Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How many terrorist plots are brewing right now?

In late 2012, I published a study in the journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism that set out to estimate how many jihadi plots are in the works and how long it takes would-be terrorists to plan them. ... On average, at any one time there are fewer than three hidden terror plots being planned across the country.

How is it possible to count hidden terror plots? First, I reviewed hundreds of pages of indictments, criminal complaints, the testimony of FBI special agents and informants, and other court documents and reports associated with terror plots since 9/11. I then analyzed them through the lens of queueing theory, which is often used to assess the efficiency of customer-service call centers. Comparing terrorism to call centers isn’t as odd as it might sound. In my research, the plots were the “customers” and the local police, FBI, or even National Security Agency (NSA) were providing the “service” of foiling them. I treated a successful plot the same way someone studying a call center would treat a customer hanging up before being helped.

For some, three terror plots will sound like a lot —any death from a terrorist attack is tragic. But I would guess that many might feel a measure of relief from the number; I know I did. ...

Recently, the former coordinator of the UN team that monitors Al Qaeda and the Taliban said that, between 2007 and 2011, your chances of being killed in a terrorist attack were about 1 in 20 million. You have about a 1-in-126,000 lifetime risk of being killed by lightning. ...

[W]e lose many more lives to heart disease and cancer, each of which ultimately has about a 1-in-7 chance of killing you, than to terrorism.

We show our national priorities by how we spend our money: The Department of Homeland Security gets about $60 billion for its annual budget; the National Institutes of Health spends some $2 billion a year on cardiovascular research and $6 billion on cancer. ...

In June, after Edward Snowden’s revelations, the NSA’s director said sweeping surveillance programs like PRISM helped disrupt more than 50 terror plots, including 10 targeting the United States. Many raised doubts about the claims — especially that the NSA played a key role in uncovering a 2009 plan to bomb the New York subway system — but the rough number of plots was comparable to what I estimated, which makes the NSA’s assertions seem credible to me.
--Yale SOM professor Edward H. Kaplan, Boston Globe Magazine, on counting the uncountable

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The case for investing 2% of your portfolio in gold

I dived into the small academic literature on gold as a portfolio investment. Here is what I learned: ...

In a recent paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Claude B. Erb and Campbell R. Harvey estimated that the value of gold makes up about 9 percent of the world’s market capitalization of stocks, bonds and gold. Much of the world’s gold, however, is out of the hands of private investors. About half of it is in the form of jewelry, and an additional 20 percent is held by central banks. This means that if you were to hold the available market portfolio, your asset allocation to gold would be about 2 percent. ...

In another recent N.B.E.R. paper, the economists Robert J. Barro and Sanjay P. Misra reported that from 1836 to 2011, gold earned an average annual inflation-adjusted return of 1.1 percent. By contrast, they estimated long-term returns to be 1.0 percent for Treasury bills, 2.9 percent for long-term bonds and 7.4 percent for stocks.

Mr. Erb and Mr. Harvey presented a novel way of gauging gold’s return in the very long run: they compared what the Roman emperor Augustus paid his soldiers, measured in units of gold, to what we pay the military today.

They report remarkably little change over 2,000 years. The annual cost of one Roman legionary plus one Roman centurion was 40.9 ounces of gold. The annual cost of one United States Army private plus one Army captain has recently been 38.9 ounces of gold. ...

Gold may offer an average return near that of Treasury bills, but its volatility is closer to that of the stock market. ...

Mr. Barro and Mr. Misra report that since 1975, the volatility of gold’s return, as measured by standard deviation, has been about 50 percent greater than the volatility of stocks.

Because gold is a small asset class with meager returns and high volatility, an investor may be tempted to avoid it altogether. But not so fast. One last fact may turn the tables. ...

