Monday, December 30, 2013

Living the experience of losing important money

Like all of life's rich emotional experiences, the full flavor of losing important money cannot be conveyed by literature. Art cannot convey to an inexperienced girl what it is truly like to be a wife and mother. There are certain things that cannot be adequately explained to a virgin either by words or pictures. Nor can any description I might offer here even approximate what it feels like to lose a real chunk of money that you used to own.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

NSA's creative spying techniques

One example of the sheer creativity with which the [NSA unit Office of Tailored Access Operations] TAO spies approach their work can be seen in a hacking method they use that exploits the error-proneness of Microsoft's Windows. Every user of the operating system is familiar with the annoying window that occasionally pops up on screen when an internal problem is detected, an automatic message that prompts the user to report the bug to the manufacturer and to restart the program. These crash reports offer TAO specialists a welcome opportunity to spy on computers.

When TAO selects a computer somewhere in the world as a target and enters its unique identifiers (an IP address, for example) into the corresponding database, intelligence agents are then automatically notified any time the operating system of that computer crashes and its user receives the prompt to report the problem to Microsoft. ...

...this passive access to error messages provides valuable insights into problems with a targeted person's computer and, thus, information on security holes that might be exploitable for planting malware or spyware on the unwitting victim's computer. ...

According to details in Washington's current budget plan for the US intelligence services, around 85,000 computers worldwide are projected to be infiltrated by the NSA specialists by the end of this year. By far the majority of these "implants" are conducted by TAO teams via the Internet. ...

If a data packet featuring the email address or cookie of a target passes through a cable or router monitored by the NSA, the system sounds the alarm. It determines what website the target person is trying to access and then activates one of the intelligence service's covert servers, known by the codename FOXACID.

This NSA server coerces the user into connecting to NSA covert systems rather than the intended sites. In the case of Belgacom engineers, instead of reaching the LinkedIn page they were actually trying to visit, they were also directed to FOXACID servers housed on NSA networks. Undetected by the user, the manipulated page transferred malware already custom tailored to match security holes on the target person's computer. ...

Implants with QUANTUMINSERT, especially when used in conjunction with LinkedIn, now have a success rate of over 50 percent, according to one internal document. ...

In contrast to most NSA operations, TAO's ventures often require physical access to their targets. ...

To conduct those types of operations, the NSA works together with other intelligence agencies such as the CIA and FBI, which in turn maintain informants on location who are available to help with sensitive missions. This enables TAO to attack even isolated networks that aren't connected to the Internet. If necessary, the FBI can even make an agency-owned jet available to ferry the high-tech plumbers to their target. This gets them to their destination at the right time and can help them to disappear again undetected after even as little as a half hour's work. ...

If a target person, agency or company orders a new computer or related accessories, for example, TAO can divert the shipping delivery to its own secret workshops. The NSA calls this method interdiction. At these so-called "load stations," agents carefully open the package in order to load malware onto the electronics, or even install hardware components that can provide backdoor access for the intelligence agencies. All subsequent steps can then be conducted from the comfort of a remote computer.

These minor disruptions in the parcel shipping business rank among the "most productive operations" conducted by the NSA hackers, one top secret document relates in enthusiastic terms.
--Der Spiegel on cloaks and daggers today

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

How to defeat guards in a POW camp

As Christmas 1970 approached, 43 American prisoners of war in a large holding cell at the North Vietnamese camp known as the Hanoi Hilton sought to hold a brief church service. Their guards stopped them, and so the seeds of rebellion were planted.

A few days later, Lt. Cmdr. Edwin A. Shuman III, a downed Navy pilot, orchestrated the resistance, knowing he would be the first to face the consequences: a beating in a torture cell.

“Ned stepped forward and said, ‘Are we really committed to having church Sunday? I want to know person by person,’ ” a fellow prisoner, Leo K. Thorsness, recounted in a memoir. “He went around the cell pointing to each of us individually,” Mr. Thorsness continued. “When the 42nd man said yes, it was unanimous. At that instant, Ned knew he would end up in the torture cells.”

The following Sunday, Commander Shuman, who died on Dec. 3 at 82, stepped forward to lead a prayer session and was quickly hustled away by guards. The next four ranking officers did the same, and they, too, were taken away to be beaten. Meanwhile, as Mr. Thorsness told it, “the guards were now hitting P.O.W.s with gun butts and the cell was in chaos.”

And then, he remembered, the sixth-ranking senior officer began, “Gentlemen, the Lord’s Prayer.”

“And this time,” he added, “we finished it.”

The guards had yielded.

Everett Alvarez Jr., who was the first American pilot captured in the Vietnam War when his Navy plane was shot down in 1964, said in an interview that the defiance Commander Shuman engineered was emulated by senior officers in other large holding cells.

“It was contagious,” said Mr. Alvarez, who was in another cell during the first prayer service. “By the time it got to the fourth or fifth cell,” he said, the guards “gave up.” He said the prisoners were also singing patriotic songs.

Commander Shuman remained incarcerated at the Hanoi Hilton for more than two more years. But by then the prisoners’ right to collective prayer had been established.

“From that Sunday on until we came home, we held a church service,” Mr. Thorsness, an Air Force pilot and recipient of the Medal of Honor for heroics on a mission in 1967, wrote in his memoir, “Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey” (2008). “We won. They lost. Forty-two men in prison pajamas followed Ned’s lead. I know I will never see a better example of pure raw leadership or ever pray with a better sense of the meaning of the words.”

Fame is younger, faster, and bigger than it used to be

In 2010, working with Google, [Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel] perfected the Ngram Viewer, which takes its name from the computer-science term for a word or phrase. This “robot historian,” as they call it, can search the 30 million volumes already digitized by Google Books and instantly generate a usage-frequency timeline for any word, phrase, date or name, a sort of stock-market graph illustrating the ups and downs of cultural shares over time. ...

They also come up with a sort of fame speedometer. The ngram data show that people are becoming famous at a younger age, and faster, than they did two generations ago.

Fame is much bigger, too. At one point, the authors write, Bill Clinton’s ngram “was almost exactly as frequent as the word lettuce, twice as frequent as the word cucumber, and about half as frequent as the word tomato. He completely outclassed second-tier vegetables like turnip and cauliflower

Buffet death spirals

This could be called the Sizzler problem. In the 1990s, the steak restaurant chain tried to beef up sales with an all-you-can-eat salad bar, which got bigger as it got more popular. But as more hungry customers came, the chain was forced to lower quality, which caused customers to flee, which resulted in bankruptcy.
--David Streitfeld, NYT, on adverse selection at work in buffets

Big data on how people read books

Before the Internet, books were written — and published — blindly, hopefully. Sometimes they sold, usually they did not, but no one had a clue what readers did when they opened them up. Did they skip or skim? Slow down or speed up when the end was in sight? Linger over the sex scenes?

A wave of start-ups is using technology to answer these questions — and help writers give readers more of what they want. The companies get reading data from subscribers who, for a flat monthly fee, buy access to an array of titles, which they can read on a variety of devices. ...

Some general insights: The longer a mystery novel is, the more likely readers are to jump to the end to see who done it. People are more likely to finish biographies than business titles, but a chapter of a yoga book is all they need. They speed through romances faster than religious titles, and erotica fastest of all.

At Oyster, a top book is “What Women Want,” promoted as a work that “brings you inside a woman’s head so you can learn how to blow her mind.” Everyone who starts it finishes it. On the other hand, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Cycles of American History” blows no minds: fewer than 1 percent of the readers who start it get to the end.

