Thursday, December 20, 2012

The exacting craft of Jerry Seinfeld

Developing jokes as glacially as he does, Seinfeld says, allows for breakthroughs he wouldn’t reach otherwise. He gave me an example. “I had a joke: ‘Marriage is a bit of a chess game, except the board is made of flowing water and the pieces are made of smoke,’ ” he said. “This is a good joke, I love it, I’ve spent years on it. There’s a little hitch: ‘The board is made of flowing water.’ I’d always lose the audience there. Flowing water? What does he mean? And repeating ‘made of’ was hurting things. So how can I say ‘the board is made of flowing water’ without saying ‘made of’? A very small problem, but I could hear the confusion. A laugh to me is not a laugh. I see it, like at Caltech when they look at the tectonic plates. If I’m in the dark up there and I can just listen, I know exactly what’s going on. I know exactly when their attention has moved off me a little.

“So,” he continued, “I was obsessed with figuring that out. The way I figure it out is I try different things, night after night, and I’ll stumble into it at some point, or not. If I love the joke, I’ll wait. If it takes me three years, I’ll wait.” Finally, in late August, during a performance, the cricket cage snapped into place. “The breakthrough was doing this”— Seinfeld traced a square in the air with his fingers, drawing the board. “Now I can just say, ‘The board is flowing water,’ and do this, and they get it. A board that was made of flowing water was too much data. Here, I’m doing some of the work for you. So now I’m starting to get applause on it, after years of work. They don’t think about it. They just laugh.”
--Jonah Weiner, NYT Magazine, on the hard work of being funny

Monday, December 17, 2012

How to monitor the monitor

Ann owns a restaurant. She hires Bob to tally the till every night and report back any mismatch between the till and that night’s bills. Ann is too busy to check the till herself and has to trust what Bob says. How can Ann provide Bob with appropriate incentives to exert the effort required to tally the till and report back the truth? ...

Some economists have emphasized auditing, perhaps at random to economize on its cost. Unfortunately, Ann is just too busy to tally the till herself—this option is not credibly available to her. ...

I propose that Ann can solve her problem by sometimes secretly taking money from the till and offering Bob the following deal: if Ann took some money, she will pay Bob only when he reports a mismatch; if Ann did not take any money, she will pay Bob only when a mismatch is not reported. Bob’s incentives are now aligned with Ann’s. If Bob doesn’t bother tallying the till, he won’t know what to tell Ann in order to make sure he gets paid. On the other hand, if he does his job he’ll discover whether or not there is a mismatch and deduce whether or not Ann took some money. Only then will Bob know what to tell Ann in order to get paid. By asking Bob a “trick question,” Ann can now rest assured that he will acquire the requisite costly information and reveal it truthfully.
--David Rahman, American Economic Review, on better living through contract theory

The real reason the U.S. doesn't have more gun control

Yet I am troubled by something I've noticed in many of the calls for more robust gun control: the conceit that it's a subject America has yet to debate - that "the gun lobby" has somehow imposed its will on an unwilling citizenry, and that "a conversation about guns" must begin now. I'm all for more conversation about guns. It's just that we've already been having one for decades. ...

...gun control is a perennial controversy, the sort of controversial issue that Gallup tracks on an annual basis.

So what has been the result of decades of sustained public debate?

"Americans' support for stricter gun control laws has gradually declined over the last two decades, from 78% when this question was first asked in 1990 to 49% in 2008, and 44% in 2009 and again this year," Gallup reported in 2010 survey results. Said the organization in 2011:
A record-low 26% of Americans favor a legal ban on the possession of handguns in the United States other than by police and other authorized people. When Gallup first asked Americans this question in 1959, 60% favored banning handguns. But since 1975, the majority of Americans have opposed such a measure, with opposition around 70% in recent years. 

Says Nikolas Kristoff in the Times, "We even regulate toy guns, by requiring orange tips -- but lawmakers don't have the gumption to stand up to National Rifle Association extremists and regulate real guns as carefully as we do toys. What do we make of the contrast between heroic teachers who stand up to a gunman and craven, feckless politicians who won't stand up to the N.R.A.?" As in so many pieces I've read, the N.R.A. as an abstract entity is cast as the all-powerful villain. Ignored are the 4 million plus individuals who belong to it and the tens of millions who are sympathetic to many of the arguments it makes. If the N.R.A. vanished tomorrow, tens of millions of gun-loving Americans would still shape the behavior of politicians. And some of those politicians aren't craven so much as in substantial agreement with the N.R.A.
--Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, on the low public support for more gun control

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The 24/24/24 approach to ideas

Q. What are some things that you’ve learned from mentors?

A. One was Jay Chiat, one of the founders of the Chiat/Day ad agency. He had this incredible capacity for optimism, particularly optimism during mentorship. He had this amazing ability to think of every reason why an idea might work before criticizing it and thinking why it might not work. When you’re a mentor, you’ve got to realize that people are often sharing their dreams, and I think it’s human nature to be a critic. We’re skeptics. As you get older and more experienced, wisdom is great, but you also have to be careful not to automatically impose your mental framework and your lessons.

