Sunday, June 23, 2013

Academic cheating in China

The relatively small city of Zhongxiang in Hubei province has always performed suspiciously well in China's notoriously tough "gaokao" exams, each year winning a disproportionate number of places at the country's elite universities. ...

When students at the No. 3 high school in Zhongxiang arrived to sit their exams earlier this month, they were dismayed to find they would be supervised not by their own teachers, but by 54 external invigilators randomly drafted in from different schools across the county.

The invigilators wasted no time in using metal detectors to relieve students of their mobile phones and secret transmitters, some of them designed to look like pencil erasers.

A special team of female invigilators was on hand to intimately search female examinees, according to the Southern Weekend newspaper.

Outside the school, meanwhile, a squad of officials patrolled the area to catch people transmitting answers to the examinees. At least two groups were caught trying to communicate with students from a hotel opposite the school gates. ...

As soon as the exams finished, a mob swarmed into the school in protest.

"I picked up my son at midday [from his exam]. He started crying. I asked him what was up and he said a teacher had frisked his body and taken his mobile phone from his underwear. I was furious and I asked him if he could identify the teacher. I said we should go back and find him," one of the protesting fathers, named as Mr Yin, said to the police later.

By late afternoon, the invigilators were trapped in a set of school offices, as groups of students pelted the windows with rocks. Outside, an angry mob of more than 2,000 people had gathered to vent its rage, smashing cars and chanting: "We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat."

According to the protesters, cheating is endemic in China, so being forced to sit the exams without help put their children at a disadvantage.
--Malcolm Moore, The Telegraph, on protesting for a level playing field

Haters gonna hate: Swan Lake edition

The première [of the ballet Swan Lake in 1877] was not well-received, with near unanimous criticism concerning the dancers, orchestra, and décor. Unfortunately Tchaikovsky's masterful score was lost in the debacle of the poor production, and though there were a few critics who recognised its virtues, most considered it to be far too complicated for ballet. Most of the critics were not themselves familiar with ballet or music but rather with spoken melodrama. Critics considered Tchaikovsky's music "too noisy, too 'Wagnerian' and too symphonic". ...

Though the original composition of Swan Lake was initially received negatively, with audiences and critics claiming that the music was too complex to be a ballet piece, currently the work is seen as one of Tchaikovsky’s most valuable, and surged him into the realm of the most important ballet composers. ...

On 26 April 1877 the prima ballerina of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre Anna Sobeshchanskaya made her début as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, and from the start she was completely dissatisfied with the production of the ballet, but most of all with Reisinger's choreography and Tchaikovsky's music. ...

[The 1879] production was far more well-received than the original, though it was by no means a great success. ...

Tchaikovsky died on 6 November 1893, just when plans to revive Swan Lake were beginning to come to fruition. ...

The première of the Petipa/Ivanov/Drigo [1895 production] was quite a success, though not as much of one as it has been in modern times. Most of the reviews in the St. Petersburg newspapers were positive.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Suspicious credit card charges for a billionaire

Mavs owner Mark Cuban had to pay for the bill when his team beat the Heat in the 2011 Finals.

[Miami nightclub] LIV charged Cuban $90,000 for a 15-liter bottle of Arnaud de Brignac champagne, also known as Ace of Spades. Cuban didn't seem to mind; he still left a 22 percent tip.

"We were in the back because his credit card was denied," [club owner] Grutman recalled. "So he called up the people at the Centurion Card and said, 'This is Mark Cuban. We just won the championship. Can I please spend some money?'"

Grutman said the purchase by the billionaire then was authorized.
--Darren Rovell,, on how Mark Cuban doesn't usually spend

Sunday, June 16, 2013

If Superman took advice from economists

...Superman is kind of bouncing around sporadically rescuing people from random accidents. And it's a Superman scenario we all know and love. ...

And yet is this a good use of Superman's time?

What we're talking about, essentially, is the world's greatest solar power cell. The earth's yellow sun gives his eyes the ability to boil water, and his arms and legs can exert enormous amounts of force. In other words, he could be rigging up a plan to generate enormous quantities of pollution-free electricity! ... Superman could take an enormous bite out of a world problem that's much more significant than the occasional plane crash or factory explosion. ...

