Thursday, June 25, 2015

Shredding $20 bills to get yourself into the office early

Rare original blog content below:

You may have seen stories about the alarm clock that shreds money unless you wake up. But as far as I can tell, this is just a concept product, not something you can actually buy.

Well, today, I learned that one economist has ingeniously cobbled together her own money-shredding commitment device to get her into the office early. She writes:
I just take a 20 dollar paper shredder and plug it into a 10 dollar outlet timer, which I set to turn on at 8:30am. As soon as the shredder gets power, it'll shred whatever is already placed on top of the feed slot. It works well!
In a follow-up response, she writes:
I only put $20 in an envelope on the shredder. I've only lost $60 so far, using it maybe 1/4 of the days I'm in the office.
What I need is such a device to be installed inside my gym locker.

Your eyes get red in the swimming pool because of urine

The red, bloodshot eyes that people get after being in a swimming pool aren’t caused by chlorine, as thought — but by what happens when people urinate in the water.

People weeing in the pool means the urine reacts with chlorine to create a chemical compound that hurts the eyes, according to the US’s Healthy Swimming Program. And those chemicals can also create poisonous gases that can damage lungs, hearts and nervous systems.

“That ‘chlorine’ smell at the pool isn’t actually chlorine,” said Chris Wiant, chair of the US Water Quality and Health Council. “What you smell are chemicals that form when chlorine mixes with pee, sweat and dirt from swimmers’ bodies.”

Experts have pointed out that despite the story told to children that a dye in the water will show if they’ve urinated in the pool — as almost half of Americans believe — it’s actually very difficult to tell when it has happened. In fact, having red eyes are the biggest indicator, according to the National Swimming Pool Foundation.
--Andrew Griffin, The Independent, on another reason not to go swimming. HT: KSL

Taylor Swift announces she will no longer review for Nature

In what is seen as the opening shot of a global superstar revolt against the establishment, Taylor Swift announced on her twitter feed earlier today that she was no longer content to review papers for Nature without adequate compensation for her time.

Ms. Swift, who is a regular reviewer for the journal on such diverse research topics as Particle Physics, Molecular Medicine and the use of mobile phone data to track infectious disease epidemics, has long been critical of the highly-profitable journal Nature having a policy of giving reviewers a subscription to the journal in return for doing a review.

“I can get Nature for free on the internet, everybody puts the papers on their own websites now anyway”, said the singer of worldwide mega-hit “Shake it off”.

“It’s just not cutting it any more to give me a year’s subscription. I want money.”
--The Allium on the referee's plight. HT: KS

Monday, June 22, 2015

The medical dangers of skinny jeans

Doctors in Australia report that a 35-year-old woman was hospitalized for four days after experiencing muscle damage, swelling, and nerve blockages in her legs after squatting for several hours while wearing tight-fitting denims.

"We were surprised that this patient had such severe damage to her nerves and muscles," said Dr. Thomas Kimber of the Royal Adelaide Hospital in Australia, in an email.

The patient, who was not identified, spent most of the previous day helping someone move, squatting for long periods while emptying cupboards. Clad in skinny jeans, the woman said they felt increasingly tight and her feet were numb as she walked home, making her trip and fall. Unable to get up, she spent several hours stranded outside before getting to the hospital. Kimber and colleagues published a report about the case online Monday in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. ...

After being treated for four days — and having her jeans cut off — the woman still had some weakness in her legs but walked out of the hospital and later recovered fully. Kimber doesn’t know if the woman still wears skinny jeans but warned her against the dangers of squatting in them.
--Maria Cheng, Associated Press, on a real fashion victim

Why corporations should experiment on us without our consent

Can it ever be ethical for companies or governments to experiment on their employees, customers or citizens without their consent?

The conventional answer — of course not! — animated public outrage last year after Facebook published a study in which it manipulated how much emotional content more than half a million of its users saw. ...

But this outrage is misguided. Indeed, we believe that it is based on a kind of moral illusion.

Companies — and other powerful actors, including lawmakers, educators and doctors — “experiment” on us without our consent every time they implement a new policy, practice or product without knowing its consequences. ...

