Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Trading up in prison conditions

Inmates of state prisons have been known to send white-powder [fake anthrax] letters to acquire a federal charge, so that they might be transferred to a federal prison, where conditions are better.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The market price of celebrity tweets

The weirdest thing about the rumor that Kim Kardashian gets paid $10,000 for a Twitter endorsement is that it’s true. ...

The pay rate for endorsing companies like Old Navy, Toyota, Best Buy, and American Airlines is determined by the size of a celeb’s following and how that group responds to his tweets with shares and retweets.

On that sliding scale, Snoop Dogg (6.3 million followers) is in the top tier of payments, on the upside of $8,000 apiece, while Paula Abdul (2.2 million followers) falls somewhere in the middle, in the $5,000-each range, and Whitney Port (800,000 followers) falls in the bottom tier, making around $2,500 per tweet.

But there are outliers. When Ad.ly introduced self-destructing Charlie Sheen to Twitter, he was paid about $50,000 per tweet. ...

Of course Charlie didn’t write those tweets himself. No celebrity does. Instead, they’re composed by hungry young tweet ghostwriters whose job it is to broadcast a celebrity’s voice in 140 characters.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Why there's nowhere to sit in San Francisco

All around the city, San Franciscans can be found seated on steps, curbs, retaining walls and on the grass — but not on benches. In a tacit surrender to the overwhelming problem of homelessness, the city has simply removed public seating over the last two decades. Benches in Civic Center Plaza were removed in the 1990s. Those in nearby United Nations Plaza were ripped out in the middle of the night in 2001, to discourage the homeless from congregating and camping there.
--Zusha Elinson, NYT, on why we can't have nice things

We love... no, hate... private equity

The Wall Street Journal reports that many of the same public-employee unions that have attacked Mitt Romney for his private equity career are increasingly pouring their own pension money into ... private equity. Awkward.

According to the Journal, large public pensions now have about $220 billion, or 11% or their total assets, invested with firms like Bain Capital, the private equity giant where Romney made his fortune. That's $50 billion more than a year ago. ...

It would be easy to play gotcha here. But that's less interesting than looking at what all this says about private equity's rising profile in the contemporary world of finance. Public pension funds are turning to these investments as they strain to hit their yearly return target of 8%. ... As one source told the WSJ, today's pension-fund managers "would say you may be breaching your fiduciary duty if you avoid this asset class."

Translation: If these funds weren't investing in private equity, they wouldn't be doing their job.
--Jordan Weissmann, Atlantic Monthly, on the portfolio returns you can't live without

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dependence on foreign oil isn't the problem

If you go back and look at all major federal speeches during my tenure at the White House from 2006 to 2007 you should find that the words "dependence on foreign oil" or "addicted to foreign oil" were never used. It was part of my job at the White House to change all such references to "dependence on oil" and "addicted to oil."

The reason is that the fundamental economic problems associated with oil (national security, environmental, etc.) do not depend at all on whether the oil is produced domestically or abroad.

If the price of oil suddenly spikes, consumers in the United States are hurt just as much as consumers in Canada which is a net oil exporter. It doesn't matter whether the oil is foreign or domestic.

The problem is that we use oil, not whether the oil is foreign or domestic.

Concussions as a football strategm

The Giants' win over the 49ers in a magnificent throwback conference championship game at Candlestick Park yesterday turned on two fumbles by 49ers punt returner Kyle Williams, an obscure second-year player. That made Kyle Williams personally responsible for ten points in a game that ended 20-17. And the Giants, interviewed in the happy haze of the winning locker room, casually noted a provocative element of their game plan: They'd targeted Williams for extra violence because they knew he had suffered several concussions in the past, and they think it worked. ...

Devin Thomas, the reserve wide receiver who recovered both of Kyle Williams's fumbles, was even more explicit. “He’s had a lot of concussions," Thomas told the Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi. "We were just like, ‘We gotta put a hit on that guy.’ ... [Giants reserve safety Tyler] Sash did a great job hitting him early and he looked kind of dazed when he got up. I feel like that made a difference and he coughed it up.” ...

It certainly sounds like the Giants' special teams players were told about Williams's history of concussions, and that they went after him because of it. (That this has so far drawn no attention from beat reporters suggests that such planning is commonplace). It's impossible to know whether Thomas is right — if Williams in fact was concussed or woozy during the game — but he didn't look himself yesterday: There was the third-quarter punt that skimmed off his knee after he seemed to dawdle, unsure whether to pick it up or let it roll, and at least two punts that he fair-caught though he had plenty of room to run. Sports Illustrated's Ann Killion also noticed "a fumble on a reverse that he fell on, a strange sideways diving catch on another punt that could have been disaster."
--Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New York, on dirty tactics

Saturday, January 21, 2012

When your worship music sounds like Megadeth

David Ellefson plays bass for Megadeth. He also is an online student in the Specific Ministry Program at Concordia Seminary operated by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. ...

The rock star lifestyle caught up with Ellefson by the time he was 25. He entered a 12-step recovery program and was reintroduced to his faith. And he embraced it.

