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