UPDATE: Apparently I'm not the first person to think along these lines.
--Matthew Yglesias, Slate, on Superman's opportunity cost

Friday, June 14, 2013

Ability to delay gratification in preschool predicts BMI 30 years later

OBJECTIVE: To assess whether preschoolers' performance on a delay of gratification task would predict their body mass index (BMI) 30 years later.

STUDY DESIGN: In the late 1960s/early 1970s, 4-year-olds from a university-affiliated preschool completed the classic delay of gratification task. As part of a longitudinal study, a subset (n = 164; 57% women) were followed up approximately 30 years later and self-reported their height and weight. Data were analyzed using hierarchical regression.

RESULTS: Performance on the delay of gratification task accounted for a significant portion of variance in BMI (4%; P < .01), over and above the variance accounted for by sex alone (13%). Each additional minute that a preschooler delayed gratification predicted a 0.2-point reduction in BMI in adulthood.
--Tanya Schlam, Nicole Wilson, Yuichi Shoda, Walter Mischel, and Ozlem Ayduk, 2013, Journal of Pediatrics, on another benefit of being able to wait for the second marshmallow. Walter Mischel: 83 years old and still publishing research!

The realpolitik of arming the Syrian rebels

One of the president's staunchest supporters, Andrew Sullivan, says that this is a betrayal... If arming the rebels has any effect, he concludes, "it will be to draw out the conflict still longer and kill more people."

Writing at Foreign Policy, Dan Drezner argues that drawing out the killing is the whole point:
To your humble blogger, this is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that's been going on for the past two years. To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible. This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished ... at an appalling toll in lives lost. This policy doesn't require any course correction ... so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources. A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict. ...
This is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare. For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East.
--Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, on the new proxy war

How many days between workout sessions?

[T]here is some evidence that injury rates can rise after a multiday layoff, especially in activities requiring well-honed technique. A 2011 study of circus performers found that two-day breaks between performances lessened injury rates, but the rates rose again if performers rested for three days or more.

“The key is probably to not miss more than two days in a row,” Dr. Joyner says, “and skipping only one day is even better.”
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on injury-minimizing break lengths

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The San Antonio Spurs' secret weapon

The Miami Heat were heavy betting favorites over the San Antonio Spurs before the N.B.A. finals began, despite computer rankings that showed the teams to be relatively even.

There were several reasons for this. First, the Heat were scheduled to have home-court advantage in four of the seven games. Second, the Heat won more games during the regular season, 66 to San Antonio’s 58. (The reason the teams’ computer rankings were about equal is because San Antonio played a considerably tougher schedule.) ...

However, under their coach, Gregg Popovich, the Spurs take the notion of timing their players’ performances to the extreme, resting their veteran stars whenever they can during the regular season to preserve their fitness for the playoffs...

Tim Duncan, for example, averaged only 25 minutes per game during the regular season (accounting for the fact that he sat out 13 games entirely) – but has played 34 minutes per game in the playoffs. Tony Parker’s minutes have increased to 36 per game from 27, while Manu Ginobili is playing 25 minutes per game instead of just 17. Although Miami’s “Big Three” – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – are also playing more minutes per game, the increased playing time for the Spurs’ stars is far more dramatic. ...

The Spurs, however, are practically a whole different team during the postseason. On the basis of John Hollinger’s Wins Added statistic, I estimate that the playing time allocations the Spurs are using in the playoffs make them the equivalent of 14 wins stronger than their record suggested during the regular season — tantamount to adding a star player like Blake Griffin to their lineup.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Life insurance policies on children

It might shock the shoppers at Brooklyn Baby Expo, but the idea that everything children touch should be completely safe is a fairly new one. In previous generations — and for most people currently living in poorer countries — having children was an economic investment. Viviana Zelizer, a Princeton sociologist, in her 1985 classic, “Pricing the Priceless Child,” tracked how childhood in America was transformed between the 1880s and the 1930s. During this period, Zelizer says, parents stopped seeing their children as economic actors who were expected to contribute to household finances. Families used to routinely take out life insurance plans on their children to make up for lost wages in the not unlikely event of a child’s death.

But eventually, increased societal wealth, child-labor laws and the significant drop in child mortality led parents to reclassify their children, Zelizer explained, as “a separate sphere, untainted by economic concerns.” This came along with “an increasingly sentimentalized view of children,” in which their comfort and protection can be given no price. Now, for the first time in human history, having a child in the United States is a net financial cost for a parent.
--Adam Davidson, NYT Magazine, on insuring children through different means over time

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How the NSA could have stopped Paul Revere using metadata

London, 1772.

