Friday, January 31, 2014

Is social libertarianism a product of elite self-interest?

Because if the heart of your social analysis, the core of your conclusion, is the idea that the homogamous new elite’s social behavior is essentially (if perhaps unknowingly) self-interested — that the pursuit of meritocratic success has led the mass upper class to “walk away without a care … from people who in other circumstances, even in the not so distant past, would have been our friends and coworkers, lovers and spouses” — then perhaps you need to apply the same cold-eyed perspective to that elite’s cultural assumptions and attitudes as well, and to the blend of laws and norms those attitudes incline its members to support.

By which I mean … is it just a coincidence that this self-interested elite holds the nearly-uniformly liberal views on social issues that it does? Is it just random that the one idea binding the post-1970s upper class together — uniting Wall Street’s Randians and Harvard’s academic socialists, a left-leaning media and a right-leaning corporate sector, the libertarians of Silicon Valley and the liberal rich of the Upper West Side — is a hostility to any kind of social conservatism, any kind of morals legislation, any kind of paternalism on issues of sex and marriage and family? Is the upper class’s social liberalism the lone case, the rare exception, where our self-segregated, self-interested elites really do have the greater good at heart? ...

Maybe so — but for the sake of argument, let’s consider the possibility that they don’t. Not infrequently in culture-war arguments, conservative complaints about liberalism’s hostility to “traditional values” (or whatever phrase you prefer) are met by the counterpoint that liberal regions of the country seem to embrace bourgeois norms more fully than conservatives communities. ... In upper class circles, liberal social values do not necessarily lead to libertinism among the people who hold them, and indeed quite often coexist with an impressive amount of personal conservatism, personal restraint.

But if we’re inclined, with [Steve Randy] Waldman, to see our elite as fundamentally self-interested, then we should ask ourselves whether the combination of personal restraint and cultural-political permissiveness might not itself be part of how this elite maintains its privileges. ...

If the path to human flourishing still mostly runs through monogamy and marriage, who benefits the most from the kind of changes that make that path less normative, less law-supported, less obvious? Well, mostly people who are embedded in communities that continue to send the kind of signals that the law and the wider culture no longer send. ...

...a community low in explicit moralism but high in social capital and social pressure, where the incentives not to date or sleep with the wrong person at the wrong time are sharpened by the immense rewards for not making personal mistakes, where divorce and single parenthood are regarded as major threats to the all-important intergenerational transfer of success, where young people are inculcated with the kind of self-control required to dabble in libertinism but not take major risks, and where the influence of a libertine culture is counteracted by the dense network of adult authority figures whose examples matter more than what you watch and read and consume. A place where the norms and rules and script don’t have to be made explicit to carry immense weight. A place where everyone understands the basic secret of success.

A place like, well, the modern meritocracy. ...

So again, if you were inclined to view all of this suspiciously, you might look at the culture industry — networks and production companies, magazines and music labels — and note that the messages it sends about sex are a kind of win-win for the class of people running it. They get to profit off various forms of exploitation directly, because sex sells and shock value attracts eyeballs. And then they also reap benefits indirectly – because the teaching they’re offering to the masses, the vision of the good life, is one that tends to ratify existing class hierarchies, by encouraging precisely the behaviors and choices that in the real world make it hard to rise and thrive. In this sense, one might suspect our cultural elites of being a little bit like the Silicon Valley parents who send their kids to computer-free schools: They don’t mind pushing the moral envelope in the shows they greenlight and the songs they produce, because they’re confident that their own kids have the sophistication required to regard Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus as amusements rather than role models, the social capital required to keep the culture’s messages at arm’s length.

Now do I actually think there’s some kind of elite-liberal cultural conspiracy to keep the masses in their social place? No, of course not – there’s nothing so conscious and cynical at work. But then again, neither do I think there’s a meritocratic conspiracy to withdraw into walkable-urban enclaves and leave the rest of society to fragment and decay. Yet that withdrawal and its consequences are still important facts for understanding the decline of marriage, just as Waldman says. An approach to life doesn’t have to be calculated to be effectively self-interested, and in the context of a stratified country that self-interest is well worth pointing out. ...

And it is still a fact that if you tallied up winners and losers from the sexual revolution, the obvious winners would tend to cluster at one end of 1975’s income distribution, the obvious losers at the other.

When Phillips Exeter students eat chocolate from a dumpster

Lindt is well-known for its luxury candy products, but Exonians have recently found a way around the price tag.

In a practice commonly referred to as “dumpster diving,” students have been retrieving expired chocolates from dumpsters behind the local Lindt outlet despite the disapproval of the company. Dumpster diving is not limited to the Lindt outlet—students have also found items ranging from speakers to old license plates in nearby dumpsters.

Lindt has posted signs of trespassing on their property and warned that they will press charges against anyone who trespasses in such a fashion. ...

