Saturday, December 31, 2016

Think everyone around you is a jerk? Then you are probably the jerk

There are, presumably, genuine jerks in the world. ... They don’t think of themselves as jerks, because jerk self-knowledge is hard to come by.

Psychologist Simine Vazire at the University of California, Davis argues that we tend to have good self-knowledge of our own traits when those traits are both evaluatively neutral (in the sense that it’s not especially good or bad to have those traits), and straightforwardly observable. ...

The question “am I really, truly a self-important jerk?” is highly evaluatively loaded, so you will be highly motivated to reach a favored answer: “No, of course not!” Being a jerk is also not straightforwardly observable, so you will have plenty of room to reinterpret evidence to suit: “Sure, maybe I was a little grumpy with that cashier, but she deserved it for forgetting to put my double shot in a tall cup.” ...

To be a jerk is to be ignorant in a certain way—ignorant of the value of others, ignorant of the merit of their ideas and plans, dismissive of their desires and beliefs, unforgiving of their perceived inferiority. ...

To sharpen our conception of jerkitude, it’s helpful also to consider the jerk’s opposite: the sweetheart. Maybe you know one or two of these people—habitually alert to the needs and interests of others, solicitous of others’ thoughts and preferences, liable in cases of conflict to suspect that the fault might lie with them rather than with the other party. ...

...ironically, it is often the sweethearts who are most worried that they have been acting like jerks...

If the essence of jerkitude is a failure to appreciate the perspectives of others around you, this suggests what might be a non-obvious path to self-knowledge: looking not at yourself but at other people. Instead of gazing into the mirror, turn away from the mirror and notice the colors in which the world seems to be painted. Are you surrounded by fools and non-entities, by people with bad taste and silly desires, by boring people undeserving of your attention...?

If this is how the world regularly looks to you, then I have bad news. Likely, you are the jerk. This is not how the world looks to most people, and it is not how the world actually is. You have a distorted vision. You are not seeing the individuality and potential of the people around you.

Pythagoras was scooped by 1300 years

Thirty-eight hundred years ago, on the hot river plains of what is now southern Iraq, a Babylonian student did a bit of schoolwork that centuries later would change our understanding of ancient mathematics. The student scooped up a palm-sized clump of wet clay, formed a disc about the size and shape of a hamburger, and let it dry down a bit in the sun. On the surface of the moist clay the student drew a diagram that showed the people of the Old Babylonian Period (1,900–1,700 B.C.E.) fully understood the principles of the “Pythagorean Theorem” 1300 years before Greek geometer Pythagoras was born, and were also capable of calculating the square root of two to six decimal places. ...

“This geometry tablet is one of the most-reproduced cultural objects that Yale owns — it’s published in mathematics textbooks the world over,” says Professor Benjamin Foster, curator of the Babylonian Collection, which includes the tablet. ...

The tablet, formally known as YBC 7289, “Old Babylonian Period Mathematical Text,” came to Yale in 1909 as part of a much larger collection of cuneiform tablets assembled by J. Pierpont Morgan and donated to Yale.
--Patrick Lynch, YaleNews, on nothing new under the sun

Bambi's look comes from Song dynasty paintings

When Walt Disney’s “Bambi” opened in 1942, critics praised its spare, haunting visual style, vastly different from anything Disney had done before.

But what they did not know was that the film’s striking appearance had been created by a Chinese immigrant artist, who took as his inspiration the landscape paintings of the Song dynasty. The full extent of his contribution to “Bambi,” which remains a high-water mark for film animation, would not be widely known for decades.

Like the film’s title character, the artist, Tyrus Wong, weathered irrevocable separation from his mother — and, in the hope of making a life in the United States, incarceration, isolation and rigorous interrogation — all when he was still a child.

In the years that followed, he endured poverty, discrimination and chronic lack of recognition, not only for his work at Disney but also for his fine art, before finding acclaim in his 90s.

Mr. Wong died on Friday at 106. A Hollywood studio artist, painter, printmaker, calligrapher, greeting-card illustrator and, in later years, maker of fantastical kites, he was one of the most celebrated Chinese-American artists of the 20th century.

But because of the marginalization to which Asian-Americans were long subject, he passed much of his career unknown to the general public. ...

Mr. Wong, newly married and needing steady work, joined Disney in 1938 as an “in-betweener,” creating the thousands of intermediate drawings that bring animated sequences to life. ...

A reprieve came in the late 1930s, when Mr. Wong learned that Disney was adapting “Bambi, a Life in the Woods,” the 1923 novel by the Austrian writer Felix Salten about a fawn whose mother is killed by a hunter.

In trying to animate the book, Disney had reached an impasse. The studio had enjoyed great success in 1937 with its animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” a baroque production in which every detail of the backgrounds — every petal on every flower, every leaf on every tree — was meticulously represented.

In an attempt to use a similar style for “Bambi,” it found that the ornate backgrounds camouflaged the deer and other forest creatures on which the narrative centered.

Mr. Wong spied his chance.

“I said, ‘Gee, this is all outdoor scenery,’” he recalled in a video interview years afterward, adding: “I said, ‘Gee, I’m a landscape painter!’”

Invoking the exquisite landscape paintings of the Song dynasty (A.D. 960–1279), he rendered in watercolors and pastels a series of nature scenes that were moody, lyrical and atmospheric — at once lush and spare — with backgrounds subtly suggested by a stroke or two of the brush.

“Walt Disney went crazy over them,” said Mr. Canemaker, who wrote about Mr. Wong in his book “Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists” (1996). “He said, ‘I love this indefinite quality, the mysterious quality of the forest.’”

Mr. Wong was unofficially promoted to the rank of inspirational sketch artist.

