Thursday, February 28, 2013

The culture of cheating at Harvard College

On a Thursday night in the spring of 2012, students huddled in study groups in Lamont Café, racing against the clock to finish an assignment due the next day. Notes and textbooks were shared, suggestions passed back and forth. There were dozens of students there, or at least enough that voices echoed to amplify the buzz of discussion.

The task’s guidelines for completion were hazy, and the fact that the course had many section leaders with varying expectations heightened the confusion. It was easy for members in the crowd to help each other out. For those who didn’t understand, didn’t have time, or just didn’t care, group work turned into copying.

That summer, after Lamont had emptied out for the semester, the accusations came. The cheating was “unprecedented in anyone's living memory,” according to Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris.

But the students who had collaborated in Lamont that spring evening faced no accusations. They had not been enrolled in Government 1310.

The students in Lamont, who were described by a fellow classmate, had been working on a problem set for Economics 10. ...

“Collaboration,” recalls Igor Liokumovich ’15, who took Ec 10 last spring, of the general environment surrounding the course. “It wasn’t that. It wasn’t collaboration on homework; it was passed down very much the same as I heard the scandal was.” He pauses. “But I feel like it’s like that with any large class, you know? I don’t think it was specific to Ec 10.”

Liokumovich jokingly recalls “200 freshman in Lamont Café, trying to scramble to get stuff together” as they completed their problem sets.

“Because only your section TF grades your work, and if you have friends from six different sections,” he adds, “there’s no way you’d get caught.”

How Ang Lee narrowly avoided becoming a computer programmer

Some years later, when I graduated film school, I came to comprehend my father’s concern. It was nearly unheard of for a Chinese newcomer to make it in the American film industry. Beginning in 1983, I struggled through six years of agonizing, hopeless uncertainty. Much of the time, I was helping film crews with their equipment or working as editor’s assistant, among other miscellaneous duties. My most painful experience involved shopping a screenplay at more than thirty different production companies, and being met with harsh rejection each time.

That year, I turned 30. ...

At one point, my in-laws gave their daughter (my wife) a sum of money, intended as start-up capital for me to open a Chinese restaurant – hoping that a business would help support my family. But my wife refused the money. When I found out about this exchange, I stayed up several nights and finally decided: This dream of mine is not meant to be. I must face reality.

Afterward (and with a heavy heart), I enrolled in a computer course at a nearby community college. At a time when employment trumped all other considerations, it seemed that only a knowledge of computers could quickly make me employable. For the days that followed, I descended into malaise. My wife, noticing my unusual demeanor, discovered a schedule of classes tucked in my bag. She made no comment that night.

The next morning, right before she got in her car to head off to work, my wife turned back and – standing there on our front steps – said, ‘Ang, don’t forget your dream.’

And that dream of mine – drowned by demands of reality – came back to life. As my wife drove off, I took the class schedule out of my bag and slowly, deliberately tore it to pieces. And tossed it in the trash.

Sometime after, I obtained funding for my screenplay, and began to shoot my own films. And after that, a few of my films started to win international awards. Recalling earlier times, my wife confessed, ‘I’ve always believed that you only need one gift. Your gift is making films. There are so many people studying computers already, they don’t need an Ang Lee to do that. If you want that golden statue, you have to commit to the dream.’
--Ang Lee after winning his first Oscar in 2006 on the value of a good wife. HT: CL

That’s a six-year span — six years! — filled with dashed hopes and disappointments. ...

Put yourself in his shoes. Imagine starting something now, this year, that you felt you were pretty good at, having won some student awards, devoting yourself to it full time…and then getting rejected over and over until 2019. That’s the middle of the term of the next President of the United States. Can you imagine working that long, not knowing if anything would come of it? Facing the inevitable “So how’s that film thing going?” question for the fifth consecutive Thanksgiving dinner; explaining for the umpteeth time this time it’s different to parents that had hoped that film study meant you wanted to be a professor of film at a university. ...

Another detail that I’ve always wondered about: during this long period at home, his NYU classmate Spike Lee releases three films, including the commercially successful and universally acclaimed “Do The Right Thing” in 1989. Having been in similar situations I can only imagine it stirred a very complex set of emotions.
--Jeff Lin on what six years of rejection feels like. HT: CL and JQ

Saturday, February 23, 2013

New York Yankees admit they're evil

A panel of trademark judges in Washington, D.C., earlier this month denied a request from a private entrepreneur, known as Evil Enterprises, Inc., to register the trademark for the phrase "Baseballs Evil Empire."

