Wednesday, December 31, 2014

How many Americans believe the Christmas story?

But despite the enormous growth in the nation’s diversity over the past 225 years, Christian conviction remains pervasive.

If you doubt this, take a look at the survey the Pew Research Center released without much fanfare two weeks ago. Among its principal findings: 73% of U.S. adults believe that Jesus was born to a virgin; 81%, that the baby Jesus was laid in a manger; 75%, that wise men guided by a star brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; and 74%, that an angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds. Fully 65% of Americans believe all four of these elements of the Christmas story, while only 14% believe none of them.

Although Republicans are more likely to espouse these beliefs than are Democrats and Independents, each group endorses them by a two-thirds majority or more. As expected, conservatives are more likely to espouse them than are moderates and liberals. But here again, majorities of each group endorse each belief. Among liberals, 54% profess a belief in the virgin birth.

What about the growth of secular thought in young Americans? As the Pew report dryly notes, there “is little sign of a consistent generation gap on these questions.” That’s an understatement. Seventy percent of adults age 18 to 29 believe that Jesus was born to a virgin; 69% that an angel announced his birth; 80% that he was laid in a manger; and 74% that the wise men made their gift-laden trek.

To be sure, the most-educated Americans are less likely to profess belief in the Christmas story. But even among adults with postgraduate degrees, 53% affirm the virgin birth of Jesus, with comparable or larger majorities for the story’s other elements.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The NSA burying admission of wrongdoing on Christmas Eve

The National Security Agency today released reports on intelligence collection that may have violated the law or U.S. policy over more than a decade, including unauthorized surveillance of Americans’ overseas communications.

The NSA, responding to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, released a series of required quarterly and annual reports to the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board that cover the period from the fourth quarter of 2001 to the second quarter of 2013.

The heavily-redacted reports include examples of data on Americans being e-mailed to unauthorized recipients, stored in unsecured computers and retained after it was supposed to be destroyed, according to the documents. They were posted on the NSA’s website at around 1:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Einstein was no saint

Scientist Albert Einstein was a bad businessman, a prodigious lover with a string of mistresses and an absent father plagued by doubt about his relationship with his two sons. ...

He became involved with Elsa, a cousin, in 1912 when he was still married to his first wife Mileva, a fellow scientist with whom he had two boys, Hans Albert and Eduard. Before they married, they also had a daughter, Lieserl, who was given up for adoption.

Einstein divorced Mileva and married Elsa in 1919, but within four years he was already involved with Bette Neumann, his secretary who was also the niece of one of his friends. Many more liasons followed.

The letters reveal how one of his women, a beautiful Berlin socialite called Ethel Michanowski, followed him to Oxford, only to discover that he was involved with a another woman.

Einstein discussed his extra-marital affairs openly in letters to his daughter and his wife. ...

Einstein's distance from his two sons after the divorce from Mileva clearly troubled him. He writes how much he enjoys taking the boys on holiday but at times expresses despair at his younger son Eduard, who suffered from schizophrenia. On more than one occasion he suggests it would have been better if Eduard had never been born. ...

The divorce settlement with Mileva contained a unique clause, in which Einstein agreed that should he win the Nobel Prize he would deposit the money in a Swiss bank account in Mileva's name and she could use the interest to finance the upbringing of the children. Einstein failed to fulfill this promise, and Mileva always felt betrayed.

The newly-released [in 2006] papers reveal that he invested three-quarters of the money, some $24,000, in long-term bonds via the Ladenburg and Thalmann Bank in New York. Mileva was supposed to receive the interest. But the value of the bonds were wiped out in the American Depression of the 1930s and Mileva's income dried up.
--Matthew Kalman, Daily Mail, on Einstein's moral failings

Monday, December 22, 2014

Late-age motherhood is nothing new

The shift toward late motherhood – commonly defined as motherhood after 35 – is often presented as a story of progress and technological liberation from the biological clock. ...

While this triumphal narrative contains a few grains of truth, it is as simplistic as it is satisfying. History shows us that the “best age” to have a child is very much a product of the cultural and economic moment, not a just dictate of biology that we need to escape. ...

In fact, it was only after World War II that early parenthood became a cultural norm. A strong economy and widespread embrace of domesticity encouraged both early marriage and childbearing, resulting in a “baby boom” that lasted almost two decades. ...

The roots of our modern discussion on delayed parenthood lie in the 1970s, when the average age at first birth began to increase dramatically. The number of women having their first child between the ages of 30 and 34 almost doubled, from 7.3 births per 1,000 women in 1970 to 12.8 per 1,000 in 1980. But the 1980 figures mirror those recorded between 1920 and 1940, where the number of first births among women ages 30 to 34 averaged 12.1 births per 1,000 women.
--Jenna Healey, Washington Post, on the cyclicality of reproductive history

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The gift-giving of Robert Barro

“The Deadweight Loss of Christmas” is the sort of academic paper that makes ordinary people think economists are kind of crazy.

"I find that holiday gift giving destroys between one-third and one-tenth of the value of gifts,” proclaimed Joel Waldfogel, then an economics professor at Yale, in the 1993 paper. He estimated that ill-chosen gifts caused between $4 billion and $13 billion a year in economic waste; for comparison, he cited an estimate that put economic costs of the income tax at $50 billion. ...

But one thing I learned from growing up around economists is they do not always live up to their provocations. For example, my economist father, who taught me as a young child that voting is irrational because your odds of affecting the electoral outcome are infinitesimal, votes. And Mr. Waldfogel, who went on to write a book called “Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays,” actually does buy presents at the holidays, at least for some people. ...

Since it’s almost Christmas, I called up the economist I know best to get his perspective on gift giving: My father, an economics professor at Harvard. My dad says his approach to gifts is to try to buy something that the recipient didn’t know he or she wanted. And the Robert Barro record on this is instructive, because it is mixed.

Sometimes there are big hits: This Christmas he found a book of John Wesley sermons published in 1825, a perfect gift for his wife, Rachel, who is deeply interested in the history of Methodism, but most likely would not have found the item herself.

On the other hand, let’s evaluate the box of fancy chocolates he and Rachel sent me for Christmas this year.

There are three ways to evaluate this gift. The first level of analysis is that I’m on a diet and certainly would not have bought the chocolate myself, which suggests this was an example of what Mr. Waldfogel warned us about: gift mismatch leading to deadweight loss.

The second level of analysis is that I’ve already eaten half the box, which demonstrates my revealed preference for chocolate, and shows my father achieved exactly what he set out to do: He identified an item I would not have bought for myself but apparently wanted.

The third level of analysis considers the fact that I now feel I should not have eaten the chocolates, or at least not so many of them in two days. ...

My father, who is not a behavioral economist, would surely reject this last analysis and say if I ate the chocolates, that must have been the rational thing for me to do; therefore, the chocolates were a great gift. ...

It’s true that Americans have taken to gift cards...

But not all economists agree that this is a valuable technological advance.

“It seems clear to me that a gift certificate is inferior to money,” says my dad. Which means there is more chocolate in my future.
--Josh Barro, The Upshot, on revealed preferences of economist fathers

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Left-handed people make less money

Lefties score lower on cognitive tests and are 50 percent more likely to have behavioral problems and learning disabilities (such as dyslexia). Also, people suffering from schizophrenia are more likely to be left-handed than are people without the condition. ...

In the Fall 2014 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Joshua Goodman, an assistant professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, has a paper that aligns the research with the documented obstacles that left-handed people face. In the paper, “The Wages of Sinistrality: Handedness, Brain Structure, and Human Capital Accumulation,” Goodman identifies statistical shortcomings in previous studies of left-handedness and introduces other figures for analytical poking and prodding. He analyzed five longitudinal data sets (three from the U.S. and two from the U.K.) that have been tracking the lives of babies for decades.

His conclusion? Left-handed people earn significantly less than right-handed people.

Lefties’ median earnings are about 10 percent lower than those of righties, which is the same magnitude as the salary hit that comes with spending one fewer year in school. (Speaking of education, left-handed people are also less likely to complete college.) ...

What could explain this discrepancy? It would seem that lefties might earn less because they’re at a physical disadvantage when faced with objects made for righties. But that doesn’t seem quite right, as Goodman found that lefties are more likely to work in manual jobs. Instead, it’s probably because of the cognitive problems that, statistically speaking, are more likely to affect lefties than righties.