Another student, who also wishes to remain anonymous, said that Exonians began dumpster diving after a school project required them to find waste and then convince companies to make constructive use of it.
--Joonho Jo, Emily LaRovere, Tommy Song, and Sam Tan, The Exonian, on the spartan prep school life. HT: Yale Daily News

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Don't worry about pesticides on non-organic produce

First, let’s start with the fact that organic does not mean pesticide-free. As scientist and writer Christie Wilcox explains in several eye-opening blog posts over at Scientific American, organic farmers can and often do use pesticides. The difference is that conventional farmers are allowed to use synthetic pesticides, whereas organic farmers are (mostly) limited to “natural” ones...

The assumption, of course, is that these natural pesticides are safer than the synthetic ones. Many of them are, but there are some notable exceptions. Rotenone, a pesticide allowed in organic farming, is far more toxic by weight than many synthetic pesticides. ...

Ah, but what about all those studies that suggest that organic fruits and veggies harbor fewer pesticide residues than conventionally farmed produce does? Those studies only tested for synthetic pesticides. ...

Winter and his colleagues found that, each day from conventionally-grown apples and apple-based products, Americans typically consume a dose of Thiabendazole that is 787 times less than the EPA’s recommended exposure limit. Put another way, you’d have to eat as many apples and apple products as 787 Americans eat in a single day combined in order to be exposed to a level of this pesticide that approaches the EPA’s exposure limit. ...

For other fruits and vegetables, Winter and his colleagues found even less reason to worry. ... Overall, Winter and his colleagues reported that the EPA’s exposure limits were more than 1000 times higher than the daily exposure estimates for 90 percent of the fruit and vegetable comparisons they made. ...

The [EPA] sets pesticide limits at least 100 times lower than the lowest dose that caused any sign of harm, however minimal, to animals when they were fed that amount every day for most of their lives. ... And by the way, in none of these studies were the fruits and vegetables rinsed with tap water before they were tested, yet research suggests that doing so can reduce pesticide exposures significantly. ...

There’s another important thing to keep in mind about fruits and veggies: They are chock full of a many naturally-occurring toxic compounds—things like flavonoids, hydrogen peroxide, and formaldehyde. Research conducted by Bruce Ames, director of the Nutrition & Metabolism Center at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, has found that Americans consume about 1,500 milligrams of natural toxins from plants a day, which is approximately 16,000 times more than the 0.09 milligrams of synthetic pesticides we get from food every day. These natural toxins are for real, too: According to Ames’s work, the natural chemicals that are known to cause cancer in animals and are found in a single cup of coffee are about equal in weight to a year’s worth of our exposure to synthetic pesticide residues that are known to cause cancer. ...

It’s Ames’s belief that plants are exceptionally good for us in spite of the fact that they contain high levels of natural toxins—and that we certainly shouldn’t be worried about the minuscule differences in pesticide levels between organic and conventional foods. Indeed, if the research literature is clear about anything regarding fruits and vegetables, it’s that eating more of them—conventional or organic—does good things for the body.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The gourmet status of Spam in South Korea

“Here, Spam is a classy gift you can give to people you care about during the holiday,” said Im So-ra, a saleswoman at the high-end Lotte Department Store in downtown Seoul who proudly displayed stylish boxes with cans of Spam nestled inside.

South Korea has become the largest consumer of Spam outside the United States, according to the local producer. ...

Spam’s journey from surplus pork shoulder in Minnesota to the center of the South Korean dining table began at a time of privation — hitching a ride with the American military during the Korean War and becoming a longed-for luxury in the desperate years afterward, when American troops stayed to keep the peace.

“PX food was the only way you could get meat,” said Kim Jong-sik, 79, a South Korean veteran, referring to the American Army’s post exchange stores. “Spam was a luxury available only to the rich and well-connected.” ...

For a time, Korean children even considered it cool to have pan-fried slices of Spam in their school lunchboxes. (Now, it is at least not uncool.) Its cachet was obvious in a recent television commercial featuring movie and television stars. In it, a man makes a romantic dinner invitation that his picky girlfriend cannot refuse: How about slices of pan-fried Spam over a steaming bowl of rice? ...

Mr. Kim, the army veteran, is of the generation that remembers firsthand the painful origins of the product’s popularity. “In those early years, children scavenged through American Army Dumpsters, collecting Spam, sausage, half-eaten hamburger patty, bacon, bread, anything edible, and sold them to restaurants,” he said.

The stew that came to be known as budaejjigae was born that way, as people cleaned the castoffs and began mixing them, or black-market American military rations, with kimchi. ...

Mr. Kim and his wife now run Bada Sikdang, one of the most popular budaejjigae restaurants in Seoul.