An important element of an investment portfolio is diversification, and here is where gold really shines — pun intended — because its price is largely uncorrelated with stocks and bonds. Despite gold’s volatility, adding a little to a standard portfolio can reduce its overall risk.
--Greg Mankiw, NYT, on becoming a mild gold bug

Friday, July 26, 2013

Fooling baseball umpires is a repeatable skill for catchers

Since the start of the 2008 season, 13.4% of all pitches thrown to [Tampa Bay Rays catcher] Molina that were outside the strike zone have been called as strikes, which is by far the highest rate among regular catchers. That is according to an analysis of pitch tracking data by TruMedia Networks, an analytics firm used by 10 major-league teams. ...

The most influential work on the subject was written by Mike Fast for Baseball Prospectus in September 2011. Using pitch location data, Fast determined the number of extra strikes each catcher got over a five-year period. Based on the estimated run value of each extra strike, he found that Molina had saved his teams 73 runs, more than any other catcher despite playing less often than many.

Two months later, the Rays, whose perennially low payroll leaves them ever in search of bargains, snatched up Molina for a mere $1.5 million. "We've placed more value on that skill," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. Two months after Molina signed with the Rays, the Houston Astros hired Fast to work in their front office. ...

Framing pitches, Molina said, starts with knowing each pitcher. How does each of his pitches typically move? Knowing each umpire's tendencies is also important. Is he known for being more lenient at one particular edge of the zone?

All of that information affects how a catcher sets up for a pitch. The idea is to make every pitch seem as if it went exactly where the catcher was expecting it to go.

"It's all about limiting the movement to the ball, staying quiet with your hands and not moving at all," Stewart said. "Anytime the umpire sees the catcher move a lot, they tend to think he had to move a lot because the ball was out of the strike zone."

How much of a difference can an elite pitch framer make? Consider this: Since 2008, over the same period Molina has excelled, Minnesota Twins catcher Ryan Doumit has been among the worst framers in the game, getting strikes called on only 8.1% of pitches outside the zone, according to TruMedia's analysis.

The 5.3% difference between him and Molina amounts to around three bonus strikes per game, but that only accounts for part of the value of pitch framing. The other part is not losing legitimate strikes. Only 72% of strikes taken by the batter with Doumit behind the plate are actually called for strikes, compared with 83% for Molina.
--Brian Costa, WSJ, on the importance of framing

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Southwest weak, Asiana strong

On Monday, a Southwest Airlines 737 suffered a collapse of its nose gear upon landing at La Guardia airport. Ten people were injured. ...

But in truth, while landing gear malfunctions are sometimes splendidly telegenic, rarely if ever are they going to end in catastrophe. Trust me, the need to circle while pilots troubleshoot a gear problem, as happens every so often, is no reason to go scribbling your last will and testament on the back of a barf bag. ...

[P]assengers have said that members of the cabin crew were crying and unresponsive.
--Patrick Smith, Slate, on weak sauce

The evacuation of Asiana Flight 214 began badly. Even before the mangled jetliner began filling with smoke, two evacuation slides on the doors inflated inside the cabin instead of outside, pinning two flight attendants to the floor.

Cabin manager Lee Yoon-hye, apparently the last person to leave the burning plane, said crew members deflated the slides with axes to rescue their colleagues, one of whom seemed to be choking beneath the weight of a slide. ...

Lee herself worked to put out fires and usher passengers to safety despite a broken tailbone that kept her standing throughout a news briefing with mostly South Korean reporters at a San Francisco hotel. She said she didn’t know how badly she was hurt until a doctor at a San Francisco hospital later treated her. ...

When Lee saw that the plane was burning after the crash, she was calm. “I was only thinking that I should put it out quickly. I didn’t have time to feel that this fire was going to hurt me,” she said. ...

Lee said she was the last person off the plane and that she tried to approach the back of the aircraft before she left to double-check that no one was left inside. But when she moved to the back of the plane, a cloud of black, toxic smoke made it impossible. ...

The San Francisco fire chief, Joanne Hayes-White, praised Lee, whom she talked to after the evacuation.