Evil Enterprises wanted the exclusive right to market merchandise using that phrase, which was coined in regard to the Yankees by Larry Lucchino, the president and chief executive of the Boston Red Sox, back in 2002. Upon learning that the Yankees had signed sought-after Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras, Lucchino was widely reported as saying: "The evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America." ...

But the Yankees objected, arguing that they had the rights to the phrase—at least when used in connection with baseball.

Part of the Yankees' argument: a concession that in the baseball world, they are, in fact, the "Evil Empire." In its legal papers, the team referenced a number of articles from the past decade using the term in connection with the Yankees, and conceded that the team has "implicitly embraced" the "Evil Empire" theme by playing music from Star Wars during their home games.

The panel of judges sided with the Yankees, ruling that the Yankees are strongly associated with the phrase. Allowing anyone else to use the phrase exclusively would likely cause confusion, ruled the judges.

"In short, the record shows that there is only one Evil Empire in baseball and it is the New York Yankees," wrote the judges.
--Ashby Jones, WSJ, on owning up to your identity. HT: Joy of Sox

The graying of economics publishing

Table 1 Age distributions of authors in top US economics journals, 1963-2011
Year of
Age (percentage distributions)

Two things are noticeable from the table:
  • First, it is clear that through the 1990s top-level economic research was very much a young person’s game – almost nobody over age 50 published a paper in these premier outlets;
  • Second, this fact has changed in the last 15 years;
...the percentage of ‘old’ (ages 51 years old and above) authors has increased from 5% to nearly 20%. Why? ...

I believe the answer lies in the changing nature of technology in the profession, a slowdown in the expansion of the technological frontier. The training in a top-notch PhD programme today is not that qualitatively different from what I received in the late 1960s (I was born in 1943); my training then would in every respect have been unintelligible to an economist trained in the early 1920s. In some fields the slowdown in technology is obvious. In my own field of labour economics, for example, there has, if anything, been technological regress.

What does this discussion tell us about the economics profession? There’s hope for us older economists – the slowdown in technological advances has made the profession less like pure mathematics, more like a humanistic field. Old folks are demonstrably more able to compete at the frontiers of research than before. For younger economists, it might be a bit depressing. They no longer have the same advantage of the novelty of their skills as my generation did – the earlier unlikelihood that an ‘old guy’ would be intellectually readily substitutable for them.
--Daniel Hamermesh, Vox, on another reason why young economist CVs are shorter than before

Friday, February 22, 2013

Wheelchair miracles at the airport

It happens regularly, airport officials say. A traveler requests a wheelchair, gets pushed to the front of the security line and screened—and then jumps up out of the chair and rushes off into the terminal.

"We call them 'miracles.' They just start running with their heavy carry-ons," said wheelchair attendant Kenny Sanchez, who has been pushing for more than 14 years. ...

The 1986 Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to provide free wheelchair service to anyone who requests it. No description or documentation is required.

Airports across the country say more able-bodied travelers have figured out they can use wheelchairs for convenience, making waits a lot longer for travelers with genuine needs.

At Los Angeles International Airport, airlines and companies that provide wheelchair service estimate 15% of all requests are phony, said Lawrence Rolon, coordinator for disabled services for Los Angeles World Airports. Airport officials estimate nearly 300 wheelchair requests a day are bogus. ...

Wheelchair-service providers say some passengers running late for a flight will request immediate wheelchair service simply to cut to the front of the security line or to avoid a typical hour-plus wait at Immigration when entering the country. Some just want help with multiple heavy carry-on bags.

Some departing passengers want early boarding privileges and perhaps a seat with extra legroom in the front of the plane, which airlines reserve for passengers with disabilities. Some arriving international passengers see it as a sign of status when an attendant is waiting to greet and guide, even if it's a wheelchair attendant. ...

Sometimes a young, physically fit person will run in and request a chair. A lack of mobility equipment, such as a cane or crutches, might be a tipoff. There's an obvious tell: "People walk in with high heels on and say they need wheelchair service,'' Ms. Strickland says. Travelers with real infirmities almost always wear safer shoes, even if it means carrying nicer shoes in bags, she says. ...