During a recent lunch, Bada was packed with well-dressed young Koreans. Sung Min-kyeong, 35, an interior designer dining at the 14-table restaurant, said she could not understand what Americans found so funny about Spam while they loved hot dogs.
--Choe Sang-Hun, NYT, on why Koreans love Spam. (But please don't buy me Spam as a gift.)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

69% of olive oil in U.S. is not pure olive oil

Much of the oil sold as Italian olive oil does not come from Italy, but from countries like Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. ... Meanwhile, shipments of soybean oil or other cheap oils are labeled olive oil... At a refinery, the olive oil is cut with cheaper oil... The "olive oil" is shipped around the world, to countries like the U.S., where approximately 69 percent of the olive oil for sale is doctored.
--Nicholas Blechman and Tom Mueller, NYT, on reasons to buy Californian or Chilean olive oil

The New York Times issued a correction. The updated text states, "69 percent of imported olive oil labeled 'extra virgin' did not meet, in an expert taste and smell test, the standard for that label."

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Intermittent fasting: A better way to lose weight?

Before she deprived people of food, Dr. Krista Varady deprived mice. ... She would let them eat only a quarter of their normal diet on one day, then give them access to as much food as they wanted the next. ...

The days rolled by sequentially for the mice: fast, feast, fast, feast, fast, feast. ... Even on the days that the mice had access to unlimited food, they only ate about 25 percent more than average. They did not eat enough to compensate for the fasting days. So, over time, they lost weight. ...

She developed a protocol for humans based on her mouse experiments, and enrolled her first study subjects in 2008. She was surprised to find that, like mice, when people are given only 25 percent of their caloric needs on a fasting day, they do not eat 175 percent the following day. They actually only eat slightly more—115 percent or so. That means by the end of the week, they’ve eaten a lot less than they typically would, and they only felt deprived for 3.5 days. Another surprise: 80 to 90 percent of people were able to stick to the plan. ...

She is currently conducting an NIH-funded research trial in which people are doing six months of every-other-day dieting as compared to six months of every-day calorie restriction. At the end of a typical week, both groups eat about the same number of calories. "We're actually seeing," though, she said, "that the people in the every-other-day group are losing more weight—about five to seven pounds more—because they're just able to stick to it longer."

"And they like it more. They like that they're always able to look forward to the next day when they can eat whatever they want. They are able to feel normal sometimes." ...

She says the first ten days are "pretty difficult," but after that, people seem to get used to it.

Evidence that countries became democracies because of Protestant missionaries

In essence, [sociologist Robert] Woodberry was digging into one of the great enigmas of modern history: why some nations develop stable representative democracies...

In search of answers, Woodberry traveled to West Africa in 2001. Setting out one morning on a dusty road in Lomé, the capital of Togo, Woodberry headed for the University of Togo's campus library. He found it sequestered in a 1960s-era building. The shelves held about half as many books as his personal collection. The most recent encyclopedia dated from 1977. Down the road, the campus bookstore sold primarily pens and paper, not books.

"Where do you buy your books?" Woodberry stopped to ask a student.

"Oh, we don't buy books," he replied. "The professors read the texts out loud to us, and we transcribe."

Across the border, at the University of Ghana's bookstore, Woodberry had seen floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with hundreds of books, including locally printed texts by local scholars. Why the stark contrast?

The reason was clear: During the colonial era, British missionaries in Ghana had established a whole system of schools and printing presses. But France, the colonial power in Togo, severely restricted missionaries. The French authorities took interest in educating only a small intellectual elite. More than 100 years later, education was still limited in Togo. In Ghana, it was flourishing. ...

While studying the Congo, Woodberry made one of his most dramatic early discoveries. Congo's colonial-era exploitation was well known... In French Congo, the atrocities passed without comment or protest, aside from one report in a Marxist newspaper in France. But in Belgian Congo, the abuses aroused the largest international protest movement since the abolition of slavery.

Why the difference? Working on a hunch, Woodberry charted mission stations all across the Congo. Protestant missionaries, it turned out, were allowed only in the Belgian Congo. Among those missionaries were two British Baptists named John and Alice Harris who took photographs of the atrocities... With evidence in hand, they traveled through the United States and Britain to stir up public pressure and, along with other missionaries, helped raise an outcry against the abuses. ...

To convince skeptics, however, Woodberry needed more than case studies. Anyone could find the occasional John and Alice Harris or John Mackenzie, discard the Nathan Prices, and assemble a pleasing mosaic. But Woodberry was equipped to do something no one else had done: to look at the long-term effect of missionaries using the wide-angle lens of statistical analysis. ...

"I was shocked," says Woodberry. "It was like an atomic bomb. The impact of missions on global democracy was huge." ...

He notes that most missionaries didn't set out to be political activists. Locals associated Christianity with their colonial abusers, so in order to be effective at evangelizing, missionaries distanced themselves from the colonists. They campaigned against abuses for personal, practical reasons as well as humanitarian ones. ...

If all souls were equal before God, everyone would need to access the Bible in their own language. They would also need to know how to read.