“But he was more than that,” Mr. Canemaker explained. “He was the designer; he was the person they went to when they had questions about the color, about how to lay something out. He even influenced the music and the special effects: Just by the look of the drawings, he inspired people.”

Mr. Wong spent two years painting the illustrations that would inform every aspect of “Bambi.” Throughout the finished film — lent a brooding quality by its stark landscapes; misty, desaturated palette; and figures often seen in silhouette — his influence is unmistakable.

But in 1941, in the wake of a bitter employees’ strike that year, Disney fired Mr. Wong. Though he had chosen not to strike — he felt the studio had been good to him, Mr. Canemaker said — he was let go amid the lingering climate of post-strike resentments.

On “Bambi,” Mr. Wong’s name appears, quite far down in the credits, as a mere “background” artist. ...

In 2001, in formal recognition of his influence on “Bambi,” Mr. Wong was named a Disney Legend. The honor — whose previous recipients include Fred MacMurray, Julie Andrews and Annette Funicello — is bestowed by the Walt Disney Company for outstanding contributions. ...

When his daughters were small, Mr. Wong encouraged them to make art, as his father had encouraged him. Yet he would not let them have coloring books.

The reason was simple: He did not want his children constrained, he said, by lines laid down by others.
--Margalit Fox, NYT, on a remarkable life. HT: ML and SC

Friday, December 30, 2016

Why are there so few Korean surnames?

In a phenomenon that may be completely unique to the Korean culture – which comprise some 75 million people who live on the Korean peninsula, and another 7 million in the global diaspora -- only three surnames, Kim, Lee and Park, account for the appellations of nearly one-half of all Koreans. ...

On the whole, according to various accounts, there are no more than about 250 surnames currently in use in Korea (in contrast, in Japan and the Netherlands there are more than 100,000 active surnames in each society). Korea's paucity of surnames and the heavy concentration of a handful of those names are linked to the peninsula's long feudal history and its complex relationships with aggressive neighbors China and Japan. ...

Korean names use Chinese characters, reflecting the Korean aristocracy's adoption of Confucian naming models (i.e., full names) as long ago as the fifth century. Commoners on the peninsula did not have that privilege.

“For much of Korean history, only the elite had surnames,” [Professor of Asian Studies Donald] Baker said. “Those elites tended to adopt surnames that would make it plausible to claim that they had ancestors from China, then the country Koreans admired the most. There were only a few such surnames. So, when commoners began acquiring surnames [later], they grabbed one already in use to bask in the prestige of the families that were already using that surname.” Baker further noted that Korea was an aristocratic society until the modern era, with only a few families at the top of the social ladder. “That limited the number of 'high-prestige' surnames available,” he added. ...

Sung-Yoon Lee, assistant professor of Korean Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston, told IBTimes that during the late Silla period of Korean history (coinciding with the ninth and 10th centuries of the Christian era), the practice of adopting Chinese-character surnames among the Korean nobility became popular. ...

Eugene Y. Park, Associate Professor of History and Director of the James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies at University of Pennsylvania, told IB Times that by 1392 (the start of Chosun dynasty), roughly 70 percent of Koreans were using surnames -- meaning everyone but slaves.

By the time the Japanese Empire seized Korea in 1910 (upon the collapse of the Chosun dynasty), most Koreans already had surnames, and those who didn’t simply adopted the surnames of their masters, who had a limited number of names available.
--Palash Ghosh, IBTimes, on all those Kims, Lees, and Parks

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Amphetamines fueled the old Hollywood studio system

In the 1920s major studios sent scouts to spot promising young talent and contract them for years of work. ...

With strict contracts, morality clauses, and minimal child labor laws, studio bosses were able to push child stars at breakneck pace. Garland worked six days per week, sometimes 18-hour shifts of constant singing and dancing to pump out as many movies as possible. To keep her energy up and force her weight down, studios plied her with “pep pills,” amphetamine uppers to keep her perky and alert all day. When she couldn’t sleep, they supplied sleeping pills.

“After four hours they’d wake us up and give us the pep pills again,” said Garland. She was using throughout the filming of Wizard of Oz.

In 1941, at age 19, Garland married composer David Rose. MGM did not approve, and ordered her back to work within 24 hours of the wedding. When she became pregnant, her mother Ethel worked with the studio to arrange for an abortion. She was innocent little Dorothy, after all. The public wasn’t ready to see her as a mother, a grown-up.

Meanwhile, MGM manipulated Garland’s publicity. When she gained weight, she was made to take more speed, while press reps told magazines she ate like a truck driver. Her persona was not her own, and she was given little time to discover herself outside the movies.
--Stephanie Buck, Timeline, on the human cost of old Hollywood glamour. HT: Digg

Friday, December 23, 2016

Nicholas Kristof and Tim Keller: Did Jesus's resurrection really happen?

Nicholas Kristof: As you know better than I, the Scriptures themselves indicate that the Resurrection wasn’t so clear cut. Mary Magdalene didn’t initially recognize the risen Jesus, nor did some disciples, and the gospels are fuzzy about Jesus’ literal presence — especially Mark, the first gospel to be written. So if you take these passages as meaning that Jesus literally rose from the dead, why the fuzziness?

Tim Keller: I wouldn’t characterize the New Testament descriptions of the risen Jesus as fuzzy. They are very concrete in their details. Yes, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus at first, but then she does. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24) also don’t recognize Jesus at first. Their experience was analogous to meeting someone you last saw as a child 20 years ago. Many historians have argued that this has the ring of eyewitness authenticity. If you were making up a story about the Resurrection, would you have imagined that Jesus was altered enough to not be identified immediately but not so much that he couldn’t be recognized after a few moments? As for Mark’s gospel, yes, it ends very abruptly without getting to the Resurrection, but most scholars believe that the last part of the book or scroll was lost to us.