Determining why those disadvantages arise is more difficult—there doesn’t seem to be one clear cause of left-handedness. It would appear that the trait is at least partially genetic. A child is 50 percent more likely to be left-handed if his or her mother is, and the trait might be derived from the structure of a baby’s brain. But there are other, non-genetic explanations that account for these facts: Children with left-handed mothers might just be more likely to imitate them, and a stressful prenatal environment might force some left-hemisphere functions to migrate to the right side of the brain in utero. Either way—nature or nurture—handedness is a trait that, from the time of birth, appears to have long-term effects on personal economic well-being.
--Joe Pinsker, The Atlantic, on the right-handed world

NFL defensive players should lateral more

American football as we know it today is a derivative of rugby, a game which still has no room for Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and the forward pass. And in today’s NFL, there no longer seems to be room for the backwards pass. ...

We found 77 instances from 2002-2013 in which the defense lateraled after a turnover, and the vast majority were successful. For this study, we ignored offensive laterals because most occurred on swing passes, reverses, or flea flickers, which are all in the playbook, and the rest showed up in desperation razzle-dazzle attempts at the end of games. Each lateral play in our sample added an average of 15.6 yards of field position. Nine plays resulted in touchdowns for the defensive team, with the player who received the lateral running, on average, an additional 33 yards into the end zone.

Perhaps most notably, the lateraling team fumbled on seven plays and only lost the ball back to the offense on three of them. ...

Using a model developed by Brian Burke of Advanced Football Analytics that provides the number of points the average team could expect to score, given a unique down, distance, and field position, each lateral in our sample equated to an average gain of 0.92 expected points per play—and that’s including the three lost fumbles.
--Andrew Mooney, WSJ, on reviving a lost weapon

Monday, December 8, 2014

Creating mice with half-human brains

Mice have been created whose brains are half human. As a result, the animals are smarter than their siblings. ...

The altered mice still have mouse neurons – the "thinking" cells that make up around half of all their brain cells. But practically all the glial cells in their brains, the ones that support the neurons, are human. ...

[Steve] Goldman's team extracted immature glial cells from donated human fetuses. They injected them into mouse pups where they developed into astrocytes, a star-shaped type of glial cell. ...

Astrocytes are vital for conscious thought, because they help to strengthen the connections between neurons, called synapses. ...

A battery of standard tests for mouse memory and cognition showed that the mice with human astrocytes are much smarter than their mousy peers. ...

To explore further how the human astrocytes affect intelligence, memory and learning, Goldman is already grafting the cells into rats, which are more intelligent than mice. ...

...Goldman is quick to dismiss any idea that the added cells somehow make the mice more human. ...

However, the team decided not to try putting human cells into monkeys. "We briefly considered it but decided not to because of all the potential ethical issues," Goldman says.
--Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, on real-life rats of NIMH and Algernons. HT: Marginal Revolution

Sunday, November 30, 2014

How long is forever? 50 years

After Philippe de Montebello agreed at breakfast two decades ago to name the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Roman Sculpture Court, in perpetuity, for the philanthropists and antiquities collectors Leon Levy and his wife, Shelby White, Mr. Levy predictably, but politely, posed an impertinent question. ...

Mr. Levy later recalled, “I asked him, How long is ‘in perpetuity’?”

“For you, 50 years,” Mr. de Montebello, the museum director, replied. ...

“Perpetuity is usually a matter of negotiation now,” said William D. Zabel, a lawyer representing the Fisher family, who had threatened to sue on their behalf 12 years ago when Lincoln Center considered changing the name at that time without its permission.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

It's OK to drink a little alcohol while pregnant

National guidelines recommend abstaining from all alcohol exposure during pregnancy, but many women consume low to moderate amounts of alcohol, often before realizing they are pregnant. Researchers from the Yale’s Schools of Public Health and Medicine and Brown University investigated the effects of lower levels of alcohol consumption on 4,496 women and singleton infants. ...

About 30% of women in the study reported consuming alcohol— predominantly wine — during their first month of pregnancy. ... Overall alcohol exposure levels among women who reported drinking were relatively low, with a median level of approximately one drink per week in the first month of pregnancy.

The team found that for those women who drank low to moderate amounts of alcohol in early pregnancy, there was a reduced likelihood of low birth weight, short birth length, and small head circumference, which are all hallmarks of FAS. Drinking later in pregnancy during the third trimester was associated with lower risk for low birth weight and preterm delivery.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Spin aside, Dept. of Energy loans are still losing money

The Department of Energy snookered the media last week with a report that seems to show that its clean energy lending programs are profitable. “Remember Solyndra? Those loans are making money,” went a typical headline. ...

Unfortunately, that’s not true. Taxpayers are losing money on DOE lending. ...

DOE takes credit for the interest that companies pay on their loans, but it doesn’t subtract—or even report—the interest costs that taxpayers pay to finance those loans. ...

DOE’s report does not address this issue, except in a footnote in a table (cut and pasted above) revealing that its $810 million of “interest earned” was “calculated without respect to Treasury’s borrowing cost.” ...

The report does not allow us to say just how far behind. We do know, however, that DOE loans are typically made at small, sometimes zero, spreads above Treasury rates. So a large portion of DOE’s “interest earned” must have been offset by borrowing costs. That puts taxpayer losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. ...

Indeed, the Obama administration still predicts that DOE’s loans will lose money over their lifetimes.

DOE’s lending programs should not be evaluated solely or even primarily based on their profitability or lack thereof. What matters is their overall social impact. ...

If DOE wants to play the profitability card, however, it should do so in an accurate and transparent way. Last week’s report falls woefully short.
--Donald Marron on profiting by ignoring costs

The problem with evaluating charities on overhead percentage

Like most NGOs, we bragged to our donors that we had low overhead, that their dollars and euros and kroner and francs went to “the cause” and not to our rent or our heating bills. And this was, at least on the Excel sheets, true. ...

The problem is, those overhead tasks don’t disappear just because you don’t spend money on them. Someone has to monitor the accounts, find new donors, calculate taxes, organize the holiday party. Centralizing these tasks in dedicated departments, hiring specialists, getting good at them, that would have looked like bureaucracy. So instead, we spun them out to the entire staff: We assigned researchers and project managers—anthropology majors mostly, some law school dropouts—to do our H.R., accounting, fund-raising, and project evaluations.

The outcome was as chaotic as it sounds. Want to hire someone? You’ll need to write your own job ad, find job boards to post it to, and, in some cases, update the standard employment contract yourself. Want to issue a press release about the results of the study you just performed? Write it yourself and start sending it to journalists. Hopefully you know a few. ...

Every staff meeting, one or two people announced they were leaving. “I wasn’t hired to spend my day fund-raising” were the most common eight words at farewell parties.

My experience wasn’t unique. Stern cites the example of the American Red Cross, which sent confused volunteers, clueless employees, and, bafflingly, perishable Danish pastries to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina because it hadn’t invested in training its U.S. staff in actual crisis response. A buddy of mine works at an NGO with 150 staff where the H.R. department is exactly one person, and she’s also the receptionist.
--Michael Hobbes, New Republic, on charitable response to incentives. HT: ACT

The premise of the problem of evil and suffering

In his short book [“True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World,” UPenn law professor David] Skeel touches on a variety of eternal questions—from the mystery of human consciousness to the relationship between law and justice. He addresses the problem of evil in an especially compelling way—not by “solving” it in some philosophically air-tight way, but by questioning its premise.

The “problem,” of course, is that the presence of evil in human affairs seems to suggest that God, if he is there, is either malicious for causing it or powerless to stop it: In either case, he isn’t “God” in any traditional understanding. Mr. Skeel points out, however, that in order to make the argument, terms like “evil and “malicious” must be imported from a worldview that assumes God’s existence. ...

[Atheist Christopher] Hitchens hotly denied that his suffering had any moral significance but found it hard not to describe it in moral terms—writing of the cancer’s “malice” before catching himself: “There I go again.” At another point: “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?” ...

The Christian God does not simply allow or disallow suffering—he himself suffered, in the person of Jesus Christ, and uses suffering to renew his children’s character.