Why does one “experiment” (i.e., introducing a new product) fail to raise ethical concerns, whereas a true scientific experiment (i.e., introducing a variation of the product to determine the comparative safety or efficacy of the original) sets off ethical alarms?

In a forthcoming article in the Colorado Technology Law Journal, one of us (Professor Meyer) calls this the “A/B illusion” — the human tendency to focus on the risk, uncertainty and power asymmetries of running a test that compares A to B, while ignoring those factors when A is simply imposed by itself.

Consider a hypothetical example. A chief executive is concerned that her employees are taking insufficient advantage of the company’s policy of matching contributions to retirement savings accounts. She suspects that telling her workers how many others their age are making the maximum contribution would nudge them to save more, so she includes this information in personalized letters to them. ...

You can’t answer these questions [of whether the letters worked] without doing a true scientific experiment — in technology jargon, an “A/B test.” The company could randomly assign its employees to receive either the old enrollment packet or the new one that includes the peer contribution information, and then statistically compare the two groups of employees to see which saved more.

Let’s be clear: This is experimenting on people without their consent, and the absence of consent is essential to the validity of the entire endeavor. If the C.E.O. were to tell the workers that they had been randomly assigned to receive one of two different letters, and why, that information would be likely to distort their choices.

Our chief executive isn’t so hypothetical. Economists do help corporations run such experiments, but many managers chafe at debriefing their employees afterward, fearing that they will be outraged that they were experimented on without their consent. A company’s unwillingness to debrief, in turn, can be a deal-breaker for the ethics boards that authorize research. So those C.E.O.s do what powerful people usually do: Pick the policy that their intuition tells them will work best, and apply it to everyone.

Most of the policies and practices that we live by aren’t evidence-based, and good intentions don’t guarantee desired outcomes. The C.E.O. who goes with her gut and tells her employees how much their peers are saving? According to one study, she may actually cause them to save less. ...

We aren’t saying that every innovation requires A/B testing. Nor are we advocating nonconsensual experiments involving significant risk.

But as long as we permit those in power to make unilateral choices that affect us, we shouldn’t thwart low-risk efforts, like those of Facebook and OkCupid, to rigorously determine the effects of those choices. Instead, we should cast off the A/B illusion and applaud them.
--Michelle Meyer and Chris Chabris, NYT, on misguided outrage

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Strange dating preferences for economists

I have a soft spot for economists. I fell for a number of them and was fascinated by their thought processes, which struck me as so efficient, how they sized things up and appraised value with one glance. Their minds seemed to operate in ways mine never did. ...

They say you sometimes project the qualities you lack onto a romantic partner. I began to fetishize those with economic prowess, as though they represented everything I was not.

My sister, who is not an economist but, as an orthodontist who pushes wayward teeth into systematic order, may be the next best thing, would remind me I had the kind of artsy, whimsical brain better suited for language and literature than math and science. She’d sway her arms in an imitation of the flower child she must have thought I was. ...

These inabilities haunted me in college, where I forced myself through economics, microeconomics and game theory, but in each I floundered, making rookie mistakes like inverting supply and demand curves and not pushing my production-possibility frontier to its maximum level of production. I could never grasp why things had to be so black-and-white.

I wish I could say that was the end of my run with economists, but sometimes you keep chasing an elusive ideal. Fresh off that failure, I met a professor of economics and self-proclaimed feminist. I envied his mathematical alacrity, which reminded me of my father, and which I associated with all economists.

On our first date I was so in awe I hardly made a peep. Or maybe it was that I didn’t have an opportunity to squeeze in a word edgewise.

He was a decade older, and I told him I had misgivings about our age gap. As if spurred by the challenge, he continued to pursue me. But once I reciprocated, he pulled away.

His abrupt change of heart reminded me of a guy I dated in college. He was also an economics major, and after eagerly lining up a flurry of dates, he equated his scant interest for me to a graph.

“I thought my like for you would be like this,” he explained, lifting his arm so it made a sharp slope of about +2, “but instead it’s more like this,” he added, lowering his arm to a gently rolling slope of +0.5. ...