Skeptics should consider another surprising aspect of these accounts. Mary Magdalene is named as the first eyewitness of the risen Christ, and other women are mentioned as the earliest eyewitnesses in the other gospels, too. This was a time in which the testimony of women was not admissible evidence in courts because of their low social status. The early pagan critics of Christianity latched on to this and dismissed the Resurrection as the word of “hysterical females.” If the gospel writers were inventing these narratives, they would never have put women in them. So they didn’t invent them.

The Christian Church is pretty much inexplicable if we don’t believe in a physical resurrection. N.T. Wright has argued in “The Resurrection of the Son of God” that it is difficult to come up with any historically plausible alternate explanation for the birth of the Christian movement. It is hard to account for thousands of Jews virtually overnight worshiping a human being as divine when everything about their religion and culture conditioned them to believe that was not only impossible, but deeply heretical. The best explanation for the change was that many hundreds of them had actually seen Jesus with their own eyes.
--Nicholas Kristof and Tim Keller, NYT, on evidence and faith. Other topics covered in the conversation include whether secularism really requires less faith than religiosity, the rationality of believing in miracles, and whether it's unfair that only those with a direct relationship with Jesus go to heaven.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Bayes' theorem began as a defense of Christianity

Presbyterian reverend Thomas Bayes had no reason to suspect he’d make any lasting contribution to humankind. Born in England at the beginning of the 18th century, Bayes was a quiet and questioning man. ... Yet an argument he wrote before his death in 1761 would shape the course of history. It would help Alan Turing decode the German Enigma cipher, the United States Navy locate Soviet subs, and statisticians determine the authorship of the Federalist Papers. Today it has helped unlock the secrets of the brain.

It all began in 1748, when the philosopher David Hume published An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, calling into question, among other things, the existence of miracles. According to Hume, the probability of people inaccurately claiming that they’d seen Jesus’ resurrection far outweighed the probability that the event had occurred in the first place. This did not sit well with the reverend.

Inspired to prove Hume wrong, Bayes tried to quantify the probability of an event. He came up with a simple fictional scenario to start: Consider a ball thrown onto a flat table behind your back. You can make a guess as to where it landed, but there’s no way to know for certain how accurate you were, at least not without looking. Then, he says, have a colleague throw another ball onto the table and tell you whether it landed to the right or left of the first ball. If it landed to the right, for example, the first ball is more likely to be on the left side of the table (such an assumption leaves more space to the ball’s right for the second ball to land). With each new ball your colleague throws, you can update your guess to better model the location of the original ball. In a similar fashion, Bayes thought, the various testimonials to Christ’s resurrection suggested the event couldn’t be discounted the way Hume asserted.

In 1767, Richard Price, Bayes’ friend, published “On the Importance of Christianity, its Evidences, and the Objections which have been made to it,” which used Bayes’ ideas to mount a challenge to Hume’s argument. “The basic probabilistic point” of Price’s article, says statistician and historian Stephen Stigler, “was that Hume underestimated the impact of there being a number of independent witnesses to a miracle, and that Bayes’ results showed how the multiplication of even fallible evidence could overwhelm the great improbability of an event and establish it as fact.”
--Jordana Cepelewicz, Nautilus, on the Christian roots of Bayesian statistics

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Rice cooker blind taste test

To find out whether high-end rice cookers truly make a difference in the taste of rice, The Wall Street Journal conducted a blind taste test under the guidance of ricemeister Toyozou Nishijima. Mr. Nishijima is one of about 4,000 rice experts in Japan who have passed a rigorous exam by the rice retailers' association Japan Rice Retailers' Association, testing their knowledge as well as their abilities to blend, store and polish rice correctly and identify rice varietals in a taste test.

Using four different rice cookers -- flagship models by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., Hitachi Ltd. and Mitsubishi Electric as well as a three-year-old, less expensive Matsushita rice cooker I use at home for comparison -- we made two cups of rice, each with standard rice from a grocery store and soft water that was bottled domestically. A Mitsubishi Electric spokesman had warned us against using expensive European mineral water because its high mineral content gives a flavor that gets in the way of the taste of the rice.

When Mr. Nishijima arrived at our Tokyo office, we put four bowls of rice in front of him. At his request, we provided bottled soft water so he could cleanse his palate between tastings. We served the rice in bowls made of porcelain, a material that's free of any smells that could interfere with the scent of the rice.

For each bowl, Mr. Nishijima first took a close look at the rice, smelled it, and then took a bite, chewing slowly. We didn't tell him which rice cooker brands we used, but he guessed the manufacturers of three of them correctly.

"The taste preferences of the developer that created the original concept for the rice cookers often translate directly into the manufacturers' characteristic," said Mr. Nishijima. ...

The old Matsushita machine, for example, is a quintessential Matsushita rice cooker, he said. The rice was softer and increased sweetness with chewing, which was a characteristic that women tended to appreciate more because they tend to chew their rice for a longer time than men. Mr. Nishijima was impressed with the latest high-end Matsushita model because it made very sticky rice with a sweetness that could be tasted right away.

Mr. Nishijima said the rice made by Hitachi's high-end rice cooker was a little too sticky and lacked sweetness. "The rice has absorbed too much water, but it could be preferred by older people, who want softer rice," he said.

As for the Mitsubishi rice cooker, Mr. Nishijima said it made a harder rice that seemed a little dry. While it was difficult to taste the sweetness of the rice right after it cooked, the sweetness normally increases after several hours, he said.
--Yukari Iwatani Kane, WSJ, on why rice is better in Japan

Friday, December 16, 2016

Why does time seen to slow down in moments of danger?

What I was experiencing at that moment was a psychological phenomenon know as subjective time dilation — the strange temporal elasticity that so often accompanies moments of acute danger. The sensation was immortalized in the scene in The Matrix when Neo is able to perceive the passage of bullets through the air around him. ...