I have been asked by my superiors to give a brief demonstration of the surprising effectiveness of even the simplest techniques of the new-fangled Social Networke Analysis in the pursuit of those who would seek to undermine the liberty enjoyed by His Majesty’s subjects. This is in connection with the discussion of the role of “metadata” in certain recent events and the assurances of various respectable parties that the government was merely “sifting through this so-called metadata” and that the “information acquired does not include the content of any communications”. I will show how we can use this “metadata” to find key persons involved in terrorist groups operating within the Colonies at the present time. ...

The analysis in this report is based on information gathered by our field agent Mr David Hackett Fischer and published in an Appendix to his lengthy report to the government. ...

Rest assured that we only collected metadata on these people, and no actual conversations were recorded or meetings transcribed. All I know is whether someone was a member of an organization or not. Surely this is but a small encroachment on the freedom of the Crown’s subjects. ...

If you want to follow along yourself, there is a secret repository containing the data and the appropriate commands for your portable analytical engine.

Here is what the data look like. ...

The organizations are listed in the columns, and the names in the rows. As you can see, membership is represented by a “1”. So this Samuel Adams person (whoever he is), belongs to the North Caucus, the Long Room Club, the Boston Committee, and the London Enemies List. I must say, these organizational names sound rather belligerent. ...

I cannot show you the whole Person by Person matrix, because I would have to kill you. I jest, I jest! It is just because it is rather large. But here is a little snippet of it. At this point in the eighteenth century, a 254x254 matrix is what we call ”Bigge Data”. I have an upcoming EDWARDx talk about it. You should come. ...

You can see here that Mr Appleton and Mr John Adams were connected through both being a member of one group, while Mr John Adams and Mr Samuel Adams shared memberships in two of our seven groups. ...

Look at that person right in the middle there. Zoom in if you wish. He seems to bridge several groups in an unusual (though perhaps not unique) way. His name is Paul Revere.

Once again, I remind you that I know nothing of Mr Revere, or his conversations, or his habits or beliefs, his writings (if he has any) or his personal life. All I know is this bit of metadata, based on membership in some organizations. ...

...we could calculate a betweenness centrality measure for everyone in our matrix, which is roughly the number of “shortest paths” between any two people in our network that pass through the person of interest. It is a way of asking “If I have to get from person a to person z, how likely is it that the quickest way is through person x?” Here are the top betweenness scores for our list of suspected terrorists...

Perhaps I should not say “terrorists” so rashly. But you can see how tempting it is. Anyway, look—there he is again, this Mr Revere! Very interesting. ...

At the present time, alas, the technology required to automatically collect the required information is beyond our capacity. But I say again, if a mere scribe such as I—one who knows nearly nothing—can use the very simplest of these methods to pick the name of a traitor like Paul Revere from those of two hundred and fifty four other men, using nothing but a list of memberships and a portable calculating engine, then just think what weapons we might wield in the defense of liberty one or two centuries from now.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Edward Snowden's gutsy bets

Working with Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian the leaker has revealed himself, fully. Name, photographs, a lengthy interview and a video explaining his decisions. ...

But by revealing so much and then revealing himself, I do think he’s taken the story into a genuinely unprecedented place. He wasn’t caught, as Manning was. He’s freely revealed himself, albeit from foreign soil. And he’s made it possible for himself to speak directly to the American public before he gets taken into custody, if that happens. That puts a human dimension to this story that may lead in unexpected directions.

...let me say a bit more about Snowden’s decision to go to Hong Kong. ...

Even though I’m tentatively willing to accept Snowden’s claim that he is doing this only because he thinks it’s right, he still seems to be hoping to evade the criminal consequences by defecting to China, a key US rival and one that comes up rather short of being the kind of libertarian and transparent society Snowden apparently believes in.

Look, I get it. He doesn’t want to go to prison. I don’t blame him. He says in the article that his highest hope is get asylum in Iceland. I can pretty much guarantee you that that’s not going to happen. A small country that wants to be close friends of the United States is not going to do that. I could see arguments for Russia or Venezuela or perhaps Iran. But of all the places where you might have a shot at not getting extradited, China’s not a bad choice. Hong Kong might even give you the best of both worlds, hosted by repressive government which is a US rival and yet living in a city with Western standards of openness, wealth, etc. ...