"They focused on teaching people to read," says Dana Robert, director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University. "That sounds really basic, but if you look worldwide at poverty, literacy is the main thing that helps you rise out of poverty. Unless you have broad-based literacy, you can't have democratic movements."

As Woodberry observes, although the Chinese invented printing 800 years before Europeans did, in China the technology was used mostly for elites. Then Protestant missionaries arrived in the 19th century and began printing tens of thousands of religious texts, making those available to the masses, and teaching women and other marginalized groups how to read. Not until then did Asian authorities start printing more widely.

Pull out a map, says Woodberry, point to any place where "conversionary Protestants" were active in the past, and you'll typically find more printed books and more schools per capita.
--Andrea Palpant Dilley, Christianity Today, on the worldly legacy of Protestant missionaries

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Fire in your high-rise building? Stay put!

It is a basic human instinct reinforced by countless grade-school fire drills: When you see flames or smell smoke, get out. ... But in modern high-rise buildings, fire safety experts say, flight can be deadly.

As they raced down the stairs, the couple ran into a suffocating plume of smoke sucked upward as if through a chimney when firefighters opened the stairwell door and pushed into the burning apartment.

Had the couple remained in their home, Mr. McClung would have survived, officials said. The fire turned out to be isolated to an apartment 18 floors below where the couple lived. Because the building was constructed of fire-resistant materials, the blaze barely spread. Even residents who remained in apartments directly next door to the fire emerged unscathed.

A fire safety notice that is supposed to be affixed to every entry door makes clear that staying in place is often the safest strategy during a fire.
--Michael Schwirtz, NYT, on why I will ignore my apartment building's next fire alarm

Monday, January 20, 2014

All economics has become "behavioral economics"

“It’s behavioral economics 101,” said Clive Thompson, author of a new book, “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better” and an occasional contributor to The New York Times Magazine. “You make it easy for people to do something, they will do more of it.”
--Nick Bilton, NYT, on a perhaps Pyrrhic branding triumph

Russian vs. American responses to "How are you?"

Ask a Russian, “How are you?” and you will hear, for better or worse, the truth. A blunt pronouncement of dissatisfaction punctuated by, say, the details of any recent digestive troubles. I have endured many painful minutes of elevator silence after my grandmother (who lived in the Soviet Union until moving to the United States in her 60s) delivered her stock response: “Terrible,” to which she might add, “Why? Because being old is terrible.” Beat. “And I am very old.” ...

It feels as if I’ve spent half my life trying to smooth over the bafflement of my American friends and the hurt feelings of my Russian expat family as a result of this innocuous inquiry. “ ‘Fine’ makes Russians think that Americans have no soul,” I explained recently to an American-born friend. “That they just want to go home, eat a frozen dinner in front of the TV, and wait out the hours before going to work to make money again.”

He laughed, then quickly sobered. “You know, there’s something to that.”

But if the American “fine” can come off as plastic and insincere, the speed with which Russians unload intimate details is just as disturbing. I was born in Ukraine to Russian parents, but I grew up in the United States, and I get it. It’s like, “I don’t know you, Random Russian Lady, so why are you showing me your rash?”

The thing most Russians don’t realize is that, in English, “How are you?” isn’t a question at all, but a form of “hi,” like the Russian “privyet!” The Americans weren’t responsible for its transformation; that honor goes to the British. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase’s precursor, “How do you do?” as a common phrase “often used as a mere greeting or salutation.” The anodyne exchange dates at least as far back as 1604, to Shakespeare’s Othello, where Desdemona asks her husband, “How is’t with you, my lord?” and Othello replies “Well, my good lady.” Even though he is half-mad with jealousy and only five scenes away from murdering her.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The story of Noah and the flood outside the Bible

In the year 1872 one George Smith, a bank­note engraver turned assistant in the British Museum, astounded the world by discovering the story of the Flood – much the same as that in the Book of Genesis – inscribed on a cuneiform tablet made of clay that had recently been excavated at far-distant Nineveh (in present-day Iraq). Human behaviour, according to this new discovery, prompted the gods of Babylon to wipe out mankind through death by water, and, as in the Bible, the survival of all living things was effected at the last minute by a single man. ...

The story of a flood that destroyed the world, in which human and animal life was saved from extinction by a hero with a boat, is almost universal in the world’s treasury of traditional literature. Many scholars have tried to collect all the specimens in a butterfly net, to pin them out and docket them for family, genus and species. Flood stories in the broadest sense have been documented in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Syria, Europe, India, New Guinea, Central America, North America, Australia and South America. ...

People have long been concerned with the question of whether there really was a flood, and been on the lookout for evidence to support the story, and I imagine all Mesopotamian archaeologists have kept the Flood at the back of their mind. In the years 1928 and 1929 important discoveries were made on sites in Iraq that were taken to be evidence of the biblical Flood itself. At Ur, excavation beneath the Royal Cemetery disclosed more than 10ft of empty mud, below which earlier settlement material came to light. A similar discovery was made at the site of Kish in southern Iraq. To both teams it seemed inescapable that here was evidence of the biblical Flood itself. ...