Oyster data shows that readers are 25 percent more likely to finish books that are broken up into shorter chapters. That is an inevitable consequence of people reading in short sessions during the day on an iPhone.
--David Streitfield, NYT, on how in Soviet Russia, the book reads you

Monday, December 23, 2013

Erasing unwanted memories

Scientists have zapped an electrical current to people's brains to erase distressing memories, part of an ambitious quest to better treat ailments such as mental trauma, psychiatric disorders and drug addiction.

In an experiment, patients were first shown a troubling story, in words and pictures. A week later they were reminded about it and given electroconvulsive therapy, formerly known as electroshock. That completely wiped out their recall of the distressing narrative. ...

The 39 patients were asked to watch two distressing stories on a computer screen, narrated via a series of pictures and a voice-over. One story was about a child who is hit by a car and has to have his feet severed by surgeons. The other involved a pair of sisters, one of whom is kidnapped and molested.

A week later, the 39 patients were randomly assigned to one of three groups, A, B and C. Each person was prompted to recall details about just one of the troubling stories he or she had seen—an effort to specifically reactivate that memory.

Group A was given ECT immediately after. A day later, the patients took a multiple-choice quiz about both stories. They recalled most details about the particular story for which their memories hadn't been reactivated.

However, their recall for the other story—whose memory had specifically been reactivated—was extremely poor. It was no better than guesswork, in fact.

Patients in group B were given ECT immediately after, and their memories were tested immediately after the procedure. Their recall of both stories was intact. It suggests that it takes time to impair a memory—something the scientists had predicted.

The 13 members of group C acted as a control group and didn't receive ECT. When tested, their memories of the stories were actually enhanced. That suggests that it requires both reactivation and ECT to prevent reconsolidation and thereby disrupt memories in people.

The failure rate of large-scale government IT projects

The Standish Group, an information technology firm, deemed just 4.6 percent of large-scale government contracting projects executed in the past decade to be successful. More than half were “challenged,” and about 40 percent simply “failed.” ...

Outside experts, members of Congress, technology executives and former government officials say the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s website is the nearly inevitable result of a procurement process that stifles innovation and wastes taxpayer dollars. The Air Force last year scrapped a $1 billion supply management system. Officials abandoned a new F.B.I. system after spending $170 million on it. And a $438 million air traffic control systems update, a critical part of a $45 billion nationwide upgrade that is years behind schedule, is expected to go at least $270 million over budget. ...

Jim Johnson, the chairman of the Standish Group, said the government often required sweeping, singular contracts for projects that private businesses would complete for in pieces.

“It’s an iterative style,” Mr. Johnson said. “That’s how Google does it. That’s how eBay does it.” Mr. Johnson said the government’s successes tended to come from small, focused projects, which might attract more competitive bids. The success rate for small-scale government contracting projects in the past decade, according to his firm’s analysis, is nearly 55 percent.
--Michael Shear and Annie Lowrey, NYT, on's 4.6% chance

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Mexican vs. U.S. Coke: The blind taste test

All tests were carried out completely blind. ... Tasters were asked to pick their favorite from within each sample set of two.
  • Test 1: Mexican Coke in glass bottle vs. American Coke in a can
  • Test 2: Mexican Coke in a cup with ice vs. American Coke in a cup with ice
  • Test 3: Mexican Coke in a cup with no ice vs. American Coke in a cup with no ice
  • Test 4: Mexican Coke in a can vs. American Coke in a can
  • Test 5: Mexican Coke in a can vs. American Coke in a glass bottle
  • Test 6: Mexican Coke in a glass bottle vs. American Coke in a glass bottle
  • Test 7: American Coke in a can vs. American Coke in a glass bottle

The spread of results I got from this initial testing was surprising to say the least, and answered one thing for sure: There is a perceivable difference in the flavor between Mexican and American Coke, despite the best efforts of the Coca-Cola company to convince us otherwise. ...

From within this set of tests, there was an overwhelming preference for American Coke over Mexican Coke. The average taster picked regular coke two to one over Mexican coke!

So that settles it. America reigns supreme in the Coke flavor wars, right? Not so fast. Looking closer, we see something even more interesting: Half of the tasters seemed to have no real preference between American and Mexican Coke, while the other half of the tasters unanimously chose American Coke as their favorite for nearly every test, regardless of the vessel it was served in. We'll call these folks the Tasters—the ones who let their tongues and noses do all the deciding.

The Tasters pick out American Coke as superior to Mexican Coke a full 7 times out of 8.

When you take the Tasters out of the pool in order to determine what the other half are basing their tasting decision on, everything becomes clear: the other half of the tasters unanimously picked Coke served out of a glass bottle as their favorite for nearly each and every test, regardless of whether the liquid in there was Mexican or American Coke. We'll call these folks the Feelers—the ones who care more about the tactile sense of the bottle against their lips or in their hands than the minor differences in flavor or aroma that the product inside may have.
--J. Kenji López-Alt, Serious Eats, on the case for American Coke in glass bottles. See also the hipster illusion in Mexican Coke.

The entire principle of a blind taste test was ridiculous. ... Because in the real world, no one ever drinks Coca-Cola blind.
--Malcolm Gladwell on perhaps measuring the wrong thing

Nespresso capsule coffee beats traditional coffee in blind taste test

In the UK, more than 15 Michelin-starred restaurants use Nespresso, the market-leading capsule system, to make their coffee — including Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Berkshire, and The Ledbury in London. In France, Nespresso supplies more than 100 Michelin restaurants, including the legendary L’Arpège in Paris. Even in Italy, where the first espresso machine was patented in 1884, more than 20 Michelin restaurants use the new capsule system, and many others around the world use it or its rivals developed by Illy, Kimbo, Lavazza and Segafredo. Push-button espresso began as a domestic product, a way to simulate espresso at home without the mess and fuss. But in recent years it has rapidly, if quietly, started to take over the restaurant world. ...

That concern led me to a private dining room at the two Michelin-starred Latymer restaurant, part of the Pennyhill Park country house hotel in Surrey. With me were a coffee shop owner, two coffee obsessives, and a coffee-drinking friend. We were going to blind-taste three coffees: Nespresso capsule coffee, which is served in the restaurant; the traditional espresso that the hotel provides for room service; and a third unmarked coffee I had brought with me to be made the same way, just to see if the whole thing was nonsense and coffee is coffee is coffee. ...

The tasting was designed to be as blind as possible, with each taster trying each coffee in a different order, so as to counter any advantage or disadvantage that coming first or last might give. ...

In distant last place came the ground coffee I had brought, a very good quality, single-estate bean, but not roasted for espresso and ground four days earlier, a little too coarsely for Bruno’s machine. The traditional house espresso scored 18 points, and was the favourite of one taster. But the clear winner with 22 points was the Nespresso, which both scored most consistently and was the favourite of two of the four tasters. Of course, these were just four people’s opinions. But their consensus fits the judgment of top chefs and Nespresso’s own extensive testing, which must have been conclusive enough for them to have the confidence to agree to my challenge in the first place.
--Julian Baggini, Aeon, on man vs. machine coffee. HT: Megan McArdle

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The speed [sic] of the finance publication process

Glenn Ellison published a paper back in 2002 about how the economics publishing process has slowed dramatically over time. Figure 1 from that paper:

Finance journals have a reputation for being much quicker than economics journals. But as I was browsing the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Finance today, I was struck by the long intervals between the first and final submission dates of the articles. I decided to tabulate them more systematically. Here's what I found:

On the other hand, the January 2014 issue of the Journal of Financial Economics contains articles that on average completed the process much more quickly, consistent with the reputation of finance journals.
As far as I can tell, the Review of Financial Studies doesn't disclose article-by-article timelines, so I couldn't include a graph for it.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

$40K/year to attend Harvard pretending to be me

A male Craigslist poster in Pittsburgh is looking for someone to attend Harvard University in his stead.
You must have either a 4.0 GPA in high school, or a 3.5 or higher GPA from a university to get hired for this. Your age does not matter, but you must be a male since I have a male name.
I am looking for someone to attend Harvard University pretending to be me for four years, starting August 2014. I will pay for your tuition, books, housing, transportation, and living expenses and pay $40,000 a year with a $10,000 bonus after graduation. All you have to do is attend all classes, pass all tests, and finish all assigned work, while pretending you are me.
You do not need to worry about being accepted, I have already taken care of that.
If interested please email me a little info about yourself, and we can meet in person to discuss further.
Politico's Libby Nelson's response seems about right: "This is the setup for a novel or something, right?"