Costs to an airline can reach more than $40 per wheelchair run because an attendant often spends more than an hour on each passenger ...

Abuse adds as much as 20 minutes to the wait for a wheelchair for some disabled passengers at LAX, disability advocates say. The wait at the Tom Bradley International Terminal averages 30 minutes.
--Scott McCartney, WSJ, on shamelessness in travel

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Shiller on houses as investments

Robert Shiller, the Yale economist who nailed the housing bubble before it burst, was on Bloomberg Television with Trish Regan and Adam Johnson on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the U.S. housing market. ...

Regan followed up with a question that got Shiller perked up.

"Then why buy a home?" she asked. "People trap their savings in a home. They're running an opportunity cost of not having that money liquid to earn a better return in the market. Why do it?"

"Absolutely!" Shiller exclaimed. "Housing traditionally is not viewed as a great investment. It takes maintenance, it depreciates, it goes out of style. All of those are problems. And there's technical progress in housing. So, new ones are better." ...

He continued.

"So, why was it considered an investment? That was a fad. That was an idea that took hold in the early 2000's. And I don't expect it to come back. Not with the same force. So people might just decide, "Yeah, I'll diversify my portfolio. I'll live in a rental." That is a very sensible thing for many people to do."

Adam Johnson also noted that this was in line with Shiller's assessment that real U.S. home price appreciation from 1890 to 1990 was just about 0 percent. This is explained by the falling costs of construction and labor.

For people who can't wrap their heads around this, Shiller offers an analogy.

"If you think investing in housing is such a great idea, why not invest in cars?" he asked. "Buy a car, mothball it, and sell it in 20 years. Obviously not a good idea because people won't want our cars. It's the same with our houses. So, they're not really an investment vehicle."

Any homeowner knows that you can't sell a home with 30-year-old roofing, carpet, and kitchen appliances. Sure, the home price might go up, but you have to adjust for years of maintenance and renovations.
--Sam Ro, Business Insider, on why I rent

Monday, February 18, 2013

The market price of a Clinton speech

Politico reports this morning that [Hillary] Clinton "will hit the paid speaking circuit this spring (likely April or May)," and "industry officials," not surprisingly, "expect that she will be one of the highest paid speakers in the history of the circuit, with fees well into the six figures in the United States and abroad."

The Clinton family is not unfamiliar with high-paying speeches. In the ten years after he left the White House, Bill Clinton (who is also represented by the Harry Walker Agency) made $75 million in speaking fees. And he didn't even need to hit the podium once a week to reach that impressive sum. Over the course of the decade, Clinton "delivered a total of 417 paid speeches and earned an average of $181,000 per event. ..." ...

Part of the reason that Clinton isn't taking too much time to lie on the beach is that, if she really is going to run for president again, she only has about two and half years, tops, before life on the campaign trail begins. After that, if things go as planned, she'll have four to eight years on a president's measly $400,000 salary. She's gotta get while the gettin's good.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The transience of human glory

There's no way to measure these things, but there's a strong case to be made that [Michael] Jordan is the most intense competitor on the planet. He's in the conversation, at the very least, and now he has been reduced to grasping for outlets for this competitive rage. He's in the middle of an epic game of Bejeweled on his iPad, and he's moved past level 100, where he won the title Bejeweled Demigod. He mastered sudoku and won $500 beating Portnoy at it. In the Bahamas, he sent someone down to the Atlantis hotel's gift shop to buy a book of word-search puzzles. In the hotel room, he raced Portnoy and Polk, his lawyer, beating them both. He can see all the words at once, as he used to see a basketball court. ...

Once, the whole world watched him compete and win -- Game 6, the Delta Center -- and now it's a small group of friends in a hotel room playing a silly kid's game. The desire remains the same, but the venues, and the stakes, keep shrinking. ...