But how, exactly, does your brain slow down time? Maybe the same way a machine does. When you take a slow-motion video with your phone, it ramps up the rate at which frames are recorded, then plays them back at the standard number of frames per second. To find out if the brain takes the same approach, researchers at Baylor and the University of Texas enlisted volunteers who were willing to subject themselves to a nerve-shattering experience called the Suspended Catch Air Device at the Zero Gravity amusement park in Dallas. The participants were strapped into a harness, then dropped from a 150-foot-high tower. After a 2.5 second free fall, a net stopped their descent.

To ascertain whether adrenaline made their brains speed up, the scientists had invented a wrist-mounted device they called the “perceptual chronometer.” The LED display shows pairs of numbers. If the numbers are set to change more quickly than a person’s mind can perceive, he or she will see only a blur. The scientists set the perceptual chronometer’s flicker rate just beyond what their subjects could perceive when calm. If the intense fear of free fall ramped up the subjects’ perception rate, they should be able to discern the numbers.

As instructed, the subjects looked at the device as they fell. (For the most part — one subject was so terrified she kept her eyes clamped.) They saw — a blur. They were no better able to discern the numbers in free fall than they were when safely on the ground.

What this tells us is that our brains don’t speed up when we’re in danger. Instead, the rush of fear hormones causes the brain to retain richer memories of what’s happening. ...

Since the brain estimates the passage of time by how much information is stored within a given interval, richer memories make it feel like more time has passed.
--Jeff Wise, New York, on the fact that you are not Neo

Japan's "evaporated people"

Of the many oddities that are culturally specific to Japan — from cat cafés to graveyard eviction notices to the infamous Suicide Forest, where an estimated 100 people per year take their own lives — perhaps none is as little known, and curious, as “the evaporated people.”

Since the mid-1990s, it’s estimated that at least 100,000 Japanese men and women vanish annually. They are the architects of their own disappearances, banishing themselves over indignities large and small: divorce, debt, job loss, failing an exam.

The Vanished: The Evaporated People of Japan in Stories and Photographs” (Skyhorse) is the first known, in-depth reportage of this phenomenon. French journalist Léna Mauger learned of it in 2008, and spent the next five years reporting a story she and collaborator Stéphane Remael couldn’t believe. ...

“It’s so taboo,” Mauger tells The Post. “It’s something you can’t really talk about. But people can disappear because there’s another society underneath Japan’s society. When people disappear, they know they can find a way to survive.”

These lost souls, it turns out, live in lost cities of their own making.

The city of Sanya, as Mauger writes, isn’t located on any map. Technically, it doesn’t even exist. It’s a slum within Tokyo, one whose name has been erased by authorities. What work can be found here is run by the yakuza — the Japanese mafia — or employers looking for cheap, off-the-books labor. The evaporated live in tiny, squalid hotel rooms, often without internet or private toilets. Talking in most hotels is forbidden after 6 p.m. ...

A shadow economy has emerged to service those who want never to be found — who want to make their disappearances look like abductions, their homes look like they’ve been robbed, no paper trail or financial transactions to track them down.

Nighttime Movers was one such company, started by a man named Shou Hatori. He’d run a legitimate moving service until one night, in a karaoke bar, a woman asked if Hatori could arrange for her to “disappear, along with her furniture. She said she could not stand her husband’s debts, which were ruining her life.”

Hatori charged $3,400 per midnight move. His clientele was vast: from housewives who’d shopped their families into debt to women whose husbands had left them to university students who were sick of doing chores in their dorms.
--Maureen Callahan, New York Post, on halfway suicides

Why there are so many sleepers on Japanese trains

In most countries, sleeping on the job isn’t just frowned upon, it may get you fired.

But in Japan, napping in the office is common and culturally accepted. And in fact, it is often seen as a subtle sign of diligence: You must be working yourself to exhaustion.

The word for it is “inemuri.” It is often translated as “sleeping on duty,” but Dr. Brigitte Steger, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at Downing College, Cambridge, who has written a book on the topic, says it would be more accurate to render it as “sleeping while present.” ...

Inemuri has been practiced in Japan for at least 1,000 years, and it is not restricted to the workplace. People may nap in department stores, cafes, restaurants or even a snug spot on a busy city sidewalk.

Sleeping in public is especially prevalent on commuter trains, no matter how crowded; they often turn into de facto bedrooms. It helps that Japan has a very low crime rate. ...

Sleeping in social situations can even enhance your reputation. Dr. Steger recalled a group dinner at a restaurant where the male guest of a female colleague fell asleep at the table. The other guests complimented his “gentlemanly behavior” — that he chose to stay present and sleep, rather than excuse himself.

One reason public sleeping may be so common in Japan is because people get so little sleep at home. A 2015 government study found that 39.5 percent of Japanese adults slept less than six hours a night. ...

Dr. Steger pointed out that closed eyes may not always equal shut-eye: A person may close them just to build a sphere of privacy in a society with little of it.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The hidden revolution in NFL punting

We need something extra. The thought reverberated for Sam Koch. In four days, the Baltimore Ravens would face one of the NFL's most explosive punt returners. Koch, a veteran punter in his ninth season, wanted to have a little something extra for him.

So as the Ravens gathered for their Wednesday practice, special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg suggested a twist. Let's see if we can fool him. Koch began experimenting. He angled his body toward the right sideline, a pre-snap position that usually indicates the kick's direction, and torqued his hips and right leg toward the left sideline without changing his horizon -- ultimately sending the ball some 40 yards toward the opposite sideline a returner would expect.

"After a few minutes," Rosburg said, "we knew we had something."

The effect was immediate and, without exaggeration, has turned punting strategy in the NFL upside down. Yet almost no one has noticed. ...