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

When a Harvard student is an idiot

As set forth below, there is probable cause to believe that, on that date, ELDO KIM, age 20, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, sent several e-mail messages to Harvard University, intending to convey the false information that bombs had been placed in several buildings on the Harvard campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts...

In the course of this investigation, I have learned that the person who sent the e-mail messages described above took steps to disguise his identity. Specifically, Harvard received the e-mail messages from a service called Guerrilla Mail, an Internet application that creates temporary and anonymous e-mail addresses available free of charge. Further investigation yielded information that the person who sent the e-mail messages accessed Guerrilla Mail by using a product called TOR, which is also available free of charge on the Internet and which automatically assigns an anonymous Internet Protocol (“IP”) address that can be used for a limited period of time. ...

Harvard University was able to determine that, in the several hours leading up to the receipt of the e-mail messages described above, ELDO KIM accessed TOR using Harvard’s wireless network. ...

On the evening of December 16, 2013, an FBI agent and an officer of the Harvard University Police Department interviewed ELDO KIM at the building in which he resides on the Harvard University campus. During the interview, the FBI agent advised KIM of his rights under Miranda. KIM read and signed an advice of rights waiver, stating that he understood his Page 4 rights. KIM then stated that he authored the bomb threat e-mails described above. KIM stated that he acted alone. He further stated that he sent the e-mails to “five or six Harvard University e-mail addresses” that he picked at random from the university’s web page. According to KIM, he was motivated by a desire to avoid a final exam scheduled to be held on December 16, 2013.
--Affidavit of Special Agent Thomas M. Dalton on one way to ensure you don't take another exam for a long time

Why is Edward Snowden a criminal?

If you have been lulled into a state of somnolence about former government contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations that the government is collecting records of every phone call you’ve made, for years, it’s time to snap out of it. That’s the bracing effect of Judge Richard Leon’s Monday ruling that the National Security Agency is probably violating the Constitution with its 7-year-old program for collecting “telephony metadata”—the euphonic phrase for whom you call and whom you receive calls from. ...

And it comes today from a judge appointed by President George W. Bush who has previously ruled in favor of “expansive government power,” as Glenn Greenwald, breaker of much of the Snowden news, puts it. In other words, if Judge Leon didn’t buy the government’s argument about why it needs to collect and keep all this metadata, other judges—and many of the rest of us—may see it the same way. ...

“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection an retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval,” he says. ...

Thank you, Judge Leon, for the wake-up call. And also for giving me reason to question, once again, the Obama administration’s insistence on treating Edward Snowden, as a criminal. Yes, he leaked everything on the farm. But without him, we’d never have this lawsuit or the alarm bells it joined in sounding. “If someone discloses a secret govt program that a Federal Court rules violates the Constitution, that person’s a whistleblower, right?” Greenwald tweeted Monday. Yes—that should be about right.

How to get months-long vacations paid for by the government

The EPA’s highest-paid employee and a leading expert on climate change deserves to go to prison for at least 30 months for lying to his bosses and saying he was a CIA spy working in Pakistan so he could avoid doing his real job, say federal prosecutors.

John C. Beale, who pled guilty in September to bilking the government out of nearly $1 million in salary and other benefits over a decade, will be sentenced in a Washington, D.C., federal court on Wednesday. ...

Beale perpetrated his fraud largely by failing to show up at the EPA for months at a time, including one 18-month stretch starting in June 2011 when he did “absolutely no work,” as Kern, Beale’s lawyer, acknowledged in his court filing.

To explain his long absences, Beale told agency officials -- including McCarthy -- that he was engaged in intelligence work for the CIA, either at agency headquarters or in Pakistan. At one point he claimed to be urgently needed in Pakistan because the Taliban was torturing his CIA replacement, according to Sullivan.

“Due to recent events that you have probably read about, I am in Pakistan,” he wrote McCarthy in a Dec. 18, 2010 email. “Got the call Thurs and left Fri. Hope to be back for Christmas ….Ho, ho, ho.”

In fact, Beale had no relationship with the CIA at all. ... He spent much of the time he was purportedly working for the CIA at his Northern Virginia home riding bikes, doing housework and reading books, or at a vacation house on Cape Cod. ...

In 2008, Beale didn’t show up at the EPA for six months, telling his boss that he was part of a special multi-agency election-year project relating to “candidate security.” He billed the government $57,000 for five trips to California that were made purely “for personal reasons,” his lawyer acknowledged. (His parents lived there.) He also claimed to be suffering from malaria that he got while serving in Vietnam. According to his lawyer’s filing, he didn’t have malaria and never served in Vietnam. He told the story to EPA officials so he could get special handicap parking at a garage near EPA headquarters.
--Michael Isikoff, NBC News, on a downside of so much government secrecy

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Credit analysts with MBAs are more accurate

Finally, we construct a measure of relative forecast accuracy over 1-, 2-, and 3-year horizons. ... Intuitively, [a corporate debt] analyst is “right” if s/he is relatively more optimistic (pessimistic) [about a company] and [the borrower's] credit spreads fall (rise) over the given horizon. ...

At a 2-year horizon, an MBA is associated with an increase of roughly 16% of a standard deviation in accuracy. At a 3-year horizon, the increase is roughly 30% of a standard deviation. The results are consistent with an MBA as a proxy for heightened expertise: analysts with an MBA are more likely to disagree with other analysts contemporaneously rating the same firm and are less likely to inflate ratings. Moreover, these ratings more often prove accurate predictors of future movements in credit spreads, particularly over longer horizons for which forecasting is likely to require greater skill.
--Cesare Fracassi, Stefan Petry, and Geoffrey Tate on evidence that an MBA might not be so useless after all

Which business news source publishes accurate M&A rumors?

This table presents publishing activity for all media sources in the sample from 2000-2011. Scoop articles are the first reporting of the merger rumor. Accuracy rate is the fraction of scoop articles published by a newspaper in which a formal takeover bid is made for the target firm within one year.
--Ken Ahern and Denis Sosyura on who has the true scoop

This table presents publishing activity for journalists in the sample from 2000-2011. Media source is the most recent media company that published an article by the journalist. Scoop articles are the first reporting of the merger rumor. Accuracy rate is the fraction of scoop articles written by a journalist in which a formal takeover bid is made for the target firm within one year. Some articles are written by more than one journalist, which leads to more bylines than rumors. Journalists with fewer than four scoops in the sample are included in the 772 others.
--Ken Ahern and Denis Sosyura on reasons to read Dennis Berman

When Claire Danes met the CIA

Are you able to get feedback from the real-life Carrie Mathisons of the world?