Aging means losing things, and not just eyesight and flexibility. It means watching the accomplishments of your youth be diminished, maybe in your own eyes through perspective, maybe in the eyes of others through cultural amnesia. Most people live anonymous lives, and when they grow old and die, any record of their existence is blown away. They're forgotten, some more slowly than others, but eventually it happens to virtually everyone. Yet for the few people in each generation who reach the very pinnacle of fame and achievement, a mirage flickers: immortality. They come to believe in it. Even after Jordan is gone, he knows people will remember him. Here lies the greatest basketball player of all time. That's his epitaph. When he walked off the court for the last time, he must have believed that nothing could ever diminish what he'd done. That knowledge would be his shield against aging.

There's a fable about returning Roman generals who rode in victory parades through the streets of the capital; a slave stood behind them, whispering in their ears, "All glory is fleeting." Nobody does that for professional athletes. Jordan couldn't have known that the closest he'd get to immortality was during that final walk off the court, the one symbolically preserved in the print in his office. All that can happen in the days and years that follow is for the shining monument he built to be chipped away, eroded.
--Wright Thompson,, on worldly accomplishment

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Japanese love affair with fax machines

Japan’s reluctance to give up its fax machines offers a revealing glimpse into an aging nation that can often seem quietly determined to stick to its tried-and-true ways, even if the rest of the world seems to be passing it rapidly by. ...

In Japan, with the exception of the savviest Internet start-ups or internationally minded manufacturers, the fax remains an essential tool for doing business. Experts say government offices prefer faxes because they generate paperwork onto which bureaucrats can affix their stamps of approval, called hanko. Many companies say they still rely on faxes to create a paper trail of orders and shipments not left by ephemeral e-mail. Banks rely on faxes because, they say, customers are worried about the safety of their personal information on the Internet.

Even Japan’s largest yakuza crime syndicate, the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi, has used faxes to send notifications of expulsion to members, the police say.
--Martin Fackler, NYT, on being still big in Japan

Sunday, February 10, 2013

North Korean gulag reviews

But Google recently released its cartographic impression of the Hermit Kingdom, and as usual, it comes with all the Googley goodies: just move your cursor across Kim Il-sung Square, and you’ll be met with site labels, embedded photographs, Wikipedia entries, directions, ratings and reviews. ...

The truth, of course, is that the only people on earth who can’t see Google’s map of North Korea and comment on its features are the North Koreans.

Which leaves the rest of us to do the job. “Citizen cartographers,” Google calls us — though it would seem we are deficient in at least a few qualities that great mapmakers require: texture, nuance, subtlety.

Google lists 70 reviews for Bukchang Gulag (Camp 18), reportedly home to tens of thousands of prisoners. One reviewer said this concentration camp was “Nothing to write home about,” while another called it “Hands down, my favorite gulag.”

“Lacks wifi” was one reviewer’s comment on the infamous Kaechon Gulag (Camp 14).

Yodok (Camp 15) is a family gulag and the subject of Kang Chol-hwan’s harrowing memoir “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.” Yodok was described by one Google user as “dated and in desperate need of a face-lift. We ran out of towels after the first day and the staff wasn’t very understanding of our towel needs.” (Four out of five people found this review helpful.)
--Adam Johnson, NYT, on Google Maps wit

How to get a free trans-Atlantic cruise

On our first day at sea [on the Queen Mary 2], my friend Will attended a singles’ meet-up. (He has a beautiful girlfriend back home. I asked him to go for my article.) He reported the sad news: 60 or so women crowded this event, all of them over 65, yet there were only a handful of men.

He had also learned one of the open secrets of a certain tier of the cruise industry. Many of these men had been given free passage and meals; they were on board to host tables and dance with single women. On our final nights on the QM2, we’d see these women and their dance partners. They all looked as if they would make this crossing again in a heartbeat.
--Dwight Garner, NYT, on high-class gigolos of the high sea

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Economist mother smackdown

My mother, also an economist, always had the groceries delivered. As a 10-year-old I thought of going to the Stop’n’Shop as a glamorous activity and asked why we didn’t get to do this. My mother promptly explained that the other children’s parents “didn’t understand the idea of opportunity cost.” And that was the end of that.
--Emily Oster, Slate, on the wisdom of my colleague Sharon Oster

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Exhuming Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln, in fact, has been out and about a couple of times since his death. In 1901, after 36 years and several foiled grave-robbing attempts, his tomb was rebuilt and his coffin buried within several feet of poured concrete, sealing him in there for good. On that day, the crew took one last look at him, ostensibly to I.D. the president but, you have to assume, largely out of curiosity. Incredibly, the embalming process had left him completely recognizable as the man on the $5 bill.
--Christopher Bonanos, New York, on Lincoln's enduring fitness to be a vampire hunter

One reason why the U.S. ranks poorly in infant mortality rates

As the report's authors point out, the U.S. has the highest infant-mortality rate among high-income countries. Again, this isn't a good indicator of the quality of the American health-care system. The elevated U.S. rate is a function of both the technological advancement of American hospitals and discrepancies in how different countries define a live birth.

