what matters most to him is his Christianity, and that his greatest aspiration is “to love the Lord, my family, and my friends.” He also reports that he wouldn’t feel financially secure until he had $1 billion in the bank.

Such complaints sound, on their face, preposterous. But just as the human body didn’t evolve to deal well with today’s easy access to abundant fat and sugars, and will crave an extra cheeseburger when it shouldn’t, the human mind, apparently, didn’t evolve to deal with excess money, and will desire more long after wealth has become a burden rather than a comfort.
--Graeme Wood, Atlantic Monthly, on non-satiated utility functions

Admissions case as referendum

As of this writing, [Amy Chua's eldest daughter Sophia's] application is being read, I’m sure, at many of the top colleges. Almost certainly, she will be admitted to all of them, but I can guarantee she’s put these schools’ admissions officers in a swivet. Obviously, it is not their job to provide a referendum on child-rearing practices. But they know that admitting her will send a powerful message to a large community. If Sophia goes to Harvard next fall, a significant number of parents will say to themselves: The method works. Her matriculation to a top school will surely result in more children’s being forced to endure what she did.
--Caitlin Flanagan, Atlantic Monthly, on the most closely watched college applicant this year

Chinese culture

I recalled a recent family visit to Shanghai. There even I experienced a certain stomach-churning horror at some aspects of Chinese culture, particularly when seeing them through the eyes of my Western (just one-quarter Chinese) daughters—and their equally California-bred cousins. In Shanghai, traffic laws are viewed as suggestions only—with the result that one should not step into a crosswalk if one can see cars coming, because they really will not stop (of course, the same goes for the crosswalks of my neighboring Asian-heavy South Pasadena). The children were shocked to witness a car smash into a motorbike just six feet away, tearing the bike’s headlamp off in a splatter of glass and ejecting the rider—after which, the car simply backed up and screeched off. Waiting in long lines for squat toilets, they were appalled to see elderly Shanghainese ladies push blithely past 20 waiting people to gruntingly enter the first open stall. The nadir came with the trip to the open-air market. It wasn’t the live carp jumping around our ankles, the rows of plastic tubs bubbling with squirming eels, or even the alley of Plexiglas-enclosed “chicken rooms,” where burly men in sweaty wifebeater undershirts slaughtered live chickens while chain-smoking. Oh, no. It was the cheerful yanking off of the legs of live, squirming bullfrogs with—ahh!—pliers. Traumatized at the sudden spray of blood around the hapless twitching amphibians, the children declared these the cruelest people in the world.

Thinking global, I leaned forward to give the kids a silky-voiced, tolerance-enhancing lesson in poverty cuisine: “It’s just that you enjoy so much wonderful food in America—fruits, vegetables, bread, yogurt, meat processed so much you don’t recognize it. By contrast, in remote parts of China, people are so poor that all they have to eat is mice or crickets or—or—or bullfrogs, or else they will die.” At which point a Shanghainese painter friend of ours, who, unlike me, is an actual mainland native, politely demurred, saying: “Well, no. This is what I hate about the Chinese. They insist on having the animal killed in front of them so they can guarantee it’s fresh. They need to see the gleam in the animal’s eye so they know the merchant is not cheating them.”

All righty then!
--Sandra Tsing Loh, Atlantic Monthly, on culture shock

The extended warranty of debt

Consumers pay high fees and see limited benefits from debt-protection offers that suspend credit card payments when borrowers become unemployed or disabled, government auditors say.

For every dollar that consumers spend on fees for debt protection, banks pay out only 21 cents in claims, according to a report Friday from the Government Accountability Office. The costs of the product often exceed 10 percent of borrowers’ monthly balances, the GAO said.

“A relatively small proportion of the fees consumers pay for debt protection products is returned to them in tangible financial benefits,’’ the GAO said. It said the nine top card issuers collected $2.4 billion in fees for the products in 2009, but paid out only $518 million in monetary benefits. ...

Companies have stepped up their marketing of debt protection in recent years, using recorded messages on customer-service hotlines, direct mail, e-mail, and telemarketing, the study says.
--Daniel Wagner, Associated Press, on an insurance rip-off

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Gandhi the non-saint

Joseph Lelyveld has written a generally admiring book about Mohandas Gandhi, the man credited with leading India to independence from Britain in 1947. Yet "Great Soul" also obligingly gives readers more than enough information to discern that he was a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist—one who was often downright cruel to those around him. Gandhi was therefore the archetypal 20th-century progressive intellectual, professing his love for mankind as a concept while actually despising people as individuals. ...

Although Gandhi's nonviolence made him an icon to the American civil-rights movement, Mr. Lelyveld shows how implacably racist he was toward the blacks of South Africa. ... Gandhi complained during one of his campaigns for the rights of Indians settled there. "We could understand not being classed with whites, but to be placed on the same level as the Natives seemed too much to put up with. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized—the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals." ...

Of white Afrikaaners and Indians, he wrote: "We believe as much in the purity of races as we think they do." ...