A group of us went to Langley to have a meet-and-greet with some people from the C.I.A. And actually my roommate from my freshman year of college works at the C.I.A., and she was at this meeting. That was totally whacked. It was just bizarre to re-encounter each other there.

How did that conversation go?
There was one long table that said “Homeland” facing another long table that said “C.I.A.,”and we all stared at each other, and neither of us could really speak about what we were doing.

There was no horse trading, like, “I’ll tell you what happens to Brody if you tell me . . . ”?
It was a little senseless and futile. We couldn’t share any plot points, and they couldn’t tell us about anything they were working on. ...

Can you cry on command?
That’s my job. I better be able to do it on command. I can’t do anything else.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bosses in academia

Somebody once asked me how many professors work for me, and I said if you can ever find a professor who thinks he or she works for anybody, let me know.
--University of Washington president Michael Young on the truth

How frequently does somebody go from anti- to pro-death penalty?

If you spend any time at all studying the death penalty in America today you eventually come across an immutable truth: No one who digs deeply into these grim cases ever seems to evolve from being a staunch opponent of capital punishment into being a fervent supporter of the practice. The movement, over the past 40 years anyway, has almost always been in the opposite direction: The closer one gets to capital punishment, the more dubious it appears to be.

This has been particularly true of Supreme Court justices since the death penalty was resurrected in America in 1976...
--Andrew Cohen, The Atlantic, on a thought-provoking trend

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The football coach who never punts

NFL teams should stop running the football

Today's Grantland Channel video spotlights Pulaski Academy's Kevin Kelley, the high school football coach who never punts and almost always onside kicks. While Kelley's approach, which he calls both a strategy and a philosophy, has yet to catch on in college or the pros, Kelley has became the poster boy for savvy, statistically driven football innovations.

So who is the next Kevin Kelley? Well, he's probably bound to destroy your fantasy football draft strategy, because the next Kelley is going to stop running the ball. The numbers tell us that Kelley is correct not to punt, and the numbers also tell us the next football revolution should be NFL teams abandoning the ground game.

Let me explain: Winning football games requires moving the ball on offense. Even factoring in negative plays on sacks, NFL teams have averaged 6.10 yards per pass attempt over the past 10 seasons. In contrast, they've netted 4.17 yards per rush attempt. Teams can't afford to give up almost two yards per attempt based on play selection.

Still not convinced? Consider this: Over those 10 years, there has been almost no correlation between rush yards per attempt and winning. The correlation coefficient is 0.12, meaning yards per rush attempt accounts for 1.4 percent of the variance in winning. Conversely, yards per pass attempt accounts for 41 percent.
--Ed Feng, Grantland, on suboptimal mixed strategies

Recent viral stories that are hoaxes

Several recent stories rocketing around the web, picking up millions of views, turned out to be fake or embellished: a Twitter tale of a Thanksgiving feud on a plane, later described by the writer as a short story; a child’s letter to Santa that detailed an link in crayon, but was actually written by a grown-up comedian in 2011; and an essay on poverty that prompted $60,000 in donations until it was revealed by its author to be impressionistic rather than strictly factual.
--Ravi Somaiya and Leslie Kaufman, NYT, on reasons to dial up the skepticism knob

Friday, December 6, 2013

The last user of floppy disks

Every day, The Federal Register, the daily journal of the United States government, publishes on its website and in a thick booklet around 100 executive orders, proclamations, proposed rule changes and other government notices that federal agencies are mandated to submit for public inspection.

So far, so good.

It turns out, however, that the Federal Register employees who take in the information for publication from across the government still receive some of it on the 3.5-inch plastic storage squares that have become all but obsolete in the United States. ...

...The Federal Register continues to accept them, in part because legal and security requirements have yet to be updated, but mostly because the wheels of government grind ever slowly.
--Jada Smith, NYT, on the speed of government

The falling unemployment rate is actually bad news

As I’ve noted repeatedly in recent months, the unemployment rate is an odd measuring stick for the health of the labor market. It basically tells us how many people are looking for work. It falls when people get jobs, which is good. But it also falls when people stop looking for work, which of course is not so good.

In recent years a lot of people have given up on looking for work. As a result, the unemployment rate has gradually declined from 10 percent to 7 percent even as the share of American adults who are working has remained basically steady.

It’s easier to see the trends if you skip over the government’s wacky data for the month of October, and compare November with September. The number of people that the government counted as unemployed fell by 348,000, driving the unemployment rate from 7.2 percent to 7.0 percent. But the number of people with jobs only increased by 83,000. In other words, for every person who found a job between September and November, three other people stopped looking.
--Binyamin Appelbaum, NYT, on the discouraged American economy

Why Augustus Caesar invented the pension

Augustus Caesar, in 13 B.C., worried that retired soldiers might rise up against the empire. So he came up with a clever solution: after twenty years in a legion and five years in the military reserves, a soldier would earn, in a lump sum, a pension that worked out to about thirteen times a legionnaire’s annual salary. Pay the veterans off, the reasoning went, and they’ll be less inclined to overthrow you.
--Vauhini Vara, New Yorker, on the enduring political power of retirees

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Why aren't you supposed to button the bottom button of your suit jacket?

The oldest son of Queen Victoria—the fellow who, upon inheriting the family business, became Edward VII—was a thoroughbred clotheshorse. After launching his career as a trendsetter by rocking a sailor suit with untouchable aplomb, he went on to achieve the general acceptance of black-tie attire, the triumph of the tweed Norfolk jacket, and the ascent of the Homburg. His waist size? 48. Edward the Wide stopped bothering with the bottommost closures of his jacket and his vest in order to accommodate his imperial weight more comfortably. Fashionability followed functionality; suit-tailoring followed suit...
--Troy Patterson, Slate, on comfort before fashion

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Delta Airlines argues it has a legal right to screw you over

Will this come as a surprise to frequent fliers? Airlines say they have the legal right to treat their most loyal passengers unfairly and in bad faith.

That is what Paul Clement, a lawyer representing Delta Air Lines Inc., told the Supreme Court Tuesday, in a case involving a suburban Minneapolis rabbi, Binyomin Ginsberg, who was kicked out of a frequent-flier program for what the carrier deemed "abuse" of his membership. ...

Rabbi Ginsberg says the airline told him he complained too much and booked reservations on full flights with the intention of being bumped for compensation. ...

He filed suit, alleging that the airline violated a duty Minnesota law implies in every contract—that of good faith and fair dealing. ...

Delta argued that the federal Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which pre-empts state regulation "relating to rates, routes, or services of any air carrier," also nullified any implied duty under state law to administer frequent flier programs fairly and in good faith.
--Jess Bravin, WSJ, on what many of us already suspected

Grade inflation at Harvard

The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.
--Harvard Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay Harris on a reason to choose Harvard over Princeton

Student happiness by country

--Matt Phillips, Quartz, on where you might like to grow up. HT: SK

Monday, December 2, 2013

Why economic sanctions usually don't work

“There is a group of nouveaux riches who found wealth in the sanctions,” said Saeed Laylaz, an economist with close ties to the Rouhani government [in Iran]. For years, the new Porsches, Maseratis and Ferraris snaking their way through the narrow alleys of upscale North Tehran were among the most visible effects of the sanctions.

The drivers of these luxury cars, mostly young men in their 20s, are commonly referred to here as “aghazadehs,” the children of those with connections to power.
--Thomas Erdbrink, NYT, on the wrong people benefiting from sanctions

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Amazon is developing drones for same-hour delivery Chief Executive Jeff Bezos said the online retailer is developing pilotless flying vehicles he calls “octocopters” that can deliver packages within a half hour of customers placing an order.