Doctors in the U.S. are much more aggressive than foreign counterparts about trying to save premature babies. Thousands of babies that would have been declared stillborn in other countries and never given a chance at life are saved in the U.S. As a result, the percentage of preterm births in America is exceptionally high—65% higher than in Britain, and about double the rates in Finland and Greece.

Unfortunately, some of the premature babies that American hospitals try to save don't make it. Their deaths inflate the overall infant mortality rate.
--Sally Pipes, WSJ, on the difficulty of cross-country health comparisons. I'd heard about this stillbirth/infant mortality definitional problem from a health economist a few months ago. It's apparently a well-known data issue among those who seriously research this issue, and it's not an easy one to fix.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Malcolm X in Rosa Parks

[Rosa Parks] spent nearly two decades before the bus incident struggling, organizing and agitating for civil rights, mostly as the secretary of the Montgomery, Ala., branch of the N.A.A.C.P. ...

And Parks was by no means the first person to perform an act of civil disobedience on a bus. She was very much aware of many of the people whose similar actions had preceded her own, even raising money for some of their defense funds. She also encouraged others to commit these acts of civil disobedience.

Parks explained that “I had felt for a long time, that if I was ever told to get up so a white person could sit, that I would refuse to do so.”

That day came on Dec. 1, 1955, when a bus driver asked her to get up so that a white man could sit. She refused. This was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. It was a political calculation informed by a life of activism. As Parks put it, “an opportunity was being given to me to do what I had asked of others.”

And the idea that she stayed seated because of physical fatigue is pure fiction.

“I didn’t tell anyone my feet were hurting,” the book quotes her as saying. “It was just popular, I suppose because they wanted to give some excuse other than the fact that I didn’t want to be pushed around.” ...

Parks, like many other Americans who over the years have angrily agitated for change in this country, had been sanitized and sugarcoated for easy consumption.
--Charles Blow, NYT, on Rosa Parks the agitator

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Is gold a good hedge against inflation?

We critically examine popular stories such as 'gold is an inflation hedge'. We show that gold may be an effective hedge if the investment horizon is measured in centuries. Over practical investment horizons, gold is an unreliable inflation hedge.

--Claude Erb and Cam Harvey, "The Golden Dilemma"

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The link between recessions and the shrinking of the middle class

In the past 30 years, the US labor market has seen the emergence of two new phenomena: "job polarization" and "jobless recoveries." Job polarization refers to the increasing concentration of employment in the highest- and lowest-wage occupations, as job opportunities in middle-skill occupations disappear. Jobless recoveries refer to periods following recessions in which rebounds in aggregate output are accompanied by much slower recoveries in aggregate employment. We argue that these two phenomena are related. ...

First, job polarization is not simply a gradual phenomenon: the loss of middle-skill, routine jobs is concentrated in economic downturns. Specifically, 92% of the job loss in these occupations since the mid-1980s occurs within a 12 month window of NBER dated recessions (that have all been characterized by jobless recoveries).

Our second point is that job polarization accounts for jobless recoveries. This argument is based on three facts. First, employment in the routine occupations identified by Autor et al. (2003) and others account for a significant fraction of aggregate employment; averaged over the jobless recovery era, these jobs account for more than 50% of total employment. Second, essentially all of the contraction in aggregate employment during NBER dated recessions can be attributed to recessions in these middle-skill, routine occupations. Third, jobless recoveries are observed only in these disappearing, middle-skill jobs. The high- and low-skill occupations to which employment is polarizing either do not experience contractions, or if they do, rebound soon after the turning point in aggregate output. Hence, jobless recoveries can be traced to the disappearance of routine occupations in recessions. Finally, it is important to note that jobless recoveries were not observed in routine occupations (nor in aggregate employment) prior to the era of job polarization.