[W]hen he was in his 70s and close to leading India to independence, he encouraged his 17-year-old great-niece, Manu, to be naked during her "nightly cuddles" with him. After sacking several long-standing and loyal members of his 100-strong personal entourage who might disapprove of this part of his spiritual quest, Gandhi began sleeping naked with Manu and other young women. He told a woman on one occasion: "Despite my best efforts, the organ remained aroused. It was an altogether strange and shameful experience."

Yet he could also be vicious to Manu, whom he on one occasion forced to walk through a thick jungle where sexual assaults had occurred in order for her to retrieve a pumice stone that he liked to use on his feet. When she returned in tears, Gandhi "cackled" with laughter at her and said: "If some ruffian had carried you off and you had met your death courageously, my heart would have danced with joy."
--Andrew Roberts, WSJ, on evidence that no man is without sin

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

No Chinese censorship superpowers yet

If anyone wonders whether the Chinese government has tightened its grip on electronic communications since protests began engulfing the Arab world, Shakespeare may prove instructive.

A Beijing entrepreneur, discussing restaurant choices with his fiancée over their cellphones last week, quoted Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The second time he said the word “protest,” her phone cut off.

He spoke English, but another caller, repeating the same phrase on Monday in Chinese over a different phone, was also cut off in midsentence.
--Sharon LaFraniere and David Barboza, NYT, on alleged Chinese super-censor-powers

METHODS: The staff prepared three phrases. A) Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks;” b) “I like Bob Dylan’s protest songs, the most;” and c) “PROTEST PROTEST PROTEST!” The staff also prepared a list of five individuals with phones in China. They are a) a foreign Shanghai entrepreneur; b) a Shanghai school teacher; c) a Beijing-based foreign correspondent; d) a Beijing-based scrap metal entrepreneur; e) a Foshan-based scrap metal entrepreneur. Each individual was called from a Shanghai phone line, and asked to listen to the three phrases, repeated twice.

RESULTS: In all five cases, the connection was sustained and the staff was subjected to varying degrees of bewildered responses:

a) Foreign Shanghai entrepreneur: “Is this about the upcoming Bob Dylan show?”

b) Shanghai school teacher: “Are you drunk?”

c) Beijing-based foreign correspodent: “I thought that story was bulls*** too.”

d) Beijing-based scrap metal entrepreneur: “I don’t understand.”

e) Foshan-based scrap metal entrepreneur: “What do you want me to say?”
--Adam Minter, Shanghai Scrap, on fact-checking the NYT. HT: Megan McArdle

The rarity of random homicide

Random homicide is extremely rare. ... Only 15 percent of homicides reported every year are committed by someone who doesn't know the victim, according to the Bureau of Justice statistics. And even then, the two people usually have mutual friends and acquaintances, says Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis: "That explains why they're in the same place at the same time." And yet, we often assume randomness, and treat the discovery that a murder isn't random as news. ...

Politicians like to play up the randomness of violence, too. "It gives everyone a stake in the problem," says Best. Even liberals and conservatives can agree that randomness is good: "If you're conservative, talking about random violence allows you to gloss over the obvious relationship between victimization and class," says Best. "If you're a liberal, you can gloss over the relationship between [committing] violence and race." Everybody wins. Except, you know, the victims.

The media does its part, of course. Murders don't typically make headline news, unless there's something unusual about them—for example, that they occur in an upper-middle-class suburb. (Slate's Timothy Noah calls this genre of news coverage "When Bad Things Happen to White People.") By covering random crime, news organizations help to create the impression that most crime is random.
--Christopher Beam, Slate, on why I am unlikely to be a victim of violence

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Eat that pork tartare

The excessive restrictions on cooking pork didn’t come out of nowhere. In decades past, pork was intrinsically less safe than other meats because of muscle infiltration by Trichinella and surface contamination from fecal-borne pathogens like Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens. As a result, people learned to tolerate overcooked pork, and farms raised pigs with increasing amounts of fat—far more fat than is typical in the wild ancestors of pigs such as wild boar. The extra fat helped to keep the meat moist when it was overcooked.

Since then, research has sharpened our understanding of pork-associated pathogens, and producers have vastly reduced the risk of contamination through preventive practices on the farm and in meat-processing facilities. Eventually the FDA relaxed the cooking requirements for pork; they are now no different than those for other meats. The irony is that few people noticed—­culinary professionals and cookbook authors included. ...

Clearly, cultural and political factors impinge on decisions about food safety. If you doubt that, note the contrast between the standards applied to pork and those applied to beef. Many people love rare steak or raw beef served as carpaccio or steak tartare, and in the United States alone, millions of people safely eat beef products, whether raw, rare, or well-done.
--Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, on why I feel OK today after eating medium rare pork in Santiago. HT: Marginal Revolution

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The link between football and the opera

When you stand in front of a man, jaw to jaw and toe to toe, and you have to determine how you can break this man’s spirit and do it again and again despite physical exhaustion and mental anguish, that requires a spirit that aligns itself to the opera.
--Bass-baritone and former Arena League football player Keith Miller, NYT, on how his professional football experience aids his opera career

Monday, March 14, 2011

Attracting women through uncertainty

According to [Erin Whitchurch, Timothy Wilson, and Daniel Gilbert's] paper, published in Psychological Science and based on an experiment conducted with undergraduates, women find men who may like them more appealing than men who definitely do.