Bezos showed Charlie Rose an early version of the drone in development on an episode of the CBS news program “60 Minutes” aired Sunday evening. He said it was possible Amazon could introduce the drones within four to five years, depending in part on Federal Aviation Administration approvals. ...

Bezos said the drones could carry packages weighing up to five pounds, which makes up 86% of the company’s deliveries, according to the transcript.

“It could be a ten-mile radius from a fulfillment center,” said Bezos. “So, in urban areas, you could actually cover very significant portions of the population.” ...

An Amazon press release timed to the show’s airing says the proposed delivery idea is called Prime Air. A spokeswoman for the company said Amazon had already contacted the FAA about the project.
--Greg Bensinger, WSJ, on Amazon's unending ambition

Friday, November 29, 2013

No cheap books please, we're French

France has begun a new chapter in the saga of its online book wars, with French MPs unanimously backing a move that will curb the discounting power of Amazon in the country.

Warning that small independent bookstores were facing unfair competition from the US internet firm, MPs supported a bill that will prevent it combining free delivery with 5% discounts on books.

In a rare show of unity, parliamentarians on the right and left voted for the move to defend the French "cultural exception" against market forces and global digital powerhouses.

The bill, which must now be approved by the senate, is the latest round of French politicians taking on the might of the major US internet firms.

Since 1981 French law has fixed book-prices so that readers pay the same whether they buy online, from a big high street chain, or from a small bookseller. Extensive discounting is banned.
--Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian, on government-enforced price fixing

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Burying bad news before weekends and holidays

I exploit an SEC requirement that managers have to disclose any material corporate event to investors within five business days, using Form 8-K. In this setting, managers only have discretion over the day of the week that they disclose the news. 8-K filings allow me to identify the event and the disclosure dates, and the short five-day window reduces the scope for other confounding activity.

I show managers strategically disclose negative news on Fridays in an attempt to take advantage of market under-reaction to pre-weekend announcements. The under-reaction to Friday announcements has been suggested in other settings (Bagnoli, Clement, and Watts (2005); Dellavigna and Pollet (2009)). ...

I find even though events are uniformly distributed throughout the week, managers disclose more negative news on Fridays, before national holidays, and after the market closes. This pattern is absent for non-negative news. Furthermore, negative news is clustered on Fridays regardless of the day of the week the event occurs. ...

If investors are indeed more distracted on Fridays, returns should temporarily under-react to Friday disclosures (Dellavigna and Pollet (2009)). I find a significant under-reaction in cumulative abnormal returns of approximately 50 basis points if managers disclose negative news on Friday. The mispricing persists for three weeks and is not traded away because of limits to arbitrage.
--My colleague Marina Niessner on how to bury bad news

The Obama administration is expected to announce on Wednesday a one-year delay in another major element of the new health care law, which allows small businesses to go online and get insurance for their employees through the website of the federal marketplace. ...

The announcement of the delay, just before Thanksgiving, is reminiscent of the way the White House announced, just before the Independence Day weekend, a one-year delay in the requirement for larger employers to offer health insurance to employees.
--Robert Pear, NYT, on evidence-based management

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

It is more blessed to give than to receive: Scientific evidence

The philanthropy monitor Giving USA estimates that U.S. nonprofits and houses of worship received an amazing $316 billion in 2012.

More than 70% of those voluntary gifts were donated by individuals and families. Even though donations dropped sharply during the Great Recession and have yet to fully recover, Americans still give away more than the entire gross domestic product of prosperous countries such as Israel and Denmark. ...

American generosity is internationally exceptional and generally amazes foreigners, especially those from the social democracies across the Atlantic.

As a European acquaintance once asked me, "What's in it for you?" ...

The University of Chicago's General Social Survey shows that charitable givers are 43% likelier to say they are "very happy" than nongivers. Nongivers are a whopping 3.5 times more likely than givers to say they are "not happy at all."

Skeptics will question the causality here. Does charitable giving make us happier, vice versa or both? Experimental studies hold the answer. In 2008, researchers from Harvard and the University of British Columbia found that the amount subjects spent on themselves was inconsequential for happiness, while spending on others yielded significant happiness gains.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Oregon attached fMRI scanners to participants and asked them to divide $100 between a food pantry and their own wallets. Choosing charity lighted up the nucleus accumbens, a brain center of pleasure and reward that also corresponds to pleasurable music, addictive drugs, and the bond between mothers and their children.
--Arthur Brooks, WSJ, on Acts 20:35 demonstrated

Monday, November 25, 2013

Can reasoning alone break schizophrenic delusions?

What might happen, [psychiatrist Milton Rokeach] wondered, if a psychologist were to deliberately pair up patients who held directly conflicting identity delusions? Perhaps such psychological leverage could be used to pry at the cracks of an irrational psyche to let in the light of reason. Dr. Rokeach sought and secured a research grant to test his hypothesis, and he began canvassing sanitariums for delusional doppelgängers. Soon he found several suitable subjects: three patients, all in state care, each of whom believed himself to be Jesus Christ. ...

Rokeach initiated his research experiment at the Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan in 1959. ... Three days later, when the "Three Christs" arose, they were summoned to a small antechamber adjacent to Ward D-23. ...

Dr. Rokeach's hypothesis was that it might be possible to alter or eliminate schizophrenic delusions if he forced patients to confront what he described as 'the ultimate contradiction conceivable for human beings': more than one person claiming the same identity. To this end, he contrived a battery of experiments to challenge the Christs' identities over the coming months. ...

Dr. Rokeach finally brought the Three Christs experiment to an end on 15 August 1961, just over two years since the first meeting of Clyde, Joseph, and Leon. None of the patients had measurably improved, although by the time Rokeach departed Leon had indeed renounced his claim to being Jesus Christ. Instead he insisted upon being referred to as "Dr. Righteous Idealized Dung." He had also come to believe that he was one of the Yeti people. ...

Later advances in neuroscience revealed that schizophrenia is disorder of thought processes rather than of thought content, associated with subtle differences in brain structures and in brain chemistry, consequently no amount of psychotherapy can "cure" schizophrenic delusions. However, thanks to modern medicine schizophrenia and similar disorders are quite controllable with the use of antipsychotic medications.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Free pre-school for low-income kids may be ineffective: A randomized controlled trial

Last week legislation was introduced in the Senate and House to create federally funded universal pre-k for 4-year-olds. ...

The rhetoric around the introduction of the legislation includes the by now entirely predictable and thoroughly misleading appeal to the overwhelming research evidence supporting such an investment. ...

Here I want to draw your attention to a newly released study of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K Program (TN-VPK). TN‐VPK is a full day pre-k program for four‐year‐olds from low-income families. ...

The study, conducted by a stellar team of researchers at Vanderbilt, began in 2009. It is a randomized trial (the gold standard for evaluating program impacts) involving about 3,000 four-year-olds whose parents had applied for their admission to oversubscribed TN-VPK programs. A lottery was used to select those to whom an offer of admission was made. Those winning the lottery constitute the intervention group. Those losing the lottery constitute the control group. Only about a quarter of children in the control group found their way into other center-based programs such as Head Start or private pre-k, so the study compares groups that are very different in their levels of access to early childhood education. ...

...the group that experienced the Tennessee Voluntary State Pre-K Program performed somewhat less well on cognitive tasks at the end of first grade than the control group, even though ¾ of the children in the control group had no experience as four-year-olds in a center-based early childhood program.

What about social/emotional skills and dispositions as rated by teachers? The following figure presents those results, again at the end of first grade. None of the differences is statistically significant. Four of the seven signs are negative, meaning that the control group scored better than the pre-k group.