The most captivating chapter in “True Paradox” deals with the afterlife. No one who achieves great things, Mr. Skeel argues, really believes those achievements are pointless, destined to fade into nothingness. In a similar way, he suggests, our work on earth will somehow find its fulfillment in heaven. Indeed, the afterlife of the Christian tradition has little to do, he contends, with the commonplace images of men and women playing harps in the clouds. The Bible strongly implies, rather, that the Christian’s life in eternity will extend his earthly life’s complexity, only without failure and rebellion against God. The Christian, then, if Mr. Skeel is right, is able to do his work believing what the materialist wants to believe but can’t, quite—that the significance of that work will not only last but last into eternity.
--Barton Swaim, WSJ, on Christianity and meaning

Friday, November 14, 2014

Surprise, you're the president of Yale!

On Feb. 10, 1950, A. Whitney Griswold ’29 GRD ’33 and his wife, Mary, headed to New York for an evening of theater and fine dining. After seeing “Caesar and Cleopatra,” Whitney — a young Yale history professor — and Mary decided to stay over in New York and have lunch the next day with Roswell Ham, then-President of Mount Holyoke College. After hearing all about Ham’s life as a college president, Whitney remarked to Mary, “Thank God we’re not in that racket.”

He needn’t have worried. Though Yale’s president, Charles Seymour 1908 GRD 1911, had just announced his retirement, Griswold was a highly unlikely choice for the job. He had never been interviewed for the position. He was too young, just 43. He was something of a nonconformist, at least by Yale standards: a solid Democrat on a faculty full of Republicans. And though Griswold had sterling credentials — a bachelors and doctorate from Yale (the country’s first ever Ph.D. in American Studies) and nearly two decades of celebrated teaching — he genuinely did not want the job.

Yet, when he returned to the Elm City later that evening, Griswold learned that the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, had chosen him to run the nation’s third-oldest university. “When the Corporation announced its choice,” Yale’s late, great historian Brooks Mather Kelley ’53 wrote in “Yale: A History,” “many observers could not have been more surprised if Yale had chosen God.” ...

On April 4, 1959, the Yale Corporation gathered to decide the names of Yale’s 11th and 12th residential colleges, at that point still two years away. Eventually, of course, they settled on Morse and Ezra Stiles. But unlike today — when there is no shortage of debate over the new colleges’ names — Griswold named Morse and Stiles largely on his own, Sterling Professor Emeritus of English and former Stiles Master Traugott Lawler told me.
--Scott Stern, Yale Daily News, on the old way of doing things

Not my job: Nuclear missiles edition

The Pentagon will have to spend billions of dollars over the next five years to make emergency fixes to its nuclear weapons infrastructure, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will announce on Friday, after two separate Pentagon studies concluded that there are “systemic problems across the nuclear enterprise,” according to senior defense officials. ...

For example, while inspectors obsessed over whether every checklist and review of individual medical records was completed, they ignored huge problems, including aging blast doors over 60-year-old silos that would not seal shut and, in one case, the discovery that the crews that maintain the nation’s 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles had only a single wrench that could attach the nuclear warheads.

“They started FedExing the one tool” to three bases spread across the country, one official familiar with the contents of the reports said Thursday. No one had checked in years “to see if new tools were being made,” the official said. This was one of many maintenance problems that had “been around so long that no one reported them anymore.”
--David Sanger and William Broad, NYT, on military competence

Monday, November 10, 2014

How the police help themselves to your belongings

[Las Cruces, New Mexico city attorney Harry] Connelly was talking about a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows the government, without ever securing a conviction or even filing a criminal charge, to seize property suspected of having ties to crime. The practice, expanded during the war on drugs in the 1980s, has become a staple of law enforcement agencies because it helps finance their work. It is difficult to tell how much has been seized by state and local law enforcement, but under a Justice Department program, the value of assets seized has ballooned to $4.3 billion in the 2012 fiscal year from $407 million in 2001. Much of that money is shared with local police forces.

The practice of civil forfeiture has come under fire in recent months, amid a spate of negative press reports and growing outrage among civil rights advocates, libertarians and members of Congress who have raised serious questions about the fairness of the practice, which critics say runs roughshod over due process rights. In one oft-cited case, a Philadelphia couple’s home was seized after their son made $40 worth of drug sales on the porch. Despite that opposition, many cities and states are moving to expand civil seizures of cars and other assets. ...

In the Georgia session, the prosecutor leading the talk boasted that he had helped roll back a Republican-led effort to reform civil forfeiture in Georgia, where seized money has been used by the authorities, according to news reports, to pay for sports tickets, office parties, a home security system and a $90,000 sports car. ...

But in the video, [chief of the forfeiture unit in Mercer County, New Jersey Sean] McMurtry made it clear that forfeitures were highly contingent on the needs of law enforcement. In New Jersey, the police and prosecutors are allowed to use cars, cash and other seized goods; the rest must be sold at auction. Cellphones and jewelry, Mr. McMurtry said, are not worth the bother. Flat screen televisions, however, “are very popular with the police departments,” he said.

Prosecutors boasted in the sessions that seizure cases were rarely contested or appealed. But civil forfeiture places the burden on owners, who must pay court fees and legal costs to get their property back. Many seizures go uncontested because the property is not worth the expense. ...

Mr. McMurtry said his handling of a case is sometimes determined by department wish lists. “If you want the car, and you really want to put it in your fleet, let me know — I’ll fight for it,” Mr. McMurtry said, addressing law enforcement officials on the video. ...

Prosecutors estimated that between 50 to 80 percent of the cars seized were driven by someone other than the owner, which sometimes means a parent or grandparent loses their car. ...

“I can’t tell you how many people have come in and said, ‘Oh, my hijito would never do that,’ ” [a police officer] said, mimicking a female voice with a Spanish accent.

Extreme standardized testing

In Florida, which tests students more frequently than most other states, many schools this year will dedicate on average 60 to 80 days out of the 180-day school year to standardized testing. In a few districts, tests were scheduled to be given every day to at least some students. ...

But there is another requirement that has made testing more difficult in Florida. The state ordered all students, including those in elementary school, to take standardized tests on computers as of this year. But again, the state did not give districts extra money for computers or technology help.

Because schools do not have computers for every student, tests are staggered throughout the day, which translates to more hours spent administering tests and less time teaching. Students who are not taking tests often occupy their time watching movies. The staggered test times also mean computer labs are not available for other students.
--Lizette Alvarez, NYT, on going beyond teaching to the test

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Denver Post's marijuana critic

[Jake] Browne, 31, held the bud up to his nose and inhaled. Then he opened his computer. “Faint lemony sweetness,” he typed, before loading the pot into a small glass pipe.

“I usually will take one, maybe two hits,” he said as he fired up the bowl. “I’m looking for how it burns, the taste, if it’s flushed well — meaning you don’t want to taste the fertilizers or chemicals.” He exhaled, waited and then turned to his computer again. “Head high. No initial body effect,” he wrote.

This is Mr. Browne’s job (or, at least, one of his jobs). The longtime resident of Colorado — where marijuana has been legal since January...

He is also the first pot critic for The Denver Post, Colorado’s oldest and largest daily newspaper. ... Yes, he is paid to smoke it — and then write about the high.

“The thing people say to me most often is, ‘Dude, you must have the best job ever,’ ” said Mr. Browne, sitting in his living room. ...

...Ricardo Baca, the newspaper’s newly appointed cannabis editor (and a longtime staff member) said it simply made journalistic sense. “We have a restaurant critic and wine reviewers,” he said. “We have an award-winning craft beer blog. From that logic you do need a pot critic — and maybe a few of them.” ...

The key to pot criticism, Mr. Browne said, is knowing your audience. While he tries to keep his language basic enough that a nonsmoker could understand it (“I think pot needs smart people to be ambassadors to the masses,” he said), he doesn’t want to be condescending to those who do. “I never want to be that pretentious pot critic,” he said.
--Jessica Bennett, NYT, on a critic for everything

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Quantity surcharges, not discounts, at supermarkets

When you shop at a supermarket—say for a bag of chips or a can of tuna—you naturally assume that buying a bigger package must be cheaper per unit and thus will save you money. As it turns out, you often would be wrong. The bigger package can cost you more per unit; there might be a "quantity surcharge." One survey found that 25 percent of brands that offered more than one size imposed some form of quantity surcharge. These surcharges are not errors. Consumer Reports has called them a "sneaky consumer product trick." The trick works best on consumers who don't pay much attention to prices, who just assume the bigger package will be the better deal. (How often have you done this?) One study examined which supermarkets practice this "trick" and found just what our discussion so far would have predicted: supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods are the least likely to have quantity surcharges. It is harder to trick someone into paying more when she is careful to squeeze the most out of every dollar spent.
--Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, on exploiting inattention

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Justice Roberts on diversity on the Supreme Court

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who has two Harvard degrees, was once asked whether it is healthy for the Supreme Court to consist of only justices with degrees from elite institutions.