The Ark Tablet, like many documents of its period, is designed to fit comfortably in the reader’s hand; it is much the same size and weight as a contemporary mobile phone.

The tablet was written during the Old Babylonian period, broadly 1900–1700BC. ...

What gave me the biggest shock in 44 years of grappling with cuneiform tablets was, however, what came next. My best shot at the first two signs beginning line 52 came up with “sa” and “na”, both incompletely preserved. On looking unhopefully for words beginning “sana” in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, I found the following entry and nearly fell off my chair as a result of the words: “sana (or sanâ) adv. Two each, two by two.”

This is a very rare word among all our texts – when the dictionary was published there had only been two occurrences. To me, it is the world’s most beautiful dictionary definition.

For the first time we learn that the Babylonian animals, like those of Noah, went in two by two, a completely unsuspected Babylonian tradition that draws us ever closer to the familiar narrative of the Bible.
--British Museum curator Irving Finkel, The Telegraph, on multiple attestations of a major event. HT: JM

Friday, January 17, 2014

Yes, radio playlists really are becoming more repetitive

Faced with growing competition from digital alternatives, traditional broadcasters have managed to expand their listenership with an unlikely tactic: offering less variety than ever.

The strategy is based on a growing amount of research that shows in increasingly granular detail what radio programmers have long believed—listeners tend to stay tuned when they hear a familiar song, and tune out when they hear music they don't recognize.

The data, coupled with the ballooning number of music sources competing for listeners' attention, are making radio stations more reluctant than ever to pull well-known hits from their rotations, extending the time artists must wait to introduce new songs.

The top 10 songs last year were played close to twice as much on the radio than they were 10 years ago, according to Mediabase, a division of Clear Channel Communications Inc. that tracks radio spins for all broadcasters.

How many college football and basketball players read at an elementary school level?

Early in her career as a learning specialist, Mary Willingham was in her office when a basketball player at the University of North Carolina walked in looking for help with his classwork.

He couldn't read or write.

"And I kind of panicked. What do you do with that?" she said, recalling the meeting. ...

As a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro, Willingham researched the reading levels of 183 UNC-Chapel Hill athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012. She found that 60% read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between 8% and 10% read below a third-grade level. ...

The issue was highlighted at UNC two years ago with the exposure of a scandal where students, many of them athletes, were given grades for classes they didn't attend, and where they did nothing more than turn in a single paper. ...

When Willingham worked as a learning specialist for athletes from 2003 to 2010, she admits she took part in cheating, signing her name to forms that said she witnessed no NCAA rules violations when in fact she did. ...

The data CNN collected is based on the SAT and ACT entrance exam scores of athletes playing the revenue sports: football and basketball. ...

Based on data from those requests and dozens of interviews, a CNN investigation revealed that most schools have between 7% and 18% of revenue sport athletes who are reading at an elementary school level. Some had even higher percentages of below-threshold athletes.

Mental health problems at Yale

At the end of a brightly lit hallway on the building’s third floor is the Mental Health and Counseling Department (MH&C), which addresses the psychological concerns of Yale’s almost 12,000 total students. Inside the waiting room, there are 11 brown chairs, a modern-looking coat tree, and a barrier of opaque glass that separates the department from the building’s other facilities.

More than 50 percent of undergraduates will find themselves in this room during their time at Yale. Lorraine Siggins, the department’s chief psychiatrist, reported in a publically available memo in September that MH&C sees about 20 percent of undergrads each year. (Siggins declined to comment for this article, citing “time constraints” in a November email.)

The numbers are even higher for Yale’s graduate and professional school students, 25 percent of whom visit MH&C yearly. They are also growing; visits have doubled since 1998, now surpassing 20,000 per year.
--Andrew Giambrone, Yale News Weekend, on the hurt around us

Saturday, January 11, 2014

How Malcolm Gladwell rediscovered faith

When I was writing my book David and Goliath, I went to see a woman in Winnipeg by the name of Wilma Derksen.

Thirty years before, her teenage daughter, Candace, had disappeared on her way home from school. The city had launched the largest manhunt in its history, and after a week, Candace’s body was found in a hut a quarter of a mile from the Derksen’s house. Her hands and feet had been bound.

Wilma and her husband Cliff were called in to the local police station and told the news. Candace’s funeral was the next day, followed by a news conference. Virtually every news outlet in the province was there because Candace’s disappearance had gripped the city.

“How do you feel about whoever did this to Candace?” a reporter asked the Derksens.

“We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives,” Cliff said.

Wilma went next. “Our main concern was to find Candace. We’ve found her.” She went on: “I can’t say at this point I forgive this person,” but the stress was on the phrase at this point. “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.” ...

I have always believed in God. I have grasped the logic of Christian faith. What I have had a hard time seeing is God’s power.