Finally, what about differences on routinely collected school records? Here the results are mixed. Participants in the TN-VPK were less likely to have been retained in kindergarten than non-participants (4% to 6%). In contrast, children served by TN-VPK were more likely to have received school-based special education services than children in the control group (14% to 9% for the full sample – reported results aren’t separated for the intensively studied sub sample). There were no statistically significant differences between the two groups on absences from school or disciplinary actions. ...

I see these findings as devastating for advocates of the expansion of state pre-k programs. This is the first large scale randomized trial of a present-day state pre-k program. Its methodology soundly trumps the quasi-experimental approaches that have heretofore been the only source of data on which to infer the impact of these programs. And its results align almost perfectly with those of the Head Start Impact Study, the only other large randomized trial that examines the longitudinal effects of having attended a public pre-k program.
--Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, Brookings Institute, on the case against publicly funding universal preschool. HT: Marginal Revolution

Did a Star Trek budget shortfall lead to the iPhone and iPad interfaces?

Left: Original Star Trek series. Right: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Star Trek also may have helped create the entire image-under-glass paradigm that governs our digital world. The interface—known as LCARS—is cool-looking. It’s distinctive. And it’s actually the result of a budget shortfall.

Star Trek: The Next Generation didn’t have as much money for set design as did the original series, which had panels wired with jewels and glowing buttons. Instead, they cut out sheets of film and put them over glass panes. To this day, people still modify their computers and tablets to make them look like an LCARS device from the 24th Century, by way of the late '80s.
--Roman Mars, 99% Invisible, on necessity as the mother of touchscreen invention

Blue is the color of the sci-fi future

We have seen the future, and the future is mostly blue.

Or, put another way: in our representations of the future in science fiction movies, blue seems to be the dominant color of our interfaces with technology yet to come. And that is one of the many design lessons we can learn from sci-fi.

Designers and sci-fi aficionados Chris Noessel and Nathan Shedroff spent years compiling real-world lessons that designers can, should, and already do take from science fiction. Their 2012 book, Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons From Science Fiction is a comprehensive compendium of their findings.

To give you a sense of how exhaustive their research is in this field, take note that the lesson above—future screens are mostly blue—was determined empirically. Shedroff and Noessel catalogued virtually every interface from every sci-fi movie from 1968 through 2011 and determined an average color per year.

So why is blue the chosen color? Noessel posits that, because blue is so rare in nature (if you discount the sky and the ocean, which are arguably not blue) there’s something fundamentally mystical, unnatural, and inhuman about it.
--Roman Mars, 99% invisible, on our blue future

Why do 74% of kids choose Yale over Princeton? Grade deflation?

While Yale’s ad hoc committee on grading examines grading policies, Princeton is reassessing its own experiment with grade deflation — a move Princeton’s new president attributes in part to concerns about a faltering admissions yield, according to the Daily Princetonian. ...

Most Yale undergraduates and third-party college admissions experts interviewed said that while grade deflation was not a decisive factor in causing students to choose Yale over Princeton, grade deflation does reinforce the perception that Princeton has a more competitive and less collaborative academic culture than Yale. ...

Since implementing grade deflation policies in 2004, Princeton’s yield has dropped from 73.1 percent for the class of 2007 — the last class to be admitted before Princeton’s grading changes were announced — to 68.7 percent for the class of 2017. ...

Of students who were admitted to both Princeton and Yale for the class of 2017, 74 percent chose Yale over Princeton, according to Parchment, an educational website that calculates cross-admit rates between colleges in America. Richard Avitabile, a former admissions officer at New York University and a private college counselor at Steinbrecher and Partners, said while Yale has traditionally held an advantage over Princeton, he does not recall the gap ever being as large as it is now.

Chuck Hughes, president of college admissions consulting service Road to College and a former admissions officer at Harvard, said that Princeton’s decade-long decline in yield can be attributed in part to the university’s stricter grading policies. Hughes added that although students will still choose Princeton over most schools, many of his clients have chosen Stanford, Harvard and Yale over Princeton, citing the difference in grading policies between the schools being one major factor. ...

[A] study published in July in the scientific journal PLOS One demonstrated that grade inflation helps students find jobs and be more competitive graduate school applicants. Samuel Swift, postdoctoral fellow at the Haas Business School at the University of California, Berkeley and the lead author of the study, said that when businesses and graduate schools consider applicants, they do not consider the grade distribution at the school from which the student is applying.
--Yuval Ben-David and Rishabh Bhandari, Yale Daily News, on the academic Phillips curve

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Students learn less from professors they like better

Conventional wisdom holds that “higher-quality” teachers promote better educational outcomes. ... At the postsecondary level, student evaluations of professors are widely used in faculty promotion and tenure decisions. However, teachers can influence these measures in ways that may reduce actual student learning. Teachers can “teach to the test.” Professors can inflate grades or reduce academic content to elevate student evaluations. Given this, how well do each of these measures correlate with the desired outcome of actual student learning? ...

...our study uses a unique panel data set from the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in which students are randomly assigned to professors over a wide variety of standardized core courses. The random assignment of students to professors, along with a vast amount of data on both professors and students, allows us to examine how professor quality affects student achievement free from the usual problems of self-selection. Furthermore, performance in USAFA core courses is a consistent measure of student achievement because faculty members teaching the same course use an identical syllabus and give the same exams during a common testing period. Finally, USAFA students are required to take and are randomly assigned to numerous follow-on courses in mathematics, humanities, basic sciences, and engineering. Performance in these mandatory follow-on courses is arguably a more persistent measurement of student learning. Thus, a distinct advantage of our data is that even if a student has a particularly poor introductory course professor, he or she still is required to take the follow-on related curriculum. ...

Student evaluations are positively correlated with contemporaneous professor value-added and negatively correlated with follow-on student achievement. That is, students appear to reward higher grades in the introductory course but punish professors who increase deep learning (introductory course professor value-added in follow-on courses). ...

As an illustration, the introductory calculus professor in our sample who ranks dead last in deep learning ranks sixth and seventh best in student evaluations and contemporaneous value-added, respectively.
--Scott Carrell and James West, Journal of Political Economy, on teaching to the student evaluation

Frequent testing improves classroom learning

Grading college students on quizzes given at the beginning of every class, rather than on midterms or a final exam, increases both attendance and overall performance, scientists reported Wednesday.

The findings — from an experiment in which 901 students in a popular introduction to psychology course at the University of Texas took their laptops to class and were quizzed online — demonstrate that the computers can act as an aid to teaching, not just a distraction.

Moreover, the study is the latest to show how tests can be used to enhance learning as well as measure it. The report, appearing in the journal PLoS One, found that this “testing effect” was particularly strong in students from lower-income households. ...

Most students hated it at first, Dr. Pennebaker said.

“Sam and I usually get really high course evaluations” from the students, he said; “these were the lowest ever.” ...

By the end of the course, however, the class had outperformed a previous Psych 301 class of 935 students that used midterm exams — scoring 10 percent higher on a subset of 17 questions that appeared on both classes’ tests. The quizzed group also got slightly higher grades, the study found. superstitions

Some navigators [who help people sign up for health insurance on] have rituals that they think might improve their access to the federal website. Mr. Trevorrow, who works for Resources for Human Development, makes sure to clear his computer’s browsing history, or cache, before trying to enroll someone. John Foley, a navigator with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County in Florida, avoids enrolling people early in the week because he thinks that is when the site has more problems. ...

