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