Ellefson moved to Arizona, married and had children. He joined Shepherd of the Desert Lutheran Church, a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation in Scottsdale.

"I came from a good family, not a broken home," said Ellefson, 47. "That became a model for me, and I saw church at center of it."

Shepherd of the Desert pastor Jon Bjorgaard asked Ellefson to start a contemporary worship service. Ellefson began to write songs using lyrics from the Old Testament.

"For a Christmas service, I remixed some classics, not quite in a Megadeth fashion, but in a pretty heavy rock fashion," Ellefson said.

He started a new music ministry at the church and called it MEGA Life. It became so popular that Shepherd of the Desert bought a new space for the ministry.
--Associated Press on heavy metal worship

Why U.S. manufacturing is declining

Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.” ...

Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States.

In China, it took 15 days.

Companies like Apple “say the challenge in setting up U.S. plants is finding a technical work force,” said Martin Schmidt, associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In particular, companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. Americans at that skill level are hard to find, executives contend. “They’re good jobs, but the country doesn’t have enough to feed the demand,” Mr. Schmidt said. ...

[T]he cost, excluding the materials, of building a $1,500 computer in Elk Grove [California] was $22 a machine. In Singapore, it was $6. In Taiwan, $4.85. Wages weren’t the major reason for the disparities. Rather it was costs like inventory and how long it took workers to finish a task.
--Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, NYT, on what happens when others work harder, faster, and smarter than you

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Where "women and children first" came from

Until the second half of the 18th century, it was widely believed in England and America that God decided who would survive a shipwreck, so no one criticized men for climbing over whoever stood between them and safety. However, as Enlightenment thinkers began to emphasize human agency, and women came to be viewed as the holy protectors of the family, news reports grew critical of men who survived shipwrecks that killed female passengers.

Three disasters solidified the principle of women and children first in Britain and America. When the HMS Birkenhead went down in 1852, the soldiers reportedly stood at attention while the women and children were loaded into life boats. The overwhelming majority of the men died in an act that contemporary writers called “a piece of pure and exalted manhood.” Two years later, there was a mad scramble on the decks of the American ship SS Arctic as it foundered near Newfoundland. The press branded the male survivors cowards for failing to save even a single woman or child. American morality was redeemed in 1857, when the crew and male passengers of the SS Central America loaded women and children onto lifeboats at the expense of their own lives. Media reports glorified the gold-rush men who sacrificed their new wealth and their lives in a final act of chivalry. The image of captain William Lewis Herndon calmly smoking a cigar as he went down with his ship became a symbol of American seagoing bravery.
--Brian Palmer, Slate, on the origins of sea disaster chivalry

What Hollywood execs think of George Lucas now

This was a new feeling for George Lucas. He made a movie about a plucky band of freedom fighters who battle an evil empire — a movie loaded with special effects like no one had seen before. Then he showed it to executives from all the Hollywood studios. And every one of them said, “Nope.”

One studio’s executives didn’t even show up for the screening. “Isn’t this their job?” Lucas says, astonished. “Isn’t their job at least to see movies? It’s not like some Sundance kid coming in there and saying, ‘I’ve got this little movie — would you see it?’ If Steven (Spielberg) or I or Jim Cameron or Bob Zemeckis comes in there, and they say, ‘We don’t even want to bother to see it. . . .’ ”

Lucas sighs. It’s true that the movie, “Red Tails,” is a biopic about the Tuskegee Airmen rather than a space opera starring the Skywalker clan. But the snub implied that Lucas’s pop-culture collateral — six “Star Wars” movies, four “Indiana Jones” movies, the effects shop Industrial Light and Magic and toy licenses that were selling (at least) four different light sabers this Christmas — was basically worthless. When “Red Tails” opens in theaters on Jan. 20, it will be because Lucas paid for everything, including the prints.
--Bryan Curtis, NYT, on what the Star Wars prequels have done to George Lucas's professional standing

Monday, January 16, 2012

The coexistence of God and evil is not a logical problem for most philosophers

Alvin Plantinga's version of the free will defense is an attempt to refute the logical problem of evil, the argument that to posit the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good god in an evil world constitutes a logical contradiction. Plantinga's argument (in a truncated form) is that "It is possible that God, even being omnipotent, could not create a world with free creatures who never choose evil. Furthermore, it is possible that God, even being omnibenevolent, would desire to create a world which contains evil if moral goodness requires free moral creatures." ...

According to Chad Meister, professor of philosophy at Bethel College, most philosophers accept Plantinga's free will defense and thus see the logical problem of evil as having been sufficiently rebutted. Robert Adams says that "it is fair to say that Plantinga has solved this problem. That is, he has argued convincingly for the consistency of God and evil." William Alston has said that "Plantinga [...] has established the possibility that God could not actualize a world containing free creatures that always do the right thing." William L. Rowe has written "granted incompatibilism, there is a fairly compelling argument for the view that the existence of evil is logically consistent with the existence of the theistic God", referring to Plantinga's argument. ... Among contemporary philosophers, most discussion on the problem of evil presently revolves around the evidential problem of evil, namely that the existence of God is unlikely, rather than illogical.