“She was so composed I thought she had come from the terminal,” Hayes-White told reporters in a clip posted to YouTube. “She wanted to make sure that everyone was off. ... She was a hero.”
--Associated Press on a study in contrasts

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How to repel mosquitos without chemicals or a net

Over the Fourth of July holiday, my wife and I joined some friends for a barbecue in their backyard. ...

On a low table, they set up a small electric fan, perhaps 12 inches high, that swept back and forth, sending a gentle breeze across the grassy area where people were sitting.

That was it. No citronella candles, no bug zappers, no DEET, nothing expensive or high-tech. Yet amazingly, it worked. As far as I could tell, no mosquitoes flew into the vicinity of the simulated wind; nobody was bitten. ...

Outsmarting bugs with a fan may be a poorly known strategy. But the method, it turns out, is endorsed by the American Mosquito Control Association, a nonprofit group based in Mount Laurel, N.J., that publishes a journal bearing its name.

“Mosquitoes are relatively weak fliers,” it says on its Web site, “so placing a large fan on your deck can provide a low-tech solution.” The group says mosquitoes fly slowly — from roughly 1 to 1.5 miles per hour, depending on the species.

Scientists have identified another factor. The breeze from a fan disperses the human emanations that allow female mosquitoes to zero in on us. ...

As for other popular remedies, the mosquito control association says repellent-infused mosquito coils provide only “some protection” at best, and it dismisses the candles with a shrug, saying their mild repellent action offers no significant advantage over other candles that give off lots of smoke.
--William Broad, NYT, on the power of wind

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Consolation for Harvard Quadlings

As an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1990s, Dr. [Elizabeth] Dunn, the happiness expert, experienced the annual ritual, akin to the Hogwarts Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter series, whereby first-year students are randomly assigned to spend the rest of their college years in one of 12 dormitories or houses. In a longitudinal study published in 2003 with Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia, and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard, both of whom are known for their research on the link between decision-making and well-being, she found that freshmen expected to be much happier living in one of the more desirable — handsome, centrally located — of the 12. But those who landed in plum surroundings ended up no happier than students in less desirable houses.

It is difficult to make a connection between the happiness of Harvard undergrads and real estate contentment elsewhere. But the study indicated that by placing so much weight on the physical characteristics of the houses, including location, room size and architectural appeal, the students overlooked what ended up contributing most to their happiness — the quality of their social life.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Glasses that cure colorblindness

O2Amp makes tinted-lens glasses for the medical profession. ...

But the purplish pair, the Oxy-Iso ($302), has an unintended side effect, the Web site says: they “may cure red-green colorblindness.”

I just about hit the ceiling when I read that. Like about 8 percent of the male population, I’m colorblind; I have severe red-green colorblindness. ...

Unfortunately, the Oxy-Iso glasses did nothing for me. I still failed the Ishihara tests.

“We do have about one or two in 20 that don’t get any benefit, and it’s due to their colorblindness being too severe,” the inventor wrote to me. “What our technology does is amplify weak red-green sensitivity. But if there’s basically no red-green sensitivity at all, then there’s nothing to amplify.”

If the Amazon reviews are any indication, these glasses do permit many colorblind buyers to distinguish colors for the first time.

But the company notes that the Oxy-Iso filter amplifies the red-green discriminations “at the expense of their intact yellow-blue discrimination. In a sense, the Oxy-Iso spreads the color confusion more evenly around the color wheel.” That’s why you shouldn’t wear them for driving, because “yellow lights will become nearly invisible.”

But if you’re red-green colorblind, and it’s worth $300 to be able to distinguish colors for the first time, you should try them. You get your money back if they don’t help you.
--David Pogue, NYT, on better seeing through technology

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Can the President unilaterally refuse to enforce a law?

President Obama's decision last week to suspend the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act may be welcome relief to businesses affected by this provision, but it raises grave concerns about his understanding of the role of the executive in our system of government.

Article II, Section 3, of the Constitution states that the president "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." This is a duty, not a discretionary power. ...