I put that sentence in the past tense because something happened to me when I sat in Wilma Derksen’s garden. It is one thing to read in a history book about people empowered by their faith. But it is quite another to meet an otherwise very ordinary person, in the backyard of a very ordinary house, who has managed to do something utterly extraordinary.

Their daughter was murdered. And the first thing the Derksens did was to stand up at the press conference and talk about the path to forgiveness. ...

Maybe we have difficulty seeing the weapons of the spirit because we don’t know where to look, or because we are distracted by the louder claims of material advantage. But I’ve seen them now, and I will never be the same.
--Malcolm Gladwell, Relevant, on the power to forgive and the power of forgiveness

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Dale Carnegie was right about criminals

[“Two Gun”] Crowley was sentenced to the electric chair. When he arrived at the death house in Sing Sing, did he say, “This is what I get for killing people”? No, he said, “This is what I get for defending myself.”

The point of the story is this: “Two Gun” Crowley didn’t blame himself for anything.

Is that an unusual attitude among criminals? If you think so, listen to this:

“I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of a hunted man.”

That’s Al Capone speaking. Yes, America’s most notorious Public Enemy—the most sinister gang leader who ever shot up Chicago. Capone didn’t condemn himself. He actually regarded himself as a public benefactor—an unappreciated and misunderstood public benefactor. ...

I have had some interesting correspondence with Lewis Lawes, who was warden of New York’s infamous Sing Sing prison for many years, on this subject, and he declared that “few of the criminals in Sing Sing regard themselves as bad men. ...”

If Al Capone, “Two Gun” Crowley, Dutch Schultz, and the desperate men and women behind prison walls don’t blame themselves for anything—what about the people with whom you and I come in contact? ...

Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.

A survey of convicts serving time in an English prison found they rated themselves higher than the average person on a range of positive characteristics, including morality and kindness. A research team led by University of Southampton psychologist Constantine Sedikides reports the one exception was law-abidingness—“for which they viewed themselves as average.” ...

The study, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, was based on a survey of 79 convicted felons serving time in a prison in the south of England.
--Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard, confirming the wisdom of Dale Carnegie. HT: Chris Blattman

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Edward Snowdens of the 1970s

The perfect crime is far easier to pull off when nobody is watching.

So on a night nearly 43 years ago, while Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier bludgeoned each other over 15 rounds in a televised title bout viewed by millions around the world, burglars took a lock pick and a crowbar and broke into a Federal Bureau of Investigation office in a suburb of Philadelphia, making off with nearly every document inside.

They were never caught, and the stolen documents that they mailed anonymously to newspaper reporters were the first trickle of what would become a flood of revelations about extensive spying and dirty-tricks operations by the F.B.I. against dissident groups.

The burglary in Media, Pa., on March 8, 1971, is a historical echo today, as disclosures by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden have cast another unflattering light on government spying and opened a national debate about the proper limits of government surveillance. ...

Mr. Forsyth, now 63, and other members of the group can no longer be prosecuted for what happened that night, and they agreed to be interviewed before the release this week of a book written by one of the first journalists to receive the stolen documents. ...

Ms. Medsger’s article cited what was perhaps the most damning document from the cache, a 1970 memorandum that offered a glimpse into [FBI director J. Edgar] Hoover’s obsession with snuffing out dissent. The document urged agents to step up their interviews of antiwar activists and members of dissident student groups.

“It will enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and will further serve to get the point across there is an F.B.I. agent behind every mailbox,” the message from F.B.I. headquarters said. Another document, signed by Hoover himself, revealed widespread F.B.I. surveillance of black student groups on college campuses. ...

Since 1956, the F.B.I. had carried out an expansive campaign to spy on civil rights leaders, political organizers and suspected Communists, and had tried to sow distrust among protest groups. Among the grim litany of revelations was a blackmail letter F.B.I. agents had sent anonymously to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., threatening to expose his extramarital affairs if he did not commit suicide.
--Mark Mazzetti, NYT, on history repeating itself

Monday, January 6, 2014

Kids conceived in heat waves are smarter

Joshua Wilde, a University of South Florida assistant professor, and Bénédicte Apouey, a researcher at the Paris School of Economics, studied 22 countries and found that children conceived during heat waves have higher literacy rates, more years of schooling, higher income later in life and lower rates of disability than children conceived during periods of normal temperatures.

Why? One possible reason: Better educated and wealthier women are more likely to conceive during heat waves, because they can more easily stay in comfortable places to copulate. "Sexual activity decreases in heat waves," the authors say, and, "those decreases are disproportionately large for lower income individuals." Another possible reason, the authors said, is that fetuses of the poor and uneducated might be less likely to survive in utero.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

More evidence that low-deductible health insurance has negligible health benefits

My research design exploits a sharp reduction in cost sharing for patients aged over 70 in Japan, to examine its effect on utilization, patient health, and financial protection against risk. Due to the prevailing national policy, cost sharing for outpatient visits and inpatient admissions is as much as 60-80 percent lower at age 70 than at age 69 in Japan. ... By exploiting this price variation, I compare the outcomes of patients just below 70 versus those just over that age using a regression discontinuity (RD) design. ...