“First of all, I disagree with your premise,” he responded. “Not all of the justices went to elite institutions. Some went to Yale.”
--Adam Liptak, NYT, on Justice Roberts's quick wit

Friday, October 24, 2014

Taking a selfie when you've been shot

Late one night in August, Mishay Simpson shot Andrew Noll after he walked into her Davis Islands home unannounced. Simpson, the wife of semiprofessional golfer Rhett Simpson, later told investigators that Noll was a former friend who had been stalking her and threatening to hurt her family.

When the home's alarm went off and she heard someone coming up the stairs, she grabbed a 9mm Ruger. When the door opened, she fired.

A bullet sliced through Noll's chest and exited his back, piercing a painting on the wall behind him.

Noll, 23, survived the shooting. But there was much more to the story than what Simpson, 28, told police.

Among the things she omitted: She and Noll had an affair. ...

A few weeks before the shooting, Simpson tried to break things off. ...

In the hours before the shooting, he texted her again. She said her husband was out of town and she was going to bed. Noll later told police that he interpreted that to mean it was okay to come over. He tried entering the alarm code, but it didn't work.

The alarm sounded as he headed upstairs. When she fired, he could smell the gunpowder.

As he lay bleeding, Noll raised the phone and snapped a selfie.
--Dan Sullivan, Tampa Bay Times, on our "selfie for every occasion" era

Sunday, October 19, 2014

When air pollution is so bad it makes your skin dirty


Even by the city's standards, Beijing was very polluted on Sunday. The PM2.5 scale, which measures the number of micrograms of "particulate matter" per cubic meter, came up to a whopping 344. (To put that figure in perspective, the World Health Organization considers 25 micrograms to be healthy). ...

To say the least, these weren't ideal conditions for a marathon. But that race is precisely what took place on Sunday, as tens of thousands of runners braved the conditions to complete the 34th annual Beijing International Marathon.

Event organizers were aware that the air wouldn't be good on Sunday, but determined it was too late to postpone the race, which had attracted participants from throughout China and around the world. To help runners clean detritus from their skin, organizers supplied over 140,000 sponges placed at stations throughout the course.
--Matt Schiavenza, The Atlantic, on taking air pollution to the next level

What happened to Samuel L. Jackson's character after Pulp Fiction

At the end of Pulp Fiction, [Samuel L.] Jackson’s Jules says to Vincent that, after their brush with death in the diner, he’s just going to “walk the earth.” When Vincent asks him to expand, he says, “You know, walk the earth, meet people… get into adventures. Like Caine from Kung Fu.” In Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Jackson makes a cameo at The Bride’s wedding as a piano-playing drifter who goes by the name of “Rufus.”
--Marlow Stern, Daily Beast, on a beloved character making good on a vow. HT: AS

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Time spent in meetings is growing exponentially

Time spent in meetings has been rising by 8% to 10% annually since 2000, and is likely to continue increasing, says Michael Mankins, a partner in San Francisco with the management-consulting firm Bain & Co. Senior executives are spending an average 28 hours in meetings each week, and middle managers spend 21 hours, says Mr. Mankins, lead author of a recent 17-company time-management study with analytics provider VoloMetrix. ...

Conference-room shortages fuel genuine anxiety in employees who must meet with others to get work done. When Seattle-based Moz, a maker of marketing-analytics software, outgrew its office space last year, employees began booking conference rooms in advance just in case they needed them, says Mark Schliemann, vice president, technical operations, for the company. “If there’s a shortage of food, people want to hoard it. Conference rooms are the same way,” Mr. Schliemann says. “If people see conference space as valuable and they need it, they do whatever it takes to get it.”

Such logjams leave 40% of employees wasting up to 30 minutes a day looking for meeting space, according to customer surveys by Steelcase Inc.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

How a prayer meeting helped bring down the Berlin Wall

Disillusioned with the Berlin Wall, the physical fault line of the ongoing Cold War and the repressive East German regime, Pastor Christian Führer began organising Prayers for Peace every Monday evening, beginning in 1982.

On many occasions fewer than a dozen people attended the prayer meetings. The East German government strongly discouraged its citizens from becoming involved in religious activities, but the meetings continued each Monday without fail.

In 1985 Pastor Führer put an 'open to all' sign outside the church. Such a gesture was loaded with symbolism as the church provided the only space in East Germany where people could talk about things that could not be discussed in public.

Meetings were open to everyone. Young people, Christians and atheists all sought refuge there. Attendances soared as word of the peace prayers spread.

Momentum began to build in earnest during the summer of 1989...

"On 8 May 1989, the authorities barricaded the streets leading to the church, hoping to put people off, but it had the opposite effect, and our congregation grew. There were beatings and arrests of demonstrators at protest rallies in Leipzig, Berlin and Dresden," [Pastor Führer] said.

By this time the prayer meetings had led to a series of peaceful political protests in Leipzig and other cities which became known as the Monday Demonstrations. ...

Things came to a head on 7 October 1989, the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic.

"There were hundreds of arrests made among the crowds in front of the Nikolai Church. Erich Honecker [the Communist leader of East Germany] had declared that the church should be closed. The police used brute force against the demonstrators and lots of people were beaten," Pastor Führer recalled.

An article appeared in a local newspaper announcing that the counter-revolution would be put down on Monday 9 October "with whatever means necessary". ...

"The church was visited by doctors who told us that hospital rooms had been made available for patients with bullet wounds. So we were absolutely terrified of what might happen," Pastor Führer said.

Up to 8,000 crowded into St Nicholas Church, including members of the feared Stasi (secret police) who had been sent to occupy it.

Other Leipzig churches opened to accommodate additional protesters. About 70,000 people had now gathered in the city.

After an hour-long service at St Nicholas, Pastor Führer led worshippers outside.

The nearby Augustusplatz was filled with demonstrators clutching lit candles. Slowly, the crowd began walking around the city, past the Stasi headquarters, chanting "we are the people" and "no violence", and accompanied by thousands of helmeted riot police ready to intervene.

The tension was palpable.

But at the decisive moment the police stood aside and let the protesters march by.

Pastor Führer said: "They didn't attack. They had nothing to attack for. East German officials would later say they were ready for anything, except for candles and prayer." ...

This would prove to be a seismic moment. The fact they had been met with no violence meant the protest movement began to lose its fear. The dam had burst.

Footage of the march was widely broadcast, which inspired Monday Demonstrations throughout East Germany in the following weeks.

About 120,000 people took to the streets the following Monday. Erich Honecker resigned two days later. The dissidents became increasingly emboldened, with around 300,000 taking part in the protests on 23 October.

Exactly a month after the events of 9 October the Berlin Wall came down amid scenes of jubilation witnessed around the world.
--Peter Crutchley, BBC, on the power of prayer. HT: JM

Kids' food tastes begin forming in the womb

Children begin to acquire a taste for pickled egg or fermented lentils early — in the womb, even. Compounds from the foods a pregnant woman eats travel through the amniotic fluid to her baby. After birth, babies prefer the foods they were exposed to in utero, a phenomenon scientists call “prenatal flavor learning.” Even so, just because children are primed to like something doesn’t mean the first experience of it on their tongues will be pleasant. For many Korean kids, breakfast includes kimchi, cabbage leaves or other vegetables fermented with red chile peppers and garlic. A child’s first taste of kimchi is something of a rite of passage, one captured in dozens of YouTube videos featuring chubby-faced toddlers grabbing at their tongues and occasionally weeping.

Children, and young omnivorous animals generally, tend to reject unfamiliar foods on the first few tries. Evolutionarily, it makes sense for an inexperienced creature to be cautious about new foods, which might, after all, be poisonous. It is only through repeated exposure and mimicry that toddlers adjust to new tastes — breakfast instead of, say, dinner. ...

Sugar is the notable exception to “food neophobia,” as researchers call that early innate fear. In utero, a 13-week-old fetus will gulp amniotic fluid more quickly when it contains sugar.
--Malia Wollan, NYT Magazine, on the next frontier for hyper-anxious parenting

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Christianity is a potent force for democracy

One of the most interesting things I've read about the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong touches on an aspect that has received relatively little attention so far. An article in The Wall Street Journal looks at the religious background of some of the movement's main organizers. It turns out that many of the key people are Christians.

Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old leader of the activist group that has played a key role in launching and organizing the demonstrations, is an evangelical Protestant. Two of the three leaders of Occupy Central, the main protest group, are Christians. A former Catholic bishop of Hong Kong is another big supporter. "Christianity has been a visible element of the demonstrations, with prayer groups, crosses, and protesters reading Bibles in the street," the article notes. ...

Yet many other leading media organizations -- like The New York Times or CNN -- have neglected to mention this point. This strikes me as a significant omission. We can hardly be expected to understand why the demonstrators persist in defying the world's most powerful dictatorship without understanding the beliefs behind their choices.

Why has there been so little attention to the Christian factor? I think it's a combination of ignorance and embarrassment. Most journalists in the countries of the West today are skeptics or secularists. They tend to regard religious belief as a quaint oddity, a sort of exotic irrelevance. ...

No one, not even the communists, believes in Marxism-Leninism these days, and the [Chinese Communist] Party has yet to come up with a solid value system to take its place.

On top of that, the Party is also extremely sensitive to a history apparently lost on many of the reporters currently covering the protests in Hong Kong: the long and illustrious Christian involvement in revolutions around the world. The Chinese leadership is painfully aware of the role played by Pope John Paul II and his Polish Catholic compatriots in the downfall of the communist system in Eastern Europe. And despite their eagerness to discount Chinese Christians (and Hong Kong protesters) as agents of foreign powers, the rulers in Beijing also know that indigenous Christians were equally prominent in the pro-democracy movements that brought down dictators in South Korea and the Philippines in the 1980s.

Indeed, Christians have played strikingly important roles in popular protest movements ranging from the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa to the civil rights campaigns in the United States. ...

Martin Luther King mined Biblical texts for powerful metaphors of individual liberation and collective empowerment. Twentieth-century activists have translated Christ's radical emphasis on love into programs for non-violent struggle. On the purely practical level, churches provide alternate networks of support and refuge that can come in handy for activists who might otherwise find themselves alone against the power of the state.

Most people in Hong Kong aren't Christians -- so what is it about this particular faith that seems to predispose its adherents to activism? Surely that's worth examining.
--Christian Caryl, Foreign Policy, on beliefs that motivate

Making your dying days your best possible days

A couple of years ago, I got a call from the husband of Peg Bachelder, my daughter Hunter’s piano teacher. “Peg’s in the hospital,” Martin said. ...

He put his cell on speaker for Peg. She sounded weak and spoke in long pauses. She said the leukemia treatment was not working. ... She didn’t know what to do. ...

What is it we think should happen now? Her condition was incurable by established means. So should she press the doctors for other treatments, experimental therapies, anything with even a remote chance of keeping her going, no matter what? Or should she “give up”?

Neither seemed right. But for more than a decade in medical practice, I had not really understood what other choices might exist. ...

But hearing her fears, I suggested that Peg try hospice. It’d at least let her get home, I said, and might help her more than she knew. Hospice’s aim, at least in theory, I explained, is to give people their best possible day, however they might define it under the circumstances. It seemed as if it had been a while since she’d had a good day.

“Yes, it has — a long while,” she said.

That seemed worth hoping for, I said. Just one good day.

With her husband’s encouragement, she went home on hospice less than 48 hours later. ...

A few days later, however, we got a surprising call from Peg. She wanted to resume teaching. ...

That hospice could make teaching possible for her again was more than I’d imagined. But when her hospice nurse arrived, she asked Peg what she cared most about in her life, what having the best day possible meant to her. Then they worked together to make it happen. ...

Her first goal was just managing her daily difficulties. The hospice team put a hospital bed on the first floor so she wouldn’t have to navigate the stairs, organized a plan for bathing and dressing, adjusted her pain medications until they were right. Her anxieties plummeted as the challenges came under control. She raised her sights. ...

It took planning and great expertise to make each lesson possible. The nurse helped her learn how to calibrate her medications. “Before she would teach, she would take some additional morphine. The trick was to give her enough to be comfortable to teach and not so much that she would be groggy,” Martin recalled. ...

“It was important to her to be able to say her goodbyes to her dear friends, to give her parting advice to her students.”

Medicine has forgotten how vital such matters are to people as they approach life’s end. People want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keepsakes, connect with loved ones, and to make some last contributions to the world. These moments are among life’s most important, for both the dying and those left behind. And the way we in medicine deny people these moments, out of obtuseness and neglect, should be cause for our unending shame.

Peg, however, got to fulfill her final role. She lived six weeks after going on hospice. Hunter had lessons for four of those weeks, and two final concerts were played. One featured Peg’s current students, all younger children; the other, her former students from around the country. Gathered in her living room, they played Brahms, Chopin and Beethoven for their adored teacher. A week later, she fell into delirium and, a short time after that, died peacefully in her bed.

My final remembrance of Peg is from the end of her last recital with the children. She’d taken each student away from the crowd to give a personal gift and say a few words. When it was Hunter’s turn, Peg gave her a book of music. Then she put her arm around her.

“You’re special,” she whispered to her. It was something she never wanted her students to forget.
--Atul Gawande, NYT, on the good death

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Eat kiwis with the skin on

[T]he kiwi has the reputation of a fruit that requires…work. Typical ways to eat it include skinning it with a vegetable peeler and slicing into rounds or cutting it in half and scooping out the insides with a spoon. ...

I am about to blow your minds, friends. (Unless you already know this, in which case, cool, let’s make a salad together sometime.) The proper way to eat a kiwi is exactly the way you would eat a peach.

Which is to say, wash it lightly, and then bite right into it. The kiwi is better with its skin than without it. The skin isn’t just edible, it’s one of my favorite parts of any fruit. It’s similar to a peach skin, in that it is sort of fuzzy and that the flesh directly under the skin is a bit more tart than the deep insides, but the kiwi’s skin is even thicker and thus provides even more delightful textural contrast to the green flesh within.
--Dan Nosowitz, The Awl, on a truth I just experienced for myself

Saturday, September 27, 2014

How to stop a binge-watching addiction

Binge-watching television shows—viewing episodes back-to-back for hours on end—may be America's new favorite pastime, but it's brought me to some pretty dark places. ...

Ultimately, I discovered that freedom from TV might be hidden in the structure of the episodes themselves.

One trick: Don't watch an episode to the end, because at that point, it's almost impossible to resist continuing to the next one. Instead, stop about three-quarters of the way in. The next time you watch, pick up from that point until most of the way into the following episode.

I know this sounds illogical. After all, how can it be easier to stop mid-show than at the end? But there's usually a lull in the narrative arc, when story lines get wrapped up and the pacing slows down. The show actually gets pretty boring.

"People unconsciously write this way," said Charlie Rubin, area head of television writing at the Tisch School of the Arts and a former writer for "Seinfeld" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." "It's inhale and exhale. There's always a dramatic moment, and then you pull back from it."

What's more, each episode weaves together multiple story lines, Mr. Rubin explained. The "A" story—the one involving the star—is what keeps you watching episode after episode (even the ones that don't end with obvious cliffhangers). The "B" and "C" stories involve the supporting characters.

"The usual rule of the universe is that you end your stories in order of their importance," with the minor ones wrapping first, Mr. Rubin said. "The order of finish is C-B-A."

Recovering binge-watchers can use this knowledge to their advantage. Although each show has its own template, you should try to quit at the end of the B or C story, said Mr. Rubin. "Once you cycle back to that A story, you want to see what's going to happen to Tina Fey or Tony Soprano. "

Colleagues who helped me test the theory (using "Scandal" and "Dr. Who") found that the sweet spot varies by series—but you can intuit it after watching a few episodes. In a roughly 45-minute episode (without commercials), it'll usually fall somewhere around 30 minutes in. ...

An essential one: disabling auto-play, a feature found on services like Netflix and Hulu that automatically starts the next episode in a series when the one you're watching ends. ...

You can also strike the problem at the source: your Wi-Fi router. Many models allow you to shut down access to the Internet on a set schedule; Netgear routers can target specific websites at certain times...
--Michael Hsu, WSJ, on curing by avoiding the cliff-hangers

Students learn less from professors they like better, part 2

Michele Pellizzari, an economics professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, has a more serious claim: that course evaluations may in fact measure, and thus motivate, the opposite of good teaching.