Koch punted six times in that initial game, a Week 9 matchup in 2014 with Pittsburgh Steelers returner Antonio Brown on the field. Brown made four fair catches, and the other two punts rolled out of bounds.

That success sparked further attempts to devise unpredictable punts. One year later, Koch has roughly 10 distinctly different kicks in what the Ravens refer to as his "golf bag."

Some are designed to hook toward the sideline with maximum hang time. Others use an intentionally low trajectory to aid coverage teams. He has a knuckler and one kick that drops, from the returner's perspective, roughly in the shape of the letter "S." Two weeks ago, he debuted a "boomerang" punt that does just what you would imagine it might. Most, but not all, of these punts are intended to discourage a clean catch and minimize the return. ...

The NFL changes every day, but there are only a few moments in each generation when it transforms. This is one of them. In plain sight, Sam Koch and the Ravens have introduced a new way to punt.
--Kevin Seifert,, on innovation where none seemed possible

Americans don't really want to spend more on education

...we surveyed representative samples of the adult populations in Germany and the U.S. and implemented three randomized experiments on how the provision of information affects support for education spending. ...

We find that a vast majority of the public in both countries underestimates current levels of school spending and teacher salaries. Absent the provision of information, an absolute majority in both countries supports increased government spending on education, with somewhat higher levels of support among Germans than Americans (71 percent vs. 60 percent).

Our first survey experiment shows that citizens of both countries also react similarly to two information treatments, with treatment effects (relative to the control mean) hardly differing. Informing respondents about the current level of annual public education spending per student reduces support for increased spending by more than one quarter (to 50 percent in Germany and 43 percent in the U.S.). Additionally stating that the spending increase would be financed through higher taxation reduces support by more than half compared to the control group (to 30 percent in Germany and 26 percent in the U.S.), with the shares in support no longer differing significantly between the two countries.

When respondents are informed about current salary levels, the share who support increases in teacher salaries declines sharply by about 40 percent (relative to the control mean) in both countries, although baseline support is much lower in Germany. ...

Further analysis confirms that these treatment effects reflect actual information effects, rather than simply the effect of being primed to think about monetary values as opposed to, say, observable conditions in local schools before reporting support for spending increases (Iyengar et al. (1984); Krosnick and Kinder (1990)). In both countries, treatment effects are substantially larger for respondents who underestimated actual levels and are almost zero for respondents who had already been well informed prior to the information treatment.
--Martin West, Ludger Woessmann, Philipp Lergetporer, and Katharina Werner, "How information affects support for education spending: Evidence from survey experiments in Germany and the United States," on why we don't spend more on education

Monday, December 12, 2016

The British accent used to sound like today's American accent

In 1776, whether you were declaring America independent from the crown or swearing your loyalty to King George III, your pronunciation would have been much the same. At that time, American and British accents hadn't yet diverged. What's surprising, though, is that Hollywood costume dramas get it all wrong: The Patriots and the Redcoats spoke with accents that were much closer to the contemporary American accent than to the Queen's English.

It is the standard British accent that has drastically changed in the past two centuries, while the typical American accent has changed only subtly.

Traditional English, whether spoken in the British Isles or the American colonies, was largely "rhotic." Rhotic speakers pronounce the "R" sound in such words as "hard" and "winter," while non-rhotic speakers do not. ...

It was around the time of the American Revolution that non-rhotic speech came into use among the upper class in southern England, in and around London. According to John Algeo in "The Cambridge History of the English Language" (Cambridge University Press, 2001), this shift occurred because people of low birth rank who had become wealthy during the Industrial Revolution were seeking ways to distinguish themselves from other commoners; they cultivated the prestigious non-rhotic pronunciation in order to demonstrate their new upper-class status.

"London pronunciation became the prerogative of a new breed of specialists — orthoepists and teachers of elocution. The orthoepists decided upon correct pronunciations, compiled pronouncing dictionaries and, in private and expensive tutoring sessions, drilled enterprising citizens in fashionable articulation," Algeo wrote.
--Natalie Wolchover, LiveScience, on the perpetual quest for status differentiators. HT: EP

Friday, December 2, 2016

Kahneman: Doing Nobel-winning work does not guarantee self esteem

For social-science nerds, [Michael] Lewis provides the back story to Dr. Kahneman and Dr. Tversky’s most famous papers. But the real drama of “The Undoing Project” — the scenes on the peak-end highlight reel — revolve around Dr. Tversky and Dr. Kahneman, both as individuals and as a creative pair. ...

As often happens in collaborations, one person, fairly or unfairly wound up getting more credit for the work, and in this case, it was Dr. Tversky. For Dr. Kahneman, this imbalance generated terrible tension and envy. That we know the details of such a close relationship, and its rocky emotional topography, is astonishing. Dr. Kahneman, 82, now at Princeton, seldom speaks to writers. But Mr. Lewis, as we know, is no an ordinary author. ...

And what do we learn? That envy really is corrosive. That successful marriages involve, as the psychologist Marcel Zentner discovered, “positive illusions.” That world-famous psychologists can be blind to the needs of those around them. And that even winning a Nobel doesn’t guarantee self-esteem. Late in life, Dr. Kahneman remained a rattling kettle of self-doubt.

In a remarkable note on his sources, Mr. Lewis reveals that for years he watched Dr. Kahneman agonize over his 2011 book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” which became both a critical and a fan favorite. “Every few months he’d be consumed with despair, and announce that he was giving up writing altogether — before he destroyed his own reputation,” Mr. Lewis writes. “To forestall his book’s publication he paid a friend to find people who might convince him not to publish it.”

Dr. Tversky never fully understood these fits of doubt. Nor did he see how he made them worse. “I needed to get away,” Dr. Kahneman said. “He possessed my mind.”