On Friday, Mr. Trevorrow helped a client complete an online application in one sitting for the first time, he said, getting to the point where they could start shopping for plans. “We were both as excited as we could be,” he said.

But then they encountered a problem: The website said that his client was not eligible for a subsidy to help with her premium costs. Based on the income she had reported, Mr. Trevorrow was certain that she should, in fact, get a subsidy.

“It did bring an abrupt halt to the proceedings,” he said. “However, we ended on an upbeat note. I told that consumer this was the farthest I’d ever gotten with an application, it’s the smoothest I’d ever seen the system run, and I was very optimistic that we could finish.”
--Abby Goodnough, NYT, on the new blowing on the Nintendo cartridge

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The optimal strategy for finding Waldo

I knew that [Martin] Handford had placed Waldo in each of these illustrations, and in my experience, all people—even people who make a living hiding cartoon men in cartoon landscapes—have tendencies, be they conscious and unconscious. True randomness is very difficult to achieve, even if you want to, and according to Handford he does not necessarily aim for unpredictability. “As I work my way through a picture, I add Wally when I come to what I feel is a good place to hide him,” he once told Scholastic. Knowing this, is it possible, I wondered, to master Where’s Waldo by mapping Handford’s patterns?

I sought to answer these questions the way any mathematician who has no qualms about appearing ridiculous in public would: I sat in a Barnes & Noble for three hours flipping through all seven Where’s Waldo books with a tape measure. ...

What we do see, as highlighted in the map below, is that 53 percent of the time Waldo is hiding within one of two 1.5-inch tall bands, one starting three inches from the bottom of the page and another one starting seven inches from the bottom, stretching across the spread.

So, if you want to find Waldo on any given page, a good strategy would be to start by scrutinizing these two bands first, before moving on to other areas. Although 1.5 inches isn’t a particularly narrow range, it’s small enough to focus on without missing Waldo; and over half the time, he’ll be there.
--Ben Blatt, Slate, on Waldo's tendencies

Monday, November 18, 2013

Hail the mid-30s tech entrepreneur

Incidentally, though 20-something tech founders like Mr. Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates get a lot of ink, they are unusual. A recent study by the VC firm Cowboy Ventures found that among tech startups that have earned a valuation of at least $1 billion since 2003, the average founder's age was 34. "The twentysomething inexperienced founder is an outlier, not the norm," wrote Cowboy's founder Aileen Lee.
--Farhad Manjoo, WSJ, on the prime of life

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The lumbering pace of McDonald's service

McDonald's Corp. came out with its strongest acknowledgment yet that its customer service in the U.S. has suffered recently, and that it blundered by introducing too many new menu items too quickly. ...

QSR Magazine, a trade publication that conducts an annual drive-through performance study of fast-food restaurants, said last month that McDonald's clocked its slowest average speed of service in the study's 15-year history, at 189.49 seconds.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

How can a website cost so much?

A witness from the Government Accountability Office said "north of" $600 million had been spent on through the end of September.
--Jennifer Corbett Dooren, WSJ, on the amazing cost of building a broken website

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The beautiful prayers of Flannery O'Connor

From early 1946 to the fall of 1947—from the ages of 20 to 22—[Flannery] O’Connor wrote in a hardbound, marbled Sterling notebook, which was found by writer, scholar, and O’Connor friend William A. Sessions during a visit to her archives in 2002. ...

“I cannot love Thee the way I want to,” she writes. “You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see, and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon ... what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon.”

Her ambition is plain but something she tries to accommodate to God’s will. “Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted,” she implores, but then adding, aware of the sin of pride, “That is so far from what I deserve, of course, that I am naturally struck with the nerve of it.” She questions her motives, her honesty, and worries over her presumption: “I have not asked You, I feel, in the right way. Let me henceforth ask you with resignation . . . Oh God please make my mind clear. Please make it clean.” ...

She worries her mind is not strong, she describes it as being “in a little box, dear God, down inside other boxes inside other boxes and on and on. There is very little air in my box.” She worries that she may be, artistically, merely mediocre. “If I ever do get to be a fine writer,” she says, “it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things he kindly wrote for me.” But “right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing.”
--Marian Ryan, Slate, on the prayers of a great writer

Friday, November 8, 2013

We can now upload memories to a mouse

We have the ability, in a live mouse who's running through a maze, to actually image thousands of neurons in the hippocampus and see what's happening as that mouse learns how to get from one spot to another. In other experiments, researchers have transferred memories from a trained mouse to a naïve mouse, and that mouse seems to know how to negotiate a maze that it's never seen before.

Now that's pretty freaky. Maybe we're starting to learn some of the language by which the brain operates.
--NIH director Francis Collins, WSJ on getting closer to "I know kung fu"

How JFK became a war hero

It was involuntary. They sank my boat.
--John F. Kennedy on how he became a war hero

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The genetically engineered silkworm

The domesticated variety [of silkworm], compared to the wild form, has increased cocoon size, growth rate and efficiency of its digestion. It has also gained tolerance to human presence and handling and living in crowded conditions. It also cannot fly and lacks fear of potential predators. These changes have made it entirely dependent upon humans for survival. ...

The silkworm is one of the world's most genetically modified animals. Silkworms were first domesticated in China over 5000 years ago. Since then, the silk production capacity of the species has increased nearly tenfold. Silkworm is one of the few organisms wherein the principles of genetics and breeding were applied to harvest maximum output. It is next only to maize in exploiting the principles of heterosis and cross breeding.

Should good-looking actors deliver online courses?

So-called MOOCs, or massive open online courses, typically get tens of thousands of sign-ups to watch video lectures delivered by tweedy academics, some more photogenic than others. But imagine how many students would tune in—or make it through the class without dropping out—if instead of bookish professors, Hollywood stars delivered the lessons.

That’s one idea under consideration by leaders of EdX, the nonprofit provider of MOOCs started by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ...

One for-profit MOOC producer, Udacity, already brings in camera-friendly staff members to appear with professors in lecture videos. One example is an introduction to psychology course developed earlier this year in partnership with San Jose State University. It had three instructors: Gregory J. Feist, an associate professor of psychology at San Jose State University, who has been teaching for more than 25 years and who wrote a popular textbook on the subject; Susan Snycerski, a lecturer at the university who has taught for 15 years; and Lauren Castellano, a Udacity employee who recently finished a master’s in psychology from the university, advised by Feist.

In the course’s opening lecture, the three stand together and go over the ground rules, but after that, Castellano takes the lead on camera. Feist and Snycerski make regular appearances throughout the 16 lessons, but often only briefly, to explain a concept or two, or to be part of a demonstration or skit with Castellano. ...

In fact, [Russell Poulin, a researcher with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education,] argued that one benefit of online learning is that the various parts of the professor’s role can be “pulled apart.” In an online course, he argued, there’s no reason to have the same person develop the content, deliver it, and run assessments, when people with skills in each of those areas can work together to create clearer and more effective lessons.
--Jeff Young, Slate, on division of labor in online courses

We take a large sample of student instructional ratings for a group of university teachers and acquire six independent measures of their beauty, and a number of other descriptors of them and their classes. Instructors who are viewed as better looking receive higher instructional ratings, with the impact of a move from the 10th to the 90th percentile of beauty being substantial. This impact exists within university departments and even within particular courses, and is larger for male than for female instructors. Disentangling whether this outcome represents productivity or discrimination is, as with the issue generally, probably impossible.
--Daniel Hamermesh and Amy Parker, "Beauty in the Classroom: Instructors' Pulchritude and Putative Pedagogical Productivity," on what will sell in online education

Who do you want to see teaching you psychology in your browser?
Susan Syncerski, lecturer, San Jose State University
Gregory Feist, associate professor, San Jose State University
Lauren Castellano, course developer, Udacity

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Loopholes in medical ethics

Doctors and psychologists working for the US military violated the ethical codes of their profession under instruction from the defence department and the CIA to become involved in the torture and degrading treatment of suspected terrorists, an investigation has concluded. ...