I’ve seen people linking to the current US-Hong Kong extradition treaty. Call me naive but I think this is going to come down to how Beijing wants to play this. If they don’t want a fight over this, Snowden’s toast. If they like the optics of it, I don’t think it matters what that extradition treaty says. China’s a big enough player and the US has enough other fish to fry with the Chinese, that the US is not going to put the bilateral relationship on the line over this guy. And the Chinese might relish granting asylum to an American running from the claws of US ‘state repression’.
--Josh Marshall, TalkingPointsMemo, on the best refuge for a U.S. leaker

A real-life Jason Bourne

[NSA whistleblower] Edward Snowden was interviewed over several days in Hong Kong by Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. ...

Q: What do you think is going to happen to you?

A: "Nothing good."

Q: Why Hong Kong?

A: "I think it is really tragic that an American has to move to a place that has a reputation for less freedom. Still, Hong Kong has a reputation for freedom in spite of the People's Republic of China. It has a strong tradition of free speech."


Q: Is it possible to put security in place to protect against state surveillance?

A: "You are not even aware of what is possible. The extent of their capabilities is horrifying. We can plant bugs in machines. Once you go on the network, I can identify your machine. You will never be safe whatever protections you put in place."


Q: Washington-based foreign affairs analyst Steve Clemons said he overheard at the capital's Dulles airport four men discussing an intelligence conference they had just attended. Speaking about the leaks, one of them said, according to Clemons, that both the reporter and leaker should be "disappeared". How do you feel about that?

A: "Someone responding to the story said 'real spies do not speak like that'. Well, I am a spy and that is how they talk. Whenever we had a debate in the office on how to handle crimes, they do not defend due process – they defend decisive action. They say it is better to kick someone out of a plane than let these people have a day in court. It is an authoritarian mindset in general."

Q: Do you think you are probably going to end up in prison?

A: "I could not do this without accepting the risk of prison. You can't come up against the world's most powerful intelligence agencies and not accept the risk. If they want to get you, over time they will."

Q: How to you feel now, almost a week after the first leak?

A: "I think the sense of outrage that has been expressed is justified. It has given me hope that, no matter what happens to me, the outcome will be positive for America. I do not expect to see home again, though that is what I want."

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The decline in U.S. institutional quality

  • 433: Total number of days it takes in the U.S. to start a business, register a property, pay taxes, get an import and export license and enforce a contract
  • 368: Total number of days it took to do the same in 2006
  • 7: U.S. ranking, out of 144 countries, on the World Economic Forum's 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Index
  • 1: U.S. ranking on the 2008-2009 Global Competitiveness Index
  • 33: U.S. ranking for its legal system and property rights in 2010 on the Fraser Institute's Economic Freedom index, out of 144 countries
  • 9: U.S. ranking for its legal system and property rights in 2000
Sources: 'Doing Business'; World Economic Forum; Fraser Institute
--Niall Ferguson, WSJ, on bureaucratic decline

What is the price of freedom?

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? ...

What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, PATRIOT Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it?
--David Foster Wallace, The Atlantic, on the trade-off between liberty and security

Friday, June 7, 2013

A true love for science

Toward the end, in 2003, when [the great immunologist Charles Janeway] was struggling with lymphoma, I remember, we still had these conversations. At one point, I went to see him at Yale-New Haven Hospital. He’d been unconscious for a few days. Suddenly, he was sitting up. The very first thing he asked was about some study that was done in immunology: “What do you think of that result?”
--Yale immunologist Ruslan Medzhitov, NYT, on his mentor Charles Janeway

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Monopoly games among experts take only 60 to 90 minutes

And besides, a game of Monopoly among smart, experienced players usually takes between 60 and 90 minutes. Yes, you read that right. Games among “amateur” players often extend far longer for a variety of reasons:

People wait too long to trade monopolies. There’s a train of thought that once you give someone a monopoly, you’ve given them the game. But trading someone the last piece of their monopoly for cash or other valuable assets that could lead to your own monopoly is not such a bad move, especially if you leave your opponent without a lot of money to build up their new monopoly.