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Blue Man Group did the quintessential 21st century thing

Their formative event, the famous-in-retrospect “Funeral for the ’80s” in Central Park, was not especially well thought out. “It wasn’t like we were really earnest about this,” said Mr. Wink, the group’s big talker despite his years as a silent Blue Man. “It was more like, ‘Let’s put it out of its misery and make way for something new.’”

But he was savvy enough to send a news release to MTV. The V.J. Kurt Loder and a cameraman came along to witness a bunch of blue people carrying a coffin, making portentous pronouncements and setting fake fire to ’80s symbols they found objectionable, including Rambo. The audience: perhaps two dozen. ...

MTV hyped the story, Mr. Goldman said, “and through the magic of editing, made it look like you’d missed the Sex Pistols” if you missed the event.

The ’80s were still not over — this was 1988 — and the Blue Men began refining the Blue Man. ...

In 2010, Mr. Goldman sold his one-third share to GF Capital, a private equity fund.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Democracy is in trouble around the world

According to the Mounk-Foa early-warning system, signs of democratic deconsolidation in the United States and many other liberal democracies are now similar to those in Venezuela before its crisis.

Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations.

Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.

That trend is particularly strong among young people. For instance, in a previously published paper, the researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed.

In the United States, Donald J. Trump won the presidential election by running as an antisystem outsider. And support for antisystem populist parties in Europe, such as the National Front in France, Syriza in Greece and the Five-Star Movement in Italy, is rising.
--Amanda Taub, NYT, on alarming signs

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The longing for transcendence defeated Clinton

...2016 exposed liberalism’s twofold vulnerability: to white voters embracing an identity politics of their own, and to women and minorities fearing Trump less than most liberals expected, and not voting monolithically for Hillary. ...

It’s true that identity politics is often illiberal, both in its emphasis on group experience over individualism and, in the web of moral absolutes — taboo words, sacred speakers, forbidden arguments — that it seeks to weave around left-liberal discourse. ...

But liberal societies have always depended on an illiberal or pre-liberal substructure to answer the varied human needs — meaning, belonging, a vertical dimension to human life, a hope against mortality...

In American history, that substructure took various forms: The bonds of family life, the power of (usually Protestant) religion, a flag-waving patriotism, and an Anglo-Saxon culture to which immigrants were expected to assimilate.

Each of these foundations often manifested illiberalism’s evils: religious intolerance, racism and chauvinism, the oppressions of private and domestic power. But they also provided the moral, cultural and metaphysical common ground that political reformers — abolitionists, Social Gospellers, New Dealers, civil rights marchers — relied upon to expand liberalism’s promise.

Much of post-1960s liberal politics, by contrast, has been an experiment in cutting Western societies loose from those foundations, set to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” No heaven or religion, no countries or borders or parochial loyalties of any kind...

Unfortunately the values of “Imagine” are simply not sufficient to the needs of human life. People have a desire for solidarity that cosmopolitanism does not satisfy, immaterial interests that redistribution cannot meet, a yearning for the sacred that secularism cannot answer.

So where religion atrophies, family weakens and patriotism ebbs, other forms of group identity inevitably assert themselves. It is not a coincidence that identity politics are particularly potent on elite college campuses, the most self-consciously post-religious and post-nationalist of institutions; nor is it a coincidence that recent outpourings of campus protest and activism and speech policing and sexual moralizing so often resemble religious revivalism. The contemporary college student lives most fully in the Lennonist utopia that post-’60s liberalism sought to build, and often finds it unconsoling: She wants a sense of belonging, a ground for personal morality, and a higher horizon of justice than either a purely procedural or a strictly material politics supplies. ... is precisely older, foundational things that today’s liberalism has lost. Until it finds them again, it will face tribalism within its coalition and Trumpism from without, and it will struggle to tame either.

Friday, November 25, 2016

When China's top chefs ate at the French Laundry

TYLER COWEN: In one of your books you tell a story of taking some number of very renowned Sichuan chefs and you bring them in the United States to a restaurant called The French Laundry, one of the best and most famous American restaurants. Cooking at a very high level. How did they react to that?

FUCHSIA DUNLOP: Oh, total culture shock. You see, I was delighted. I was so excited. I’d taken these wonderful chefs, all of them extremely accomplished practitioners of Sichuanese cuisine, and here I was. I got a table at the best restaurant, held to be the best restaurant in North America, with some of the finest the West had to offer.

There were all kinds of things that they found very difficult. The first was our reservation was at 9:30. Chinese people like to eat at 6:00 or 6:30, so they were already in a bit of a bad mood by the time we started.

COWEN: As I would be.


DUNLOP: Then it was a four-hour tasting menu. Chinese meals, even very good ones, tend to be rather fast by this standard. For them, it was a long, tedious, late-night thing to sit and have dish after dish of complicated food.

They weren’t used to eating dairy products, so anything creamy, not particularly nice. They were really disturbed. One of them actually refused to eat the most beautiful lamb, because it was a little pink and bloody in the middle. Of course, in China traditionally only barbarians eat raw meat and you just don’t eat raw meat.


DUNLOP: They thought the olives tasted like Chinese medicine.


DUNLOP: In China a meal should always leave you feeling very refreshed and relaxed, and that’s why you finish in many regions with a light, refreshing palate-cleansing soup or with fresh fruit.

At the French Laundry, we ended, like at many classic Western tasting menus, with a whole sequence of very heavy, sweet dishes, which was not very comfortable for them.

COWEN: Also known as dessert. [laughs]

DUNLOP: As dessert. The most interesting thing was Yu Bo, one of the chefs who’s now very famous — one of the best chefs I’ve ever met in China, the most accomplished — he was sitting in front of this beautiful plate of food. He said, “Fuchsia, this is all very interesting, but I really cannot say whether it’s good or bad.”
--Fuchsia Dunlop, Conversations with Tyler, on the analogue of Westerners eating sea cucumber

Monday, November 7, 2016

Over 100 pro-Trump websites are based in a small Macedonian town

“This is the news of the millennium!” said the story on Citing unnamed FBI sources, it claimed Hillary Clinton will be indicted in 2017 for crimes related to her email scandal.