This matter—the limits of executive power—has deep historical roots. During the period of royal absolutism, English monarchs asserted a right to dispense with parliamentary statutes they disliked. King James II's use of the prerogative was a key grievance that lead to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. ...

The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which advises the president on legal and constitutional issues, has repeatedly opined that the president may decline to enforce laws he believes are unconstitutional. But these opinions have always insisted that the president has no authority, as one such memo put it in 1990, to "refuse to enforce a statute he opposes for policy reasons."

Attorneys general under Presidents Carter, Reagan, both Bushes and Clinton all agreed on this point. ...

In 1998, the Supreme Court struck down a congressional grant of line-item veto authority to the president to cancel spending items in appropriations. The reason? The only constitutional power the president has to suspend or repeal statutes is to veto a bill or propose new legislation. ...

This is not the first time Mr. Obama has suspended the operation of statutes by executive decree, but it is the most barefaced. ...

Democrats too may acquiesce in Mr. Obama's action, as they have his other aggressive assertions of executive power. Yet what will they say when a Republican president decides that the tax rate on capital gains is a drag on economic growth and instructs the IRS not to enforce it?

And what of immigration reform? Why bother debating the details of a compromise if future presidents will feel free to disregard those parts of the statute that they don't like?

The courts cannot be counted on to intervene in cases like this. As the Supreme Court recently held in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the same-sex marriage case involving California's Proposition 8, private citizens do not have standing in court to challenge the executive's refusal to enforce laws, unless they have a personal stake in the matter. If a president declines to enforce tax laws, immigration laws, or restrictions on spending—to name a few plausible examples—it is very likely that no one will have standing to sue.
--Former Tenth Circuit judge Michael McConnell, WSJ, on why we should worry about the employee mandate delay

Monday, July 8, 2013

Airplane evacuation speed

Airplanes are designed to be evacuated in just 90 seconds, even when half the doors and escape slides are inoperative or unavailable.
--Rebecca Smith, Jon Ostrower, and Andy Pasztor, WSJ, on something you wouldn't guess from how long it takes to board a plane. HT: J8L

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Even billionaires use frequent flyer miles to save money

We switched to United so we could use miles for my family’s tickets.
--Sheryl Sandberg on how she narrowly avoided being on the ill-fated Asiana flight

Harvard class of 1998 5th and 15th reunion survey results

Some highlights, based on 20% response rate in 2003 and 10% response rate in 2013 (so caveat emptor!):

Working in the career/field you envisioned at graduation?

Career satisfaction:
Hours per week spent working/studying:

Those whom we feel most connected to:

Political orientation:

Want current/future kids to attend Harvard?
How happy are you with your personal/family choices?

What makes your life richer and fuller?
Notions of personal success:

Friday, July 5, 2013

Where is trust high in the U.S.?

Darker shades indicate higher percent of people in the General Social Survey from 1974 to 1994 who responded, "most people can be trusted." Source: Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara, 2002, "Who trusts others?" Journal of Public Economics.

Why don't classical piano competitions identify superstars?

What would it mean for an artistic competition to "work"? Van Cliburn was catapulted to world-wide celebrity when he won Russia's International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, and since then his victory has been cited as the quintessential example of how such events can make a crucial difference in the lives of gifted artists. But Mr. Cliburn retired from the concert stage two decades later, burned out at the unripe age of 43, and most observers put much of the blame for his disintegration on the unnatural effects of his having become an overnight superstar.

Even more to the point, Mr. Cliburn is the only classical musician to whom such a thing has happened. It's been a half-century since any of the first-prize winners of the Queen Elisabeth Competition went on to have indisputably major solo careers. And Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, launched in 1962 in honor of the Texas-born pianist, is notorious for picking gold medalists who fail to make it into the top tier of renown.