People wait too long to build up monopolies. Once you get a monopoly, you should usually build it up as quickly as possible with any spare cash, even mortgaging any unessential properties to increase your purchasing power. This is especially important if you can get to the coveted three-house level, where rent really skyrockets.
--Jim Pagels, Slate, on optimal Monopoly strategy

Monday, June 3, 2013

Sunscreen really does slow skin aging

People who diligently use sunscreen every day can slow or even prevent for a time the development of wrinkles and sagging skin, a new study found. Although dermatologists have long told people to use sunscreen to prevent aging, this is the first research to show an actual effect on the appearance of skin, researchers said.

The study involved 900 white people ages 25 to 55 in Australia, where intense sun exposure is a fact of life. Most had fair skin, and nearly all burned in the sun. Most were using sunscreen at least some of the time, and two-thirds wore hats in the sun.

But researchers wanted to find out what would happen to skin if people tried to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen all the time over four and a half years. Half of the study participants were told to continue their usual practices, and the other half to slather on sunscreen daily.

The result, the researchers reported on Monday in The Annals of Internal Medicine, is that those assigned to use sunscreen every day had noticeably more resilient and smoother skin than those assigned to continue their usual practices.

The study also included nearly 900 people who were randomly assigned to take beta carotene, a nutritional supplement, or a placebo to see if the supplement prevented skin aging. It did not. ...

The study does not answer the question of whether people older than 55 would also have more youthful skin if they used sunscreen, Dr. Green cautioned. After 55, she said, aging’s effects on skin start to predominate. And the effects of ultraviolet light on skin are cumulative.

Why TED talks are so good

Over the years, we’ve sought to develop a process for helping inexperienced presenters to frame, practice, and deliver talks that people enjoy watching. It typically begins six to nine months before the event, and involves cycles of devising (and revising) a script, repeated rehearsals, and plenty of fine-tuning. ...

On the basis of this experience, I’m convinced that giving a good talk is highly coachable. In a matter of hours, a speaker’s content and delivery can be transformed from muddled to mesmerizing. ...

Many of the best talks have a narrative structure that loosely follows a detective story. The speaker starts out by presenting a problem and then describes the search for a solution. There’s an “aha” moment, and the audience’s perspective shifts in a meaningful way.

If a talk fails, it’s almost always because the speaker didn’t frame it correctly, misjudged the audience’s level of interest, or neglected to tell a story. Even if the topic is important, random pontification without narrative is always deeply unsatisfying. There’s no progression, and you don’t feel that you’re learning. ...

Once you’ve got the framing down, it’s time to focus on your delivery. There are three main ways to deliver a talk. You can read it directly off a script or a teleprompter. You can develop a set of bullet points that map out what you’re going to say in each section rather than scripting the whole thing word for word. Or you can memorize your talk, which entails rehearsing it to the point where you internalize every word—verbatim.

My advice: Don’t read it, and don’t use a teleprompter. ...

Many of our best and most popular TED Talks have been memorized word for word. If you’re giving an important talk and you have the time to do this, it’s the best way to go. ...

The biggest mistake we see in early rehearsals is that people move their bodies too much. They sway from side to side, or shift their weight from one leg to the other. People do this naturally when they’re nervous, but it’s distracting and makes the speaker seem weak. Simply getting a person to keep his or her lower body motionless can dramatically improve stage presence. There are some people who are able to walk around a stage during a presentation, and that’s fine if it comes naturally. But the vast majority are better off standing still and relying on hand gestures for emphasis.

Perhaps the most important physical act onstage is making eye contact. Find five or six friendly-looking people in different parts of the audience and look them in the eye as you speak. Think of them as friends you haven’t seen in a year, whom you’re bringing up to date on your work. ...

By now most people have heard the advice about PowerPoint: Keep it simple; don’t use a slide deck as a substitute for notes (by, say, listing the bullet points you’ll discuss—those are best put on note cards); and don’t repeat out loud words that are on the slide. Not only is reciting slides a variation of the teleprompter problem—“Oh, no, she’s reading to us, too!”—but information is interesting only once, and hearing and seeing the same words feels repetitive. That advice may seem universal by now, but go into any company and you’ll see presenters violating it every day.
--TED curator Chris Anderson, Harvard Business Review, on the hard work of prepping good talks