Things we believe without proof

After all, one of the main lessons to be learned from the history of modern philosophy from Descartes through Hume is that there don’t seem to be good arguments for the existence of other minds or selves, or the past, or an external world and much else besides; nevertheless belief in other minds, the past, and an external world is presumably not irrational or in any other way below epistemic par.

Are things different with belief in God?
--Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, on the faith all of us have

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Organizing your email is a waste of time

We all spend time every day looking for information in our email, yet we know little about this refinding process. Some users expend considerable preparatory effort creating complex folder structures to promote effective refinding. However modern email clients provide alternative opportunistic methods for access, such as search and threading, that promise to reduce the need to manually prepare. To compare these different refinding strategies, we instrumented a modern email client that supports search, folders, tagging and threading. We carried out a field study of 345 long-term users who conducted over 85,000 refinding actions. Our data support opportunistic access. People who create complex folders indeed rely on these for retrieval, but these preparatory behaviors are inefficient and do not improve retrieval success. In contrast, both search and threading promote more effective finding.
--Steve Whittaker et al., IBM Research, on the superiority of the Gmail model. HT: Marginal Revolution

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ruining a concert via cellphone

The final movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony is a slow rumination on mortality, with quiet sections played by strings alone.

During the New York Philharmonic's performance Tuesday night, it was interrupted by an iPhone.

The jarring ringtone—the device's "Marimba" sound, which simulates the mallet instrument—intruded in the middle of the movement, emanating from the first row at Avery Fisher Hall.

When the phone wasn't immediately hushed, audience members shook their heads. It continued to chime, and music director Alan Gilbert turned his head sharply to the left, signaling his displeasure.

Minutes passed. Each time the orchestra reached a quiet section, the phone could be heard above the hushed, reverent notes.

Finally, Mr. Gilbert could take no more: He stopped the orchestra.

A Philharmonic spokeswoman said Wednesday the music director has never before halted a performance because of a cellphone or any other type of disruption.

As the offending noise continued in a loop, Mr. Gilbert turned in its direction and pointedly asked that the phone be turned off. The audience let out a collective gasp.

The ringtone—believed to be an alarm—played on.

The audience wasn't pleased. A Wall Street Journal reporter seated in the 19th row heard jeers hurled from the balconies. One man screamed: "Enough!" Another yelled: "Throw him out!" The audience clapped and hollered in agreement—and still the tone continued to sound amid the din. ...

And even more surprising, he said, the man who owned the phone, recognized by orchestra members as a regular subscriber, didn't immediately own up to it—or act to silence the device.

"I had to ask him many times," Mr. Gilbert said. "It was bizarre. Maybe he was just so mortified that he just shut down and was paralyzed."
--Jennifer Maloney, WSJ, on a plague of the modern age

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Brains go with beauty

[S]everal reviews of the literature have concluded that there is indeed a small, positive relationship between beauty and brains. Most recently, the evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa pulled huge datasets from two sources—the National Child Development Study in the United Kingdom (including 17,000 people born in 1958), and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in the United States (including 21,000 people born around 1980)—both of which included ratings of physical attractiveness and scores on standard intelligence tests. When Kanazawa analyzed the numbers, he found the two were related: In the U.K., for example, attractive children have an additional 12.4 points of IQ, on average. The relationship held even when he controlled for family background, race, and body size.
--Daniel Engber, Slate, on some people having all the luck

Monday, January 9, 2012

Why New Haven has so many "no turn on red" signs

“No Turn On Red” signs went up all over [New Haven] decades ago when the city’s then-traffic chief objected to a new state law allowing right turns on red (except where signs prohibit it).

“New Haven is cluttered with ‘No right turn on red’ signs. We have so many signs, some of which are not even visible. Sign clutter diminishes the [efficacy of] other signs that we really need,” [state Representative Pat] Dillon argued after Monday’s press conference.
--Paul Bass, New Haven Independent, on the durable effects of one person's crusade

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The virtue of admitting ignorance

I really have come to believe teaching MBAs that one of the most important things you learn as an MBA is how to pretend you know the answer to any question even though you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. And I’ve found it’s really one of the most destructive factors in business — is that everyone masquerades like they know the answer and no one will ever admit they don’t know the answer, and it makes it almost impossible to learn.
--Steve Levitt on impediments to learning

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Crime at Yale

The Clery Act (a federal law) requires that universities to report on crimes by category that occur in a more broadly-defined “campus area.” Hence, these data allow for comparisons with other universities. These data, available for 2008 – 2010, indicate that Yale experienced (a) fewer crimes against persons, e.g., sex offenses, aggravated assaults, and robberies, than Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, and (b) similar or slightly higher numbers of such crimes than Brown and MIT.

Number of Crimes Against Persons (2008-10)       [Source:  Clery Data]
--Yale School of Management dean Ted Snyder on the surprisingly dangerous Harvard campus