First, I find that reduced cost sharing at age 70 discontinuously increases health care utilization. The corresponding elasticity is modest, at around -0.2 for both outpatient visits and inpatient admissions. ...

Second, in terms of benefits, I do not find that lower patient cost sharing improves any of the health measures I examine, such as mortality and self-reported physical and mental health. Since health is a stock, it may take some time for the most observable health effects to be realized. Therefore, it is challenging to address it using the RD approach unless the causes of death are acute. Nonetheless, I do not find any change even in acute cause-specific mortality.
--Hitoshi Shigeoka, "The Effect of Patient Cost Sharing on Utilization, Health, and Risk Protection," on evidence outside of the RAND Health Insurance Experiment and the Oregon Medicaid lottery

Voting is habit-forming

Voter turnout is persistent: a citizen who votes today is more likely to vote in the future (Brody and Sniderman 1977). Although this pattern is widespread, its mechanisms are poorly understood. ...

We address this empirical challenge by exploiting unexpected and transitory shocks to voting costs due to precipitation on election day. Following previous studies documenting that rain decreases turnout (Gomez et al. 2007; Hansford and Gomez 2010; Fraga and Hersh 2011), our test for habit formation amounts to asking whether election-day precipitation decreases voter turnout not only in the current election but also during future elections. Because precipitation on election day affects future turnout only through its impact on current voting, we are able to isolate the effect of habit formation. Our main estimates imply that a 1 percentage point decrease in past turnout lowers current turnout by 0.7-0.9 percentage points.
--Thomas Fujiwara, Kyle Meng, and Tom Vogl, "Estimating Habit Formation in Voting," on the virtuous cycle of doing your civic duty

The more we know, the more we need teams

Several prior studies present evidence that the size of research teams has increased steadily over time (Adams et al, 2005; Wuchy et al, 2007; Jones, 2009). For example, Wuchy et al (2007) show that over the latter half of the twentieth century, team size increased in 170 of 171 fields in science and engineering, 54 of 54 fields in the social sciences, and 24 of 27 fields in the arts and humanities. Furthermore, this increase even occurred in fields traditionally associated with individual-oriented research: “Surprisingly, even mathematics, long thought the domain of the loner scientist and least dependent of the hard sciences on lab scale and capital-intensive equipment, showed a marked increase in the fraction of work done in teams, from 19% to 57%, with mean team size rising from 1.22 to 1.84.” Moreover, they present citation-based evidence that the relative impact of team versus individual output is increasing over time, even after controlling for self-citations. ...

Jones (2009) emphasizes the “knowledge burden” hypothesis in which successive generations of innovators face an increasing education burden due to the advancing knowledge frontier. This advancing frontier, he posits, requires innovators to specialize more and thus necessitates working more collaboratively, which alters the organization of innovative activity towards teamwork. Jones provides descriptive statistics consistent with this theory. For example, he shows that over time: 1) the number of co-authors on academic publications increases, 2) Nobel laureates are older when they perform their great achievement, 3) the number of co-inventors per patent increases, 4) the age at first innovation increases, and 5) the probability of switching fields decreases. ...

We examine whether knowledge accumulation leads to increased collaboration and report evidence consistent with Jones’ (2009) burden of knowledge hypothesis. While we do not rule out other explanations as possible additional drivers of the increasing rate of collaboration, we document that a shock to the knowledge frontier led to increased collaboration and specialization. Specifically, we examine whether the sudden and unexpected increase in knowledge of theoretical mathematics that came with the fall of the Soviet Union led to an increase in collaboration among non-Soviet scholars. Using an identification strategy inspired by Borjas and Doran (2012), we categorize as “Soviet-rich” those subfields of theoretical mathematics where Soviet mathematicians made a high contribution relative to mathematicians from other nations before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

We find that collaboration rose disproportionately in Soviet-rich relative to -poor fields after 1990. ... Moreover, the knowledge shock is followed by a disproportionate increase in researcher team size in Soviet-rich subfields in Japan, a region that did not experience a large influx of Soviet immigrants, suggesting the estimated effect is not caused by an increase in labor market competition.
--Ajay Agrawal, Avi Goldfarb, Florenta Teodoridis, "Does Knowledge Accumulation Increase the Returns to Collaboration?," on the growing importance of working well with others

Environmental devastation for pubic lice

Pubic lice, the crab-shaped insects that have dwelled in human groins since the beginning of history, are disappearing. Doctors say bikini waxing may be the reason.