Medical professionals were in effect told that their ethical mantra "first do no harm" did not apply, because they were not treating people who were ill.
--Sarah Boseley, The Guardian, on convenient narrowing of scope. HT: Marginal Revolution

Field goal kickers have gotten a lot more accurate

[NFL] kickers entered Monday making nearly two-thirds (65.8%) of all 50-plus-yard attempts. Compare that with the 63.6% success rate on all kicks in 1980. Being automatic is now expected, with an all-time-record 85.4% of attempts sailing through the uprights.

Strangely, strategies haven't changed accordingly. Teams are attempting barely more 50-plus-yard field goals today (4.6 a season) than in 1980 (2.9), when the success rate was a meager 28.4%.

--Michael Salfino, WSJ, on human progress

Administration says that Obamacare is not a federal health care program

The Affordable Care Act is the biggest new health care program in decades, but the Obama administration has ruled that neither the federal insurance exchange nor the federal subsidies paid to insurance companies on behalf of low-income people are “federal health care programs.”

The surprise decision, disclosed last week, exempts subsidized health insurance from a law that bans rebates, kickbacks, bribes and certain other financial arrangements in federal health programs, stripping law enforcement of a powerful tool used to fight fraud in other health care programs, like Medicare.

[Secretary of health and human services Kathleen Sebelius] did not explain the legal rationale for her decision, which followed a spirited debate within the administration. ...

Lawyers and law enforcement officials said Ms. Sebelius’s decision was unexpected because the insurance exchanges and subsidy payments appeared to fit the definition of federal health care programs in the anti-kickback statute. ...

Such programs are defined broadly as “any plan or program that provides health benefits, whether directly, through insurance, or otherwise, which is funded directly, in whole or in part, by the United States government.” ...

Kevin G. McAnaney, a lawyer who specializes in health care fraud and abuse cases, said Ms. Sebelius’s decision would allow drug companies to give coupons to people who buy insurance through the exchanges.

Such coupons subsidize co-payments and reduce out-of-pocket costs for consumers, encouraging them to use certain brand-name prescription drugs when lower-cost alternatives are available, Mr. McAnaney said.

The federal government has forbidden the use of drug coupons in Medicare and other federal health programs, saying they amount to a classic kickback scheme, with drug companies paying consumers to use their products. ...

Coupons may drive down the co-payment for an expensive brand-name drug, but often, the insurer must pay much more than it would for a generic version of the medication.
--Robert Pear, NYT, on twisting the meaning of words

The efficient outsourced life

Jon Steinsson and Emi Nakamura do not have enough time to do everything they need to do. They’re recently tenured, highly productive rising stars at Columbia University, as well as parents to an infant. But they have a secret weapon helping them prioritize: Econ 101. ...

Even if you’re faster and more effective than everyone else at a given task — fighting with the cable company, say, or folding your socks just so — you still might be better off if you pay someone else to do it for you. Why? Because there is an opportunity cost for every hour consumed by these tedious, nonproductive tasks; there exists some higher-value activity you could be spending your time on instead.

Steinsson and Nakamura, both economists, take the tenets of their field seriously. And so they outsource as much of the humdrum aspects of their personal lives as they can.

Last year, the couple hired a personal chef. She drops off five healthful meals at the beginning of every week to reduce the time they spend cooking (they used to cook recreationally; now they’d rather spend that time with their son). They have also paid people to: build Ikea furniture for them (even though the service often costs more than the furniture itself); teach them how to use software programs and baby carriers; and load their CD collection onto their computers. They even hired someone to spend hours going through thousands of old family photographs to figure out which are the “good ones.”

That last task has proved a bit problematic. It’s hard for a stranger to look at snapshots from your childhood and determine which ones represent truly memorable moments. Still, Steinsson remains confident in the theory. “We haven’t figured it out yet, but we haven’t given up,” he told me. ...

Part of the problem is that most people don’t understand the value of their time, particularly if they are salaried. Paying someone to buy your groceries or take the car to the mechanic sounds like money down the drain if you’re not billing hourly. But buying yourself an extra hour to work today can be good for your career tomorrow, if doing so improves your chances of getting a promotion or a raise.

That’s why Steinsson and Nakamura paid for housekeeping services even when they were penniless grad students. Outsourcing household tasks meant they had to take on more debt, but they calculated — correctly — that spending an extra hour working on a paper was better for their lifetime expected earnings than spending that same hour vacuuming.
--Catherine Rampell, NYT Magazine, on applying comparative advantage theory to your life

Monday, November 4, 2013

Why are continental breakfasts continental?

The term dates to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when American hotels began changing to appeal to an emerging middle class and to European tourists. One meaning of the original “continental breakfast” refers to the type of food served: Americans traditionally ate large quantities of hearty, fried fare for breakfast, like pancakes, eggs, and meat—holdovers of the agrarian lifestyle. European visitors to America were appalled by such greasy abundance, preferring lighter items like fruit, bread, and pastries. Hotels began offering such continental foodstuffs to appeal both to Europeans and to health-conscious Americans.

The “continental” in “continental breakfast” didn’t just refer to cuisine—it also referred to the way hotel guests paid for their meals. At traditional hotels, guests paid for their room and board together: They were expected to eat all of their meals in the hotel’s restaurant, and the price of all meals was included in the hotel’s rate. This was known as the American payment model. In the late 19th century, as middle-class patrons began demanding cheaper and more flexible arrangements, some hotels adopted a so-called European plan, in which guests paid only for their room and could either pay separately to eat in the hotel restaurant or go elsewhere for meals. Soon a hybrid American-European plan emerged, called the “continental” model to distinguish it from both (but to retain a whiff of foreign sophistication). At a continental-style hotel, breakfast was included with the cost of one’s room, but guests were on their own for lunch and dinner.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Till death do us part illustrated

When my grandfather died last spring I saw the most beautiful thing; I saw my grandmother help him die. She snuggled next to him in bed, and talked to him and stroked his face and held his hand. I have seen till death do us part up close. It is beautiful and absolutely worth devoting my life to.
--Lisa Holtby, NYT, on the good marriage. HT: JL

Double-tap drone strikes

A U.S. drone strike killed at least 17 people in Pakistan's tribal region on Wednesday [July 3], Reuters reports.

But Reuters also reports this (emphasis ours):
Many were wounded in the attack, local tribesman Kaleemullah Dawar said, but rescuers delayed for fear of falling victim to a second attack, a common tactic with drone strikes.
That tactic is known as the "double tap," which bombs multiple targets in relatively quick succession — meaning that the second strike often hits first responders. ...

NYU Student Josh Begley revealed the trend while tweeting every U.S. drone strike since 2002.

Last year a study by the NYU School of Law and Stanford Law School detailed the U.S. use of the double tap, providing first-hand accounts of its devastating effect on rescuers and humanitarian workers. ...

Last June the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Christof Heyns said he considers secondary strikes to be "war crimes." ...

Furthermore, Spencer Ackerman of The Guardian reports that a recent study conducted by a U.S. military adviser found that ... drone strikes in Afghanistan were "an order of magnitude more likely to result in civilian casualties per engagement" than manned bombing runs.
--Michael Kelley, Business Insider, on how the precision of drone strikes is used