“Your Prayers Have Been Answered,” declared the headline.

For Trump supporters, that certainly seemed to be the case. They helped the baseless story generate over 140,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

Meanwhile, roughly 6,000 miles away in a small town in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a young man watched as money began trickling into his Google AdSense account.

Over the past year, the Macedonian town of Veles (population 45,000) has experienced a digital gold rush as locals launched at least 140 US politics websites. These sites have American-sounding domain names such as,,,, and They almost all publish aggressively pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives and Trump supporters in the US.

The young Macedonians who run these sites say they don’t care about Donald Trump. They are responding to straightforward economic incentives: As Facebook regularly reveals in earnings reports, a US Facebook user is worth about four times a user outside the US. The fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising — a declining market for American publishers — goes a long way in Veles. Several teens and young men who run these sites told BuzzFeed News that they learned the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters. ...

“Yes, the info in the blogs is bad, false, and misleading but the rationale is that ‘if it gets the people to click on it and engage, then use it,’” said a university student in Veles who started a US politics site, and who agreed to speak on the condition that BuzzFeed News not use his name. ...

Earlier in the year, some in Veles experimented with left-leaning or pro–Bernie Sanders content, but nothing performed as well on Facebook as Trump content. ...

BuzzFeed News’ research also found that the most successful stories from these sites were nearly all false or misleading.
--Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed, on supply rising to meet demand. HT: Tyler Cowen

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Scientists can publish their best work at any age

Hoping that your next paper will be the big one? It just might be — the chance that your next article will be your best-cited is as good as ever, no matter where you are in your career.

That’s the finding of a team led by Albert-László Barabási at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. The researchers analysed the papers of thousands of scientists from different disciplines. Considering their publication records as a sequence of articles, the most highly-cited were equally likely to be found at the beginning, middle or end of the sequence.

“We scientists are random,” Barabási says. “Every time we publish a paper, we have the same chance of publishing our biggest hit as we do with any other paper.”

This might seem to conflict with the well-documented finding that big discoveries and high-impact work tend to happen early in a scientist’s career. But there’s no contradiction, because the new work also shows that productivity — the number of papers produced per year — tends to slowly decline over a typical career. A scientist’s chance of securing a ‘greatest hit’ accordingly decreases over time, simply because they have fewer shots at it.

But the researchers also make a more contentious calculation. They devise a simple mathematical model that describes the probability that any particular paper will be a hit. This depends on only two factors, they argue: an element of luck, and a certain quality, or Q factor, that measures an individual scientist’s ability to boost the impact of any project.

Testing their model against the publication records of 2,887 physicists, the team found that the equation implies that the ‘luck’ factor is the same for all scientists. The Q factor is obtained from a researcher’s citation record: it is proportional to the logarithm of the number of citations that a scientist has received over a certain time frame.

The researchers anticipated that Q would increase over the course of a scientific career, as an individual becomes more experienced. To their surprise, they found that it remains mostly constant.

Should you fill out your calendar in great detail? Experimental evidence

My instinct has been that you should only put things in the calendar that absolutely have to go there. Another point of view says you should fill the calendar with tasks and use your calendar as the to do list. The question is, who’s right? There’s some very interesting research done by three psychologists nearly 35 years ago. They split students into control groups and these various groups got different advice. Students who were advised to plan in detail, day by day -- the psychologists thought that would work best.

But in fact that was catastrophic. Students got very discouraged very quickly. What seemed to be happening is you block out your day, and then a friend comes for coffee. The washing machine breaks down. An unexpected phone call just gets in the way, and you’re immediately running behind. So now what do you do? These students became very discouraged and they stopped working. Their study time was way down.

On the other hand, the students who were told to just set out their goals for the month did way better. I think that speaks to the idea that you need that degree of flexibility. It’s fine to have a goal in mind, but the moment I start blocking out particular bits of time, the whole thing doesn’t survive contact with reality and people get very disheartened.
--Tim Harford, Washington Post, on the value of schedules with give

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The bittersweetness of the Cubs' World Series victory

Cubs fans awoke yesterday to one last wait, with little to do before Game 7 but think, about themselves and their families, about the people who've come and gone during these 108 years of failure. Hundreds found themselves drawn to Wrigley Field, where workers were already breaking down the concessions and cleaning out the freezers. Some people said they didn't even mean to come. They started off on a trip to the store and ended up standing in front of the stadium's long brick wall facing Waveland Avenue. Many wrote chalk notes to the dead. Some dedicated messages. This one's for you, Dad. Others wrote names. Dan Bird. Ben Bird. Eugene Hendershott. A man with a bright smile but melancholy eyes wrote the name of his late wife, Andrea Monhollen. They met four blocks from here, on Racine. She's been gone six years. ...

My wife's grandfather, a decorated World War II veteran, who survived being named Bob Weinberg in a German prisoner of war camp, died in May. He grew up in Chicago and loved the Cubs, and as the season went on, my wife and I talked about how cruel it seemed for a man to live for 94 years, survive his bomber being shot down and being held captive, only to die five months before the World Series he longed to see. With him in mind, I reached out to a half-dozen area hospitals and to the team itself, looking for fans who were hanging on, hoping to find someone who might beat Bob's odds. The Cubs connected me with a woman named Ginny Iversen. She listened to the games on the radio religiously, even at 94, and loved to tell people she shared a birthday with Andre Dawson. ...