I’ve translated it into a rule that I try to get people to follow, and I’m still working on this. When someone gives you an idea, try to wait just 24 seconds before criticizing it. If you can do that, wait 24 minutes. Then if you become a Zen master of optimism, you could wait a day, and spend that time thinking about why something actually might work. In venture capital, you’re at the intersection of human capital and their big ideas, their dreams. My favorite quote is from Eleanor Roosevelt: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
--Tony Tjan, CEO of venture capital firm Cue Ball, on being generous towards ideas

Monday, December 10, 2012

Why 3 is halfway between 1 and 9

Ask adults from the industrialized world what number is halfway between 1 and 9, and most will say 5. But pose the same question to small children, or people living in some traditional societies, and they're likely to answer 3.

Cognitive scientists theorize that that's because it's actually more natural for humans to think logarithmically than linearly: 30 is 1, and 32 is 9, so logarithmically, the number halfway between them is 31, or 3. Neural circuits seem to bear out that theory.
--Larry Hardesty, MITnews, on the natural in logarithms. HT: Chris Blattman

Friday, December 7, 2012

What your birthday says about your family background

Research has found that season of birth is associated with later health and professional outcomes; what drives this association remains unclear. In this paper we consider a new explanation: that children born at different times in the year are conceived by women with different socioeconomic characteristics. We document large seasonal changes in the characteristics of women giving birth throughout the year in the United States. Children born in the winter are disproportionally likely to be born to women who are teenagers, who are unmarried, and who lack a high school degree. We show that controls for family background characteristics can explain up to half of the relationship between season of birth and adult outcomes. Our findings suggest that, though popular, using season of birth as an instrumental variable may produce inconsistent estimates. Finally, we provide evidence that seasonality in maternal characteristics is driven by high-socioeconomic status women disproportionately planning births away from winter.
--Kasey Buckles and Dan Hungerman on not-so-random birthdays

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Shareholder value creation

Diminishing marginal returns to physics research

Physicists Bummed That Physics Is Pretty Much What They Expected: A Scientific Nightmare is Coming True
--A headline appropriate for the Onion, but actually a headline from the Atlantic. Article excerpt below.

The Large Hadron Collider discovered the Higgs boson. Hooray! Success for the big machine!

But not really.

The discovery of the Higgs means that an entire era of physics -- in which the so-called Standard Model of particles was theorized and then proven -- has come to an end. And the LHC is not creating any new mysteries to investigate. Physics is following the predictions too closely.

"Despite all this build up of theoretical expectations, there is no experimental hint of anything outside the Standard Model at the LHC. Hence the long faces and worried words wherever theorists gather to drink coffee," reports physicists Glenn Starkman over at Scientific American. "Hence the disappointment in the eyes of the young experimentalists looking forward to the next accelerator, the next frontier where their mark will be made."
--Alexis Madrigal, Atlantic, on the career hazards of too much success

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The benefits of low-effort, low-cost gift giving

Many people shy away from regifting, or hide the fact they are doing it, out of fear the original giver of the item could be offended. Don't worry, says a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science. The person who first gave the item is less likely to be offended than the regifter expects.

Some gift givers spend time and energy trying to find just the right gift. But thoughtful gifts don't necessarily lead to greater appreciation, according to a study published in November in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The benefit of a thoughtful gift actually accrues mainly to the giver, who derives a feeling of closeness to the other person, the study found.

People are more appreciative when they receive a gift they have explicitly requested, according to a similar study published last year in a separate publication called the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. ...

Another study found spending more money on a gift doesn't necessarily translate into greater appreciation. That might come as a surprise to many gift givers, who often assume that a more expensive gift conveys a higher level of thoughtfulness, according to the research, published in 2009 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. ...

According to a nationwide consumer-spending survey by American Express, 58% of people believe it is OK sometimes to regift an item. That figure rises for the holiday season, when 79% of respondents said they believe regifting is socially acceptable. ...

In the study of regifting, researchers conducted five separate experiments involving nearly 500 people in both real and imagined scenarios. The reason people weren't overly bothered when their gifts were later regifted was because they generally believed the recipient was free to decide what to do with an item. ...

The adage "It's the thought that counts" was largely debunked by the recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, which concluded that gift givers are better off choosing gifts that receivers actually desire rather than spending a lot of time and energy shopping for what they perceive to be a thoughtful gift. The study found thoughtfulness doesn't increase a recipient's appreciation if the gift is a desirable one. In fact, thoughtfulness only seemed to count when a friend gives a gift that is disliked.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The real reason some colleges make SAT reporting optional for applicants

I sometimes think I should write a handbook for college admission officials titled “How to Play the U.S. News & World Report Ranking Game, and Win!” I would devote the first chapter to a tactic called “SAT optional.” The idea is simple: tell applicants that they can choose whether or not to submit their SAT or ACT scores. Predictably, those applicants with low scores or those who know that they score poorly on standardized aptitude tests will not submit. Those with high scores will submit. When the college computes the mean SAT or ACT score of its enrolled students, voilĂ ! its average will have risen. And so too, it can fondly hope, will its status in the annual U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings.
--Colin Driver, President of Reed College, New York Times, 2006. HT: Michael Conlin, Stacy Dickert-Conlin, and Gabrielle Chapman, "Voluntary Disclosure and the Strategic Behavior of Colleges"