His experiment took place with students at the Bocconi University Department of Economics in Milan, Italy. There, students are given a cognitive test on entry, which establishes their basic aptitude, and they are randomly assigned to professors.

The paper compared the student evaluations of a particular professor to another measure of teacher quality: how those students performed in a subsequent course. In other words, if I have Dr. Muccio in Microeconomics I, what's my grade next year in Macroeconomics II?

Here's what he found. The better the professors were, as measured by their students' grades in later classes, the lower their ratings from students.

"If you make your students do well in their academic career, you get worse evaluations from your students," Pellizzari said. Students, by and large, don't enjoy learning from a taskmaster, even if it does them some good.

There's an intriguing exception to the pattern: Classes full of highly skilled students do give highly skilled teachers high marks. Perhaps the smartest kids do see the benefit of being pushed.
--Anya Kamenetz, NPR, on another strike against student evaluations. See the randomized evidence from the U.S. Air Force Academy here. HT: PW

Thursday, September 25, 2014

U.S. attack on Syria has already cost more than India's mission to Mars

Fears of a potent Syrian air defense system drove the U.S. Air Force to send its silver bullet force of F-22 Raptor stealth fighters into battle for the first time ever. ...

But the Raptors’ first mission wasn’t cheap. Together, the missiles and airstrikes cost at least $79 million to pull off, according to a Daily Beast tally.

That's more expensive than India's mission to Mars, which was successfully completed Wednesday at a cost of just $74 million.
--Dave Majumdar, Daily Beast, on two very different ways to spend $79 million. HT: Chris Blattman

An EMT on what all dying patients think

I've been a critical care EMT for the past seven years in Suffolk County, New York. I've been a first responder in a number of incidents ranging from car accidents to Hurricane Sandy. ...

Having responded to many cases since then where patients were in their last moments and there was nothing I could do for them, in almost every case, they have all had the same reaction to the truth, of inner peace and acceptance. In fact, there are three patterns I have observed in all these cases.

The first pattern always kind of shocked me. Regardless of religious belief or cultural background, there's a need for forgiveness. Whether they call it sin or they simply say they have a regret, their guilt is universal. I had once cared for an elderly gentleman who was having a massive heart attack. As I prepared myself and my equipment for his imminent cardiac arrest, I began to tell the patient of his imminent demise. He already knew by my tone of voice and body language. As I placed the defibrillator pads on his chest, prepping for what was going to happen, he looked me in the eye and said, "I wish I had spent more time with my children and grandchildren instead of being selfish with my time." Faced with imminent death, all he wanted was forgiveness.

The second pattern I observe is the need for remembrance. Whether it was to be remembered in my thoughts or their loved ones', they needed to feel that they would be living on. There's a need for immortality within the hearts and thoughts of their loved ones, myself, my crew, or anyone around. Countless times, I have had a patient look me in the eyes and say, "Will you remember me?"

The final pattern I observe always touched me the deepest, to the soul. The dying need to know that their life had meaning. They need to know that they did not waste their life on meaningless tasks.
--Matthew O'Reilly, TED@NYC, on the universal desire for forgiveness, meaning, and immortality, i.e. what Christianity offers. HT: PW

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Korean language has no word for "irony" or "parody"

Irony is that special privilege of wealthy nations—Aristophanes, possibly the world’s first satirist, wrote his plays as Athens was becoming the dominant power in the region; Cervantes wrote at the height of Spain’s naval wealth; and Alexander Pope was born the year that England defeated the Spanish Armada. First, one scrambles for wealth; then one luxuriates in mocking the effeteness that comes with it.

Thus “Gangnam Style” signals the emergence of irony in South Korea, meaning that the country has reached the final stage in any state’s evolution. If you don’t think that irony is a measure of eliteness, think of how annoyed you were the last time you were accused of not having any. Americans have told me that Asians have no irony; in Europe, where I last lived, I was told that Americans have none.

South Korea had no irony when I arrived there. I can say that as plainly as I can say that it had no McDonald’s (it arrived in 1988, in Gangnam, of course). The Korean language has no word for irony, nor for “parody,” which is why the Korean press has been using the English word “parody” to describe Gangnam Style.
--Euny Hong, Quartz, on language reflecting culture

Are Paleo diets healthier? Evidence from hunter gatherers

What current health fad do I wish people would ignore?

Stone-age diets. ...

Our image of a carnivorous cave man with blood vessels free of plaques, low cholesterol levels and healthy hearts and brains may be wishful thinking. A postmortem study of 137 mummies from four different premodern cultures, found that atherosclerosis rates in hunter-gatherers was not lower than in farmers. For example, three of five (60%) mummies from an Aleutian hunter gather clan had atherosclerosis, by their 40s. ...

Of course, some half a dozen studies of the Paleo diet have noted benefits– e.g. a study of 10 full blooded diabetic Aborigines showed that temporary reversion to a hunter lifestyle resulted in improvements in glucose and weight. But since these were small studies of 10-15 subjects each that lasted only a few weeks, they are not generalizable. Many diets (including the vegetarian Rice Diet) have shown equally robust short-term benefits–the Achilles’ heel is the failure to show long-term benefits. And there is little evidence that a Paleo diet is any better than simply just eating fewer calories.
--Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, WSJ, on the good old days perhaps not being so good

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Obama's undersecretary for science: Climate science is not settled

The idea that "Climate science is settled" runs through today's popular and policy discussions. Unfortunately, that claim is misguided. ...

The crucial scientific question for policy isn't whether the climate is changing. That is a settled matter: The climate has always changed and always will...

Nor is the crucial question whether humans are influencing the climate. That is no hoax... The impact today of human activity appears to be comparable to the intrinsic, natural variability of the climate system itself.

Rather, the crucial, unsettled scientific question for policy is, "How will the climate change over the next century under both natural and human influences?" ...

Even though human influences could have serious consequences for the climate, they are physically small in relation to the climate system as a whole. For example, human additions to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the middle of the 21st century are expected to directly shift the atmosphere's natural greenhouse effect by only 1% to 2%. Since the climate system is highly variable on its own, that smallness sets a very high bar for confidently projecting the consequences of human influences. ...

We often hear that there is a "scientific consensus" about climate change. But as far as the computer models go, there isn't a useful consensus at the level of detail relevant to assessing human influences. ...

For the latest IPCC report (September 2013), its Working Group I, which focuses on physical science, uses an ensemble of some 55 different models. Although most of these models are tuned to reproduce the gross features of the Earth's climate, the marked differences in their details and projections reflect all of the limitations that I have described. For example:

• The models differ in their descriptions of the past century's global average surface temperature by more than three times the entire warming recorded during that time. Such mismatches are also present in many other basic climate factors, including rainfall, which is fundamental to the atmosphere's energy balance. As a result, the models give widely varying descriptions of the climate's inner workings. Since they disagree so markedly, no more than one of them can be right.

• Although the Earth's average surface temperature rose sharply by 0.9 degree Fahrenheit during the last quarter of the 20th century, it has increased much more slowly for the past 16 years, even as the human contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen by some 25%. This surprising fact demonstrates directly that natural influences and variability are powerful enough to counteract the present warming influence exerted by human activity.

Yet the models famously fail to capture this slowing in the temperature rise. Several dozen different explanations for this failure have been offered, with ocean variability most likely playing a major role. But the whole episode continues to highlight the limits of our modeling.

• The models roughly describe the shrinking extent of Arctic sea ice observed over the past two decades, but they fail to describe the comparable growth of Antarctic sea ice, which is now at a record high.

• The models predict that the lower atmosphere in the tropics will absorb much of the heat of the warming atmosphere. But that "hot spot" has not been confidently observed, casting doubt on our understanding of the crucial feedback of water vapor on temperature.

• Even though the human influence on climate was much smaller in the past, the models do not account for the fact that the rate of global sea-level rise 70 years ago was as large as what we observe today—about one foot per century.

• A crucial measure of our knowledge of feedbacks is climate sensitivity—that is, the warming induced by a hypothetical doubling of carbon-dioxide concentration. Today's best estimate of the sensitivity (between 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit and 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) is no different, and no more certain, than it was 30 years ago. And this is despite an heroic research effort costing billions of dollars. ...

They are not "minor" issues to be "cleaned up" by further research. Rather, they are deficiencies that erode confidence in the computer projections. ...