It’s too reductive to say that those who deal with numbers are more likely to be tone-deaf to matters of the heart. But in dating these economists, I always felt like our thought processes were not aligned. Yet I also believed they would make me a better version of myself.

Until I finally realized there was no “better” version of myself. I needed to stop shorting my own stock by evaluating myself through an economist’s eyes. So I took myself off the market. ...

In so doing, I hardly expected to meet a man who creates maps for the newspaper most widely read by economists: The Wall Street Journal.
--Patricia Park, NYT, on her strange fetish

Friday, June 12, 2015

An argument that Tom Brady is innocent

Considering that our impartiality was at least implicitly recognized by the N.F.L. in the past, we believe that our analysis of the evidence in Deflategate, in a study released Friday by the American Enterprise Institute, could help resolve this latest controversy.

Deflategate is a dispute about whether the New England Patriots used deliberately underinflated footballs in their playoff victory over the Indianapolis Colts in January. ...

...when we analyzed the data provided in the Wells report, we found that the Patriots balls declined by about the expected amount, while the Colts balls declined by less. In fact, the pressure of the Colts balls was statistically significantly higher than expected. Contrary to the report, the significant difference between the changes in pressure of the two teams’ balls was not because the pressure of the Patriots balls was too low, but because that of the Colts balls was too high.

How could this be? The report’s own findings suggest an explanation: At halftime, N.F.L. officials measured the pressure of “only a sample” of the Colts balls (four out of 12) before they ran out of time; the second half of the game was about to begin. This implies that the Colts balls sat in the warm room where they were to be measured — and thus increased in pressure — for almost the entirety of halftime before being measured.

All of the 11 available Patriots balls, by contrast, were measured at halftime, which suggests that they were measured earlier, when they were colder — and thus lower in pressure. Although this explanation contradicts the Wells report’s conclusions, it fits all the evidence. ...

There are other factors discussed in our study that undermine support for the Wells report’s conclusions. For example, there is considerable uncertainty concerning the actual pressure of the footballs. The N.F.L. official who checked the pressure before the game used some combination of two pressure gauges to measure the Patriots and Colts balls, but it is not known which particular combination.

One of the gauges, as the report notes, records pressures that are higher than the other. If the official used that gauge to measure the Patriots balls (but not the Colts balls) pregame, then those balls may well have started out with too little air, which could explain a later appearance of intentional deflation. The report, however, does not consider that possibility.
--Kevin Hassett and Stan Veuger, NYT, on freeing Tom Brady. HT: CO

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

How the greatest headline in U.S. history almost never was

Vincent Musetto, a retired editor at The New York Post who wrote the most anatomically evocative headline in the history of American journalism — HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR — died on Tuesday in the Bronx. He was 74. ...

The crime behind the headline was lurid even by tabloid standards. On April 13, 1983, Charles Dingle, drinking in a tavern in the Jamaica section of Queens, argued with the owner, Herbert Cummings, and shot him to death. He then took several women hostage, raping one and forcing another, in an apparent bid to confound the police, to cut off Mr. Cummings’s head. ...

But what endured in public memory far longer than the crime was the headline, with its verbless audacity, arresting parallel adjectives and forceful trochaic slams. (The corresponding headline in The New York Times that day proclaimed, genteelly, “Owner of a Bar Shot to Death; Suspect Is Held.” Headlessness was not mentioned until the third paragraph; toplessness not at all.) ...

As several former colleagues have recalled over the years, Mr. Musetto’s headline almost did not come to be. That April evening, as deadline loomed in the newsroom, it occurred to someone that the bar in question might not actually be topless.

“It’s gotta be a topless bar!” Mr. Musetto cried, as his former colleague Charlie Carillo wrote for The Huffington Post in 2012. “This is the greatest headline of my career!” (As quoted by Mr. Carillo, there was an intervening, ungenteel participle between “greatest” and “headline.”)

The Post dispatched a reporter, who phoned from Queens to say, to the relief of all and to the everlasting glory of American tabloid journalism, that topless it was.
--Margalit Fox, NYT, on a fact almost too good to check