Why are music competitions so bad at singling out potentially major artists? Because the winners are chosen by juries. A jury is at bottom a committee—and a committee, as John le CarrĂ© famously said in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," is "an animal with four back legs." They exist to generate and perpetuate consensus views. They can't make great art, and it's all but impossible for them to agree on great artists. Such disagreement inevitably leads to compromise, which more often than not produces B-plus winners who please all of the jurors but thrill none of them.
--Terry Teachout, WSJ, on the downside of consensus

The rise, fall, and rise of tattoos on women

For the first time, according to a 2012 Harris Poll, American women are more likely to be tattooed than men. Some 23 percent of women have tattoos; 19 percent of men do. They’re no longer rebel emblems, [author Margot] Mifflin notes. They’re a mainstream fashion choice. ...

“Bodies of Subversion” is delicious social history. Tattooing was an upper-class social fad in Europe in the late 19th century. Winston Churchill’s mother had a tattoo of a snake eating its tail (the symbol of eternity) on her wrist. The fad spread to America. In 1897, Ms. Mifflin writes, The New York World estimated that 75 percent of American society women were tattooed, usually in places easily covered by clothing.

By the 1920s, tattooed women were mostly to be seen in freak shows and in circus acts, where they could make more money than tattooed men. They offered, the author avers, “a peep show within a freak show.”

Tattoos lost their appeal for nearly everyone shortly after World War II. One reason was because “tattoos perpetrated in concentration camps had added a ghastly new chapter to tattoo history.”

Ms. Mifflin’s story spins forward through the tattoo revival of the 1970s, when women with a tattoo or two began to shake the stigma that they were sexually available. She moves attentively through the 1980s and ’90s, the era that gave us Dennis Rodman, the lower-back tattoos now known as tramp stamps and a kudzu forest of copycat tribal tats.
--Dwight Garner, NYT, on mainstream rebellion

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Why no toothpaste in hotels?

Even the most egregious fleabags will provide a few skinny bars of soap and a flagon of shampoo. Luxury hotels sprinkle extras on the bathroom counter like confetti: a nail file, a facial towelette, a shower puff, a mending kit, a shoe mitten. And what about the toothpaste—that most indispensible tool of anyone’s toilette, a product used by virtually every hotel guest in America at least twice per day? Why should it be easier to sew a button to your cardigan or polish your loafers than it is to brush your teeth? Why have hotels forsaken oral hygiene? ...

I asked this question of executives at 18 North American hotel chains, and most provided the same pair of explanations. First, they said their in-room amenities are chosen based on extensive consumer research. In other words, if the hotels aren’t giving you toothpaste, it’s because you don’t really want toothpaste. ... (Update, July 3: There is at least one major exception to the rule. A Hyatt spokesperson reports that all of that company's hotels in North America offer in-room tubes of Aquafresh toothpaste.)

The second explanation took the form of an appeal to hospitality norms. Several sources said that their company takes its cues from rivals. “Many of our competitors do not include toothpaste as a standard amenity,” pleaded brand director Debbie Grant of InterContinental Hotels & Resorts. Others shrugged and pointed to the independent companies that assign standard ratings for quality of service. If the ratings don’t require it, the hotels won’t acquire it.

Sure enough, the hotel-ratings firms make very precise toiletry demands, yet as a rule omit any reference to dental care products. ...

“The diamond ratings come from what we typically see,” a AAA employee told me. “Toothpaste is not something they typically put out.”

“So you don’t give ratings based on toothpaste because hotels don’t give toothpaste to their guests?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“But the hotels told me the same thing—they said they don’t give toothpaste because of your ratings.” ...

Hotel executives assured me that the price of toothpaste is generally “in line” with those of other amenities. “Toothpaste is not a cost-prohibitive addition,” said Sweeting of the Four Seasons. ...

So if we can’t blame the missing toothpaste on the stinginess of hotel executives, the dereliction of the ratings firms, or the finicky tastes of travelers, then what’s left? Only the gloomy notion that we might all be equally to blame. Hotels could give us toothpaste but they don’t. No one knows why, and no one cares. It’s how things have always been, and how they’ll always be.
--Daniel Engber, Slate, on a market failure