Yet a public official reading only the IPCC's "Summary for Policy Makers" would gain little sense of the extent or implications of these deficiencies. These are fundamental challenges to our understanding of human impacts on the climate, and they should not be dismissed with the mantra that "climate science is settled."

While the past two decades have seen progress in climate science, the field is not yet mature enough to usefully answer the difficult and important questions being asked of it. ...

Any serious discussion of the changing climate must begin by acknowledging not only the scientific certainties but also the uncertainties, especially in projecting the future. Recognizing those limits, rather than ignoring them, will lead to a more sober and ultimately more productive discussion of climate change and climate policies. To do otherwise is a great disservice to climate science itself.
--Steven Koonin, WSJ, on the fragility of complex models. I have long thought that there is a close analogy between climate models and models of the macroeconomy: It's hard to make accurate predictions of complex systems!

Trees are bad for the environment

Considering all the interactions, large-scale increases in forest cover can actually make global warming worse. ...

The dark color of trees means that they absorb more of the sun’s energy and raise the planet’s surface temperature.

Climate scientists have calculated the effect of increasing forest cover on surface temperature. Their conclusion is that planting trees in the tropics would lead to cooling, but in colder regions, it would cause warming. ...

...we can’t reliably predict whether large-scale forestation would help to control the earth’s rising temperatures.

Worse, trees emit reactive volatile gases that contribute to air pollution and are hazardous to human health. These emissions are crucial to trees — to protect themselves from environmental stresses like sweltering heat and bug infestations. In summer, the eastern United States is the world’s major hot spot for volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.s) from trees.

As these compounds mix with fossil-fuel pollution from cars and industry, an even more harmful cocktail of airborne toxic chemicals is created. ...

Chemical reactions involving tree V.O.C.s produce methane and ozone, two powerful greenhouse gases, and form particles that can affect the condensation of clouds. Research by my group at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and by other laboratories, suggests that changes in tree V.O.C.s affect the climate on a scale similar to changes in the earth’s surface color and carbon storage capacity.

While trees provide carbon storage, forestry is not a permanent solution because trees and soil also “breathe” — that is, burn oxygen and release carbon dioxide back into the air. Eventually, all of the carbon finds its way back into the atmosphere when trees die or burn.

Moreover, it is a myth that photosynthesis controls the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. Even if all photosynthesis on the planet were shut down, the atmosphere’s oxygen content would change by less than 1 percent.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The plight of the NIH grant applicant

Sigh, the good old days really were better. Or: What happens when support for biomedical research falls by 20% in inflation-adjusted terms over the past decade.


College campus cops with grenade launchers and bayonets

Last week The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that nearly 120 colleges and universities have acquired [surplus military] equipment through the 1033 program since 1998.

Working off of records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, The Chronicle found that colleges collected equipment running the gamut from office supplies to M-16s to weapons one would only expect to find on a battlefield. The Arizona State University police received 70 M-16s. Lincoln University, in Missouri, ordered 15 military backpacks and 20 bayonets. And the University of Central Florida police department owns an M-79 grenade launcher.

College professors and administrators defend the acquisition of Pentagon equipment for campus police by arguing that 1) the gear is free and 2) why not? ...

But the “better safe than sorry” totally ignores the possibility that owning such weapons could create the urge to use them. That isn’t to suggest that campus cops will open fire on students for no reason, but they could well overreact to a protest—just as the Ferguson police did. ...

Possession of military assault weapons sends a downright bizarre message as to what the campus police see as their purpose, or mission. They exist to keep the peace, not subdue a hostile population, but students might feel otherwise if they encountered their supposed protectors in assault gear and bayonets.
--Juliet Lapidos, NYT, on the militarization of campus cops

Which Boston university has the most desirable singles?

For the uninitiated, Coffee Meets Bagel is an app popular among #millennials these days. The app itself is pretty straightforward: Users are sent profiles of a potential love interest each day along with a picture and some basic biographical information, including education. Users can then like or ignore the potential interest. If both people independently like each other, they are then entered into a chatroom. The rest of the courtship process goes from there.

We asked Coffee Meets Bagel for information comparing the likability of students and alumni at ten Boston-area universities: Harvard, Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Emerson, Brandeis, Suffolk, Berklee, Emerson, and Wellesley.

The results produced popularity data based on 1.2 million matches of Boston-area university students and graduates on its service.



First, that’s a big (and likely unnecessary) ego boost for male and female Harvardians. 36% of users liked Harvard men, the highest-liked percentage of all males at area schools. Harvard women, too, were the 2nd-most-liked among the female schools we looked at. ...

We also received data on which school’s students were the pickiest date-choosers.


--Eric Levenson, Boston.com, on what the millennial reptile brain wants

How cool are Koreans in Asia? Evidence from Lipton ice tea ads

How cool is Korea in Asia? Well, in a television advertisement for Lipton ice tea that ran in Thailand in 2013, the premise is that a guy trying to impress a girl goes from loser to stud when he drinks Lipton, so much so that he suddenly starts speaking Korean ("I love you") for no reason. The ad's slogan: "Never lose your cool." Basically, Koreans are the Marlboro Men of Asia.
--Euny Hong, The Birth of Korean Cool, on the universal sign for cool

The mind-boggling scope of Korea's American Idol

A staggering 4 percent of the population of South Korea auditioned in 2012 for Superstar K, Korea's biggest televised singing competition. That's 2.08 million would-be K-pop stars competing in a single year in a country with a population of 50 million. By contrast, even the behemoth American Idol only has about 80,000 contestants in a given year, amounting to a minuscule 0.03 percent of the U.S. population.
--Euny Hong, The Birth of Korean Cool, on where people really want to be pop stars

Portland, Oregon's slacker hipsterness quantified

Portland has taken hold of the cultural imagination as, to borrow the tag line from “Portlandia,” the place where young people go to retire. And for good reason: The city has nearly all the perks that economists suggest lead to a high quality of life — coastlines, mountains, mild winters and summers, restaurants, cultural institutions and clean air. (Fortunately, college-educated people don’t value sunshine as much as they used to.) ...

[Portland] has more highly educated people than it knows what to do with. Portland is not a corporate town, as its neighbors Seattle and San Francisco have become. While there are employment opportunities in the outdoor-apparel business (Nike, Adidas and Columbia Sportswear are all nearby) or the semiconductor industry (Intel has a large presence in Hillsboro), most workers have far fewer opportunities. ... And yet people still keep showing up. ...

David Albouy, an economics professor at the University of Illinois, has created a metric, the sacrifice measure, which essentially charts how poor a person is willing to be in order to live in a particular city. Portland, he discovered, is near the top of the list. Even when college-educated residents get jobs there, they earn 84 cents for the average dollar earned in other cities, according to Greg Schrock and Jason Jurjevich, professors of urban studies at Portland State University. In 41 of the country’s 50 largest cities, young, educated people earn more than they do in Portland. ...

Portland’s paradox is that it attracts so many of “the young and the restless,” as demographers call them, that it has become a city of the overeducated and underemployed — a place where young people are, in many cases, forced into their semiretirement.
--Claire Cain Miller, NYT Magazine, on where the most educated baristas are

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Why Olive Garden's pasta sucks

When cooking pasta, use salt. And go easy on the breadsticks.

Those are two of many steps Starboard Value LP said late Thursday it would take to boost the value of Darden Restaurants Inc., owner of Olive Garden, if the activist hedge fund was to win control of the entire board. ...

The firm spent one slide noting that it had learned Olive Garden no longer put salt in the water for its pasta.

"If you Google 'How to cook pasta', the first step of Pasta 101 is to salt the water," Starboard wrote. "How does the largest Italian dining concept in the world not salt the water for pasta?"
--David Benoit, WSJ, on one hedge fund doing God's work


Thursday, September 11, 2014

The surprisingly affordable price of elite school naming rights

The big news at Harvard this past week was that a $350 million donation to the Harvard School of Public Health sufficed to rename the school the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Obviously, $350 million is a ton of money. On the other hand, this proves that the price to rename a school at an elite university like Harvard is not infinite, and in fact is quite affordable for many of the ultra-wealthy, such as the 1,645 billionaires in the world.