Waning infestations of the bloodsuckers have been linked by doctors to pubic depilation, especially a technique popularized in the 1990s by a Manhattan salon run by seven Brazilian sisters. More than 80 percent of college students in the U.S. remove all or some of their pubic hair -- part of a trend that’s increasing in western countries. In Australia, Sydney’s main sexual health clinic hasn’t seen a woman with pubic lice since 2008 and male cases have fallen 80 percent from about 100 a decade ago. ...

“Pubic grooming has led to a severe depletion of crab louse populations,” said Ian F. Burgess, a medical entomologist with Insect Research & Development Ltd. in Cambridge, England. “Add to that other aspects of body hair depilation, and you can see an environmental disaster in the making for this species.”
--Jason Gale and Shannon Pettypiece, Bloomberg, on a new endangered species. HT: J8L

Thursday, January 2, 2014

All-nighters cause brain damage?!?

While pulling an all-nighter can make you feel completely drained, cranky, and out of sorts the next day, can it actually injure the brain? A new Swedish study published Tuesday in the journal Sleep indicates that it might.

In the small study conducted in 15 healthy young men, the researchers measured blood levels of certain proteins associated with brain injuries like concussions after the men slept eight hours in a sleep lab and then were kept awake all night playing board games and watching movies. The researchers found that the blood protein levels were 20 percent higher after the men pulled an all-nighter compared to when they had a full night’s rest. ...

The two proteins measured in blood samples, NSE and S100B, are important for the proper functioning of nerve cells and information processing in the brain, but they’re also considered biomarkers of cell damage. ...

Two months ago, University of Rochester Medical Center researchers reported that the brain uses sleep as a time to remove waste products that accumulate throughout the day from the energy expended to think deep thoughts.

Whether a build up of toxins causes long term damage to the brain over time remains unknown, but Benedict speculated that skipping a night of sleep on a regular basis could lead to chronic memory loss if certain regions of the brain are damaged.

“Population-based studies have shown that elderly people with self-reported sleep disturbances have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease,” he said, “compared to those without sleep problems.”
--Deborah Kotz, Boston Globe, on the dangers of my college lifestyle

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Compensation for waiters at high-end restaurants

Head waiters at top-tier restaurants can earn from $80,000 to as much as $150,000 a year including tips, according to industry executives. In comparison, a line cook might earn as little as $35,000 to $45,000 a year while working longer hours. ...

Customer expectations of servers are high. Waiters are expected to be at ease and in command of a wide range of facts and skills. In a 16-course dinner at Eleven Madison Park, a single plate might have 15 ingredients and five preparations, says co-owner Will Guidara. Menus change seasonally. Servers are expected to have accurate answers to specific questions about food allergens, the type of sea salt in a particular dish or the origin of the duck. Service of one dessert, a seasonal cheesecake with chocolate, requires the server to perform a card trick. ...

Many of the servers at Eleven Madison are recent grads of the Culinary Institute, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania and Harvard.
--Alina Dizik, WSJ, on what those pricey tasting menus buy

Sweeteners' sweetness asymptotes at different levels

To make a cup of Coca-Cola, you’d need... about six teaspoons’ worth of sugar, for a 10.4 percent solution. (Pepsi is a little sweeter, at 11 percent. Root beers and some fruit-flavored sodas can be 12 percent or more.) That’s where many [sugar] substitutes fall short.

[Flavor chemist Grant] DuBois had a set of graphs tracking how the power of a sweetener changes with its concentration. He included curves for six different compounds, from saccharin to stevia, but they all looked very much the same. Each curve rose steeply, gaining sweetness with every increment in milligrams per liter, then appeared to hit a ceiling, a point at which the sweetness flattened out. Once you reach that threshold concentration, a compound loses its effect: No matter how much more of it you pump into a beverage, you’ll never get a sweeter taste. The ceilings for some chemicals are high enough to flavor carbonated drinks. Aspartame, for example, can match the taste of sugar in a 16 percent solution. But others reach their limit much too soon. That’s why today you’ll never find a Diet Coke that’s made with saccharin. At best it would match the sweetness of a sugar drink at 10.1 percent.
--Daniel Engber, NYT Magazine, on the mysteries of flavor chemistry

Gary Marcus's favorite science joke

An interviewer approaches a variety of scientists, and asks them: "Is it true that all odd numbers are prime?" The mathematician rejects the conjecture. "One is prime, three is prime, five is prime, seven is prime, but nine is not. The conjecture is false." The physicist is less certain. "One is prime, three is prime, five is prime, seven is prime, but nine is not. Then again 11 is and so is 13. Up to the limits of measurement error, the conjecture appears to be true." The psychologist says: "One is prime, three is prime, five is prime, seven is prime, nine is not. Eleven is and so is 13. The result is statistically significant." The artist says: "One is prime, three is prime, five is prime, seven is prime, nine is prime. It's true, all odd numbers are prime!"
--Gary Marcus, The Observer, on different disciplines' approach to finding truth