A group of female students at the University of Virginia were told they were evaluating whether Facebook could work as an online dating site; 47 women learned that male students from the University of Michigan and U.C.L.A. had viewed their profiles as well as those of 15 to 20 others. The women were then shown Facebook profiles of four “likeable, attractive” men. (The profiles were fake.)

One group of women was told that these four men were those who liked them the most, a second group heard that these men rated them as average and a third group was left in the unsettling position of thinking that the men might like them either the most or an average amount.

Not surprisingly, women were more attracted to men who found them attractive than men who rated them average. This is called the “reciprocity principle,” which holds that a woman should like a man less if he doesn’t like her much, and reflects earlier research. The shocker was that the women who found the men most attractive of all were those who weren’t sure just how much the men liked them.
--Pamela Paul, NYT, on evidence for the Tao of Steve

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Software instead of lawyers

When five television studios became entangled in a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit against CBS, the cost was immense. As part of the obscure task of “discovery” — providing documents relevant to a lawsuit — the studios examined six million documents at a cost of more than $2.2 million, much of it to pay for a platoon of lawyers and paralegals who worked for months at high hourly rates.

But that was in 1978. Now, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, “e-discovery” software can analyze documents in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost. In January, for example, Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, Calif., helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000. ....

The sociological approach adds an inferential layer of analysis, mimicking the deductive powers of a human Sherlock Holmes. Engineers and linguists at Cataphora, an information-sifting company based in Silicon Valley, have their software mine documents for the activities and interactions of people — who did what when, and who talks to whom. ...

For example, it finds “call me” moments — those incidents when an employee decides to hide a particular action by having a private conversation. This usually involves switching media, perhaps from an e-mail conversation to instant messaging, telephone or even a face-to-face encounter. ....

A shift in an author’s e-mail style, from breezy to unusually formal, can raise a red flag about illegal activity.

“You tend to split a lot fewer infinitives when you think the F.B.I. might be reading your mail,” said Steve Roberts, Cataphora’s chief technology officer. ...

Such tools owe a debt to an unlikely, though appropriate, source: the electronic mail database known as the Enron Corpus.

In October 2003, Andrew McCallum, a computer scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, read that the federal government had a collection of more than five million messages from the prosecution of Enron.

He bought a copy of the database for $10,000 and made it freely available to academic and corporate researchers. Since then, it has become the foundation of a wealth of new science — and its value has endured, since privacy constraints usually keep large collections of e-mail out of reach. “It’s made a massive difference in the research community,” Dr. McCallum said.

The Enron Corpus has led to a better understanding of how language is used and how social networks function, and it has improved efforts to uncover social groups based on e-mail communication.
--John Markoff, NYT, on the future of legal discovery

Friday, March 4, 2011

Men not at work

The picture from even before the Great Recession

Academic commitment

On Sunday night he was in Hollywood, as co-host of the Oscar telecast in black tie. At 9 the next morning, he was in a Starbucks in New Haven, hunched over a book and barely recognizable in a gray sweatshirt, but still wearing his tuxedo pants.

James Franco, movie star, had rushed back on the red-eye to play his other big role: Yale doctoral student. By 9:25, he was at his seat in a seminar on medieval manuscripts. “I was surprised and delighted that he made it to class,” said Jessica Brantley, an associate professor of English. “He’s a dedicated student.”
--Lisa Foderaro, NYT, on a rare dedication to class attendance

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Testing the five-second rule scientifically

In a study published in 2007 in The Journal of Applied Microbiology, Clemson University researchers tested salmonella placed on wood, tile or carpet, and dropped bologna on the surfaces for 5, 30 or 60 seconds. With both wood and tile, more than 99 percent of the bacteria were transferred nearly immediately, and there was no difference by the time of contact. Carpet transferred a smaller number of bacteria, again with no difference by contact time.
--C. Claiborne Ray, NYT, on an answer you probably already knew deep inside but chose to ignore

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Low-flow toilets' unintended environmental consequences

San Francisco's big push for low-flow toilets has turned into a multimillion-dollar plumbing stink.

Skimping on toilet water has resulted in more sludge backing up inside the sewer pipes, said Tyrone Jue, spokesman for the city Public Utilities Commission. That has created a rotten-egg stench near AT&T Park and elsewhere, especially during the dry summer months.

The city has already spent $100 million over the past five years to upgrade its sewer system and sewage plants, in part to combat the odor problem.

Now officials are stocking up on a $14 million, three-year supply of highly concentrated sodium hypochlorite - better known as bleach - to act as an odor eater and to disinfect the city's treated water before it's dumped into the bay. It will also be used to sanitize drinking water.

That translates into 8.5 million pounds of bleach either being poured down city drains or into the drinking water supply every year.
--Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross, San Francisco Chronicle, on the case for using plenty of toilet water. HT: JDA