If a gift must be financially transformative in order to earn naming rights, and the amount that would be transformative for a school is proportional to its endowment, then note that $350 million is 30.9% of the Harvard School of Public Health's 2013 endowment value of $1.134 billion. With that multiple in mind, here are estimates for the price of naming rights to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford's big-money schools for which I could find endowment values (caveat emptor: not all endowment values are coming from the same year, and some endowment values are a few years old):

Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences: $14.3 billion * 31% = $4.4 billion
Harvard Medical School: $3.0 billion * 31% = $930 million
Harvard Business School: $2.9 billion * 31% = $899 million
Stanford School of Medicine: $2.1 billion * 31% = $651 million
Yale School of Medicine: $1.8 billion * 31% = $558 million
Harvard Law School: $1.7 billion * 31% = $527 million
Stanford Graduate School of Business: $1.24 billion * 31% = $384 million
Yale Law School: $1.0 billion * 31% = $310 million
Yale School of Management: $591 million * 31% = $183 million

As I said, billionaires, quite affordable!

Steve Jobs limited his kids' screen time

“So, your kids must love the iPad?” I asked [Steve] Jobs, trying to change the subject. The company’s first tablet was just hitting the shelves. “They haven’t used it,” he told me. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” ...

Since then, I’ve met a number of technology chief executives and venture capitalists who say similar things: they strictly limit their children’s screen time, often banning all gadgets on school nights, and allocating ascetic time limits on weekends. ...

Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now chief executive of 3D Robotics, a drone maker, has instituted time limits and parental controls on every device in his home. ... “That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”

The dangers he is referring to include exposure to harmful content like pornography, bullying from other kids, and perhaps worse of all, becoming addicted to their devices, just like their parents. ...

I never asked Mr. Jobs what his children did instead of using the gadgets he built, so I reached out to Walter Isaacson, the author of “Steve Jobs,” who spent a lot of time at their home.

“Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of things,” he said. “No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.”

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Any headline ending in a question mark can be answered by the word "no"

Betteridge's law of headlines is an adage that states: "Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no." It is named after Ian Betteridge, a British technology journalist, although the general concept is much older. ...

Betteridge explained the concept in a February 2009 article, regarding a TechCrunch article with the headline "Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?":
This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word "no". The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bull****, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.
Five years before Betteridge's article, a similar observation was made by UK journalist Andrew Marr in his 2004 book My Trade. It was among Marr's suggestions for how a reader should approach a newspaper if they really wish to know what is going on:
If the headline asks a question, try answering 'no'. Is This the True Face of Britain's Young? (Sensible reader: No.) Have We Found the Cure for AIDS? (No; or you wouldn't have put the question mark in.) Does This Map Provide the Key for Peace? (Probably not.) A headline with a question mark at the end means, in the vast majority of cases, that the story is tendentious or over-sold. It is often a scare story, or an attempt to elevate some run-of-the-mill piece of reporting into a national controversy and, preferably, a national panic. To a busy journalist hunting for real information a question mark means 'don't bother reading this bit'.
--Wikipedia on questionable stories with questioning titles

How the NY subway tricks people out of their money using arithmetic

We’ve all been there. ... Yes, you need $2.50 to ride the subway, and you have $2.45 on your MetroCard. ...

It turns out the MTA has designed it that way. Imagine how many tourists come to NYC and leave with balances that never get used. Imagine how many people lose metro cards with those balances that never get used. And even if it gets used on a later refill, the MTA gets to collect the cash earlier this way! Win win for them, right?

But now, with some simple math, you can fight back!

First, let’s see how the MTA tricks you out of your money earlier than you might want to release it to them.

When you are buying a MetroCard, you can get a 5% bonus if your purchase is big enough. So you get the following screen early on in the purchase process:



If you click the button on the left, they just got you. Your card will have $9.45 on it, meaning you will get 3 rides and end up with $1.95. ...

Let’s say you don’t take the bait. You click MetroCard. Then you get this screen with three new short cuts:



... But wait a minute. One button leaves you with the same $9.45 card, and gives a remainder of $1.95 after just three uses. The next one is even more frustrating: you end up with a $19.95 card, leaving a remainder after 7 uses of $2.45! That’s right, the nickel we were talking about earlier. The last option does not leave you much better off. You’ll get a $40.95 card, which leads to $0.95 on your card after you use 16 rides. So all three buttons presented leave quite a bit of “insufficient fare” on the card.
So how do you fight back Well, click “Other Amounts” and type your own values:



and remember these three magic numbers: $9.55, $19.05 and $38.10. That’s right. Never use the short cuts. Just type in one of those numbers.

Once you do, you’ll see your excess balances nearly vanish once you apply the 5% bonuses. ...

So in closing, Math is useful. And luckily, you don’t have to be Einstein to outsmart the MTA.
--Ben Wellington, IQuantNY, on overcoming evil nudges

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The optimal ratio of studying to rehearsing: 2 to 3

In 1620, the philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, “If you read a piece of text through twenty times, you will not learn it by heart so easily as if you read it ten times while attempting to recite it from time to time and consulting the text when your memory fails.”

Scientific confirmation of this principle began in 1916, when Arthur Gates, a psychologist at Columbia University, created an ingenious study to further Bacon’s insight. If someone is trying to learn a piece of text from memory, Gates wondered, what would be the ideal ratio of study to recitation (without looking)? To interrogate this question, he had more than 100 schoolchildren try to memorize text from Who’s Who entries. He broke them into groups and gave each child nine minutes to prepare, along with specific instructions on how to use that time. One group spent 1 minute 48 seconds memorizing and the remaining time rehearsing (reciting); another split its time roughly in half, equal parts memorizing and rehearsing; a third studied for a third and recited for two-thirds; and so on.

After a sufficient break, Gates sat through sputtered details of the lives of great Americans and found his ratio. “In general,” he concluded, “best results are obtained by introducing recitation after devoting about 40 percent of the time to reading. Introducing recitation too early or too late leads to poorer results.” The quickest way to master that Shakespearean sonnet, in other words, is to spend the first third of your time memorizing it and the remaining two-thirds of the time trying to recite it from memory.
--Benedict Carey, NYT Magazine, on the golden ratio

Taking the final exam on the first day of class helps learning

But what if, instead, you took a test on Day 1 that was just as comprehensive as the final but not a replica? You would bomb the thing, for sure. You might not understand a single question. And yet as disorienting as that experience might feel, it would alter how you subsequently tuned into the course itself — and could sharply improve your overall performance.

This is the idea behind pretesting, one of the most exciting developments in learning-science. Across a variety of experiments, psychologists have found that, in some circumstances, wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later. ...

The excitement around prefinals is rooted in the fact that the tests appear to improve subsequent performance in topics that are not already familiar, whether geography, sociology or psychology. At least they do so in experiments in controlled laboratory conditions. A just-completed study — the first of its kind, carried out by the U.C.L.A. psychologist Elizabeth Ligon Bjork — found that in a live classroom of Bjork’s own students, pretesting raised performance on final-exam questions by an average of 10 percent compared with a control group.

The basic insight is as powerful as it is surprising: Testing might be the key to studying, rather than the other way around. ...

We are duped by a misperception of “fluency,” believing that because facts or formulas or arguments are easy to remember right now, they will remain that way tomorrow or the next day. This fluency illusion is so strong that, once we feel we have some topic or assignment down, we assume that further study won’t strengthen our memory of the material. We move on, forgetting that we forget.

Often our study “aids” simply create fluency illusions — including, yes, highlighting — as do chapter outlines provided by a teacher or a textbook. ...

The best way to overcome this illusion is testing, which also happens to be an effective study technique in its own right. ... Scientific confirmation of this principle began in 1916...

[In the 1930s, Herman] Spitzer wanted to extend the finding, asking a question that would apply more broadly in education: If testing is so helpful, when is the best time to do it?

He mounted an enormous experiment, enlisting more than 3,500 sixth graders at 91 elementary schools in nine Iowa cities. ...

The groups that took pop quizzes soon after reading the passage — once or twice within the first week — did the best on a final exam given at the end of two months, marking about 50 percent of the questions correct. (Remember, they had studied their peanut or bamboo article only once.) By contrast, the groups who took their first pop quiz two weeks or more after studying scored much lower, below 30 percent on the final. Spitzer’s study showed that not only is testing a powerful study technique, but it’s also one that should be deployed sooner rather than later. ...

If tests are most effective when given sooner rather than later, then why not go the distance? Why not give the final on the first day, as well as on the last?
--Benedict Carey, NYT Magazine, on the case for sooner and more frequent testing