At the Wrigley Field memorial wall, I saw a woman writing on the metal gates to the bleachers themselves, across the street from Murphy's. Mary Beth Talhami (I'd learn her name later) finished her message and stood back to admire it: "Mom, thank you for teaching us to believe in ourselves, love and the Cubs. Enjoy your view from the ultimate skybox."

I took a picture of her, close enough to overhear her conversation with another stranger to her left. Mary Beth talked about her mom and how ESPN had contacted the family. The dots connected in my head. The hair stood up on my arm.

"That was me," I said.

She told me her mother was Ginny Iversen and then, starting to shake and cry, she told me the news. Her mom died between Games 2 and 3.
--Wright Thompson, ESPN, on the weight of a 108 year wait

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Why you shouldn't refrigerate tomatoes

...a tomato’s flavor — made up of sugars, acids and chemicals called volatiles — degrades as soon as it’s picked from the vine. There’s only one thing you can do now: Keep it out of the fridge.

Researchers at The University of Florida have found in a study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that when tomatoes are stored at the temperature kept in most refrigerators, irreversible genetic changes take place that erase some of their flavors forever.

Harry J. Klee, a professor of horticultural sciences who led the study, and his colleagues took two varieties of tomatoes — an heirloom and a more common modern variety — and stored them at 41 degrees Fahrenheit before letting them recover at room temperature (68 degrees Fahrenheit). When they looked at what happened inside the tomatoes in cold temperatures, Dr. Klee said the subtropical fruit went into shock, producing especially damaging changes after a week of storage. After they were allowed to warm up, even for a day, some genes in the tomatoes that created its flavor volatiles had turned off and stayed off.
--Joanna Klein, NYT, on preserving by not refrigerating

Die-hard Clinton supporters are not that different from die-hard Trump supporters

I’ve been asking friends and family the last few days this question: “What could Clinton possibly do that would make you stay home, let alone vote for Trump?” (And for the people who say Trump is an exception, just substitute “George W. Bush” and pretend this was your choice.)

The answer so far: not much.

Imagine, for example, the power couple in Netflix’s House of Cards, who make it to the White House through years of murder and deception and scandals suppressed, but who have a sincere commitment to the issues. Imagine that were Hillary and Bill’s story, and it all came out this week: the hints of sinister murders and drug use and conniving. But still, no dent in the chances Hillary nominates a liberal supreme court judge, or pushes for climate change measures, or treats the 11 million illegals in the country in a humane way.

What I want to ask people is: Would you vote Trump, or even stay home and let Trump win in your state? For committed Democrats, I’m betting the crimes would have to be incredibly bad, and the proof incontrovertible. And the social media bubble would have to stick those unpleasant truths in your face rather than sow doubt about the truth or seriousness of any accusations.

Bizarrely, this makes me feel better about my country. You can look at your fellow Americans and not say “what a bunch of deplorables!”, but instead see a group of people who have a deep commitment to a set of principles and issues, and think their chances are better with Trump than Clinton, however much they might dislike him.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Muslim refugees: The future of Christianity in Europe?

When I first met Mattias in July at a refugee shelter just north of Berlin, he went by the name Mohammed. He had arrived in Germany from Iran the previous fall, along with thousands of other asylum-seekers—sometimes up to 10,000 arrived in a single day. After the German government assigned him to this shelter, he converted to Christianity. “I wouldn’t say I was a Muslim” before, he told me. “I didn’t go to a mosque for an entire year. Now I am going to church every week.” He expects it will take about three weeks to get off his church’s waiting list to be baptized. Perhaps once he’s more settled in Germany, he’ll be able to change his name legally to Mattias, his chosen Christian name. ...

We sat together in a sparse dormitory room at the shelter with three other Iranians who had converted from Islam to Christianity. They attend a Protestant church together...

Throughout Germany, the pews of churches like theirs are filled increasingly by asylum-seekers. ...

Muslim converts to Christianity that I spoke to in Germany cited the redemptive power of Jesus’s story, and disillusionment with Islam. It’s also worth noting the more earthly forces potentially at work: Germany does not grant refugee status to Iranians as easily as it does Syrians and Iraqis. ... Iranians seeking refugee status must prove that if they are sent home, they stand the risk of being persecuted for their beliefs. In Iran, that often means Christian converts. ...

A week after that meal, I visited Trinity Lutheran Church, which also hosts a large Iranian congregation. ...

Up the stairs and past the Iranian ushers, we poked our heads into the nave. There were few seats available, so we crowded into the choir loft along with the other stragglers. There appeared to be around 300 people in attendance, mostly Iranians, but my translator pointed out that a line of men seated behind us included Hazaras from Afghanistan—also current or former Shia Muslims—like the Iranians. Only a dozen or so in attendance appeared to be German. A woman in the front pews still wore a hijab. ...

[Pastor Gottfried] Martens said his congregation was “lucky” to have its pews filled with asylum-seekers from the Muslim world. Being around them, he said, brought meaning to his life. “It’s such a job to be together with these wonderful people who have risked so much for their Christian faith,” he said. “I can hardly imagine [working] in a normal German congregation anymore.” His church currently counts some 1,000 baptized Iranian and Afghan members with 300 on the waiting list, he said. Before someone is baptized, he must pass a kind of Christian entrance exam by taking classes on what it means to believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. It’s one way of making sure people aren’t just becoming Christian for the visa, to ascertain whether “they really understand what the Christian faith means,” Martens said.
--Laura Kasinof, The Atlantic, on the spiritual fruit of the refugee crisis

Grant reviewers dislike ideas that are novel and close to their own expertise

...we designed and executed a grant proposal process at a leading research university in which we randomized the assignment of evaluators and proposals to generate 2,130 evaluator–proposal pairs. We find that evaluators systematically give lower scores to research proposals that are closer to their own areas of expertise and to those that are highly novel. The patterns are consistent with biases associated with boundedly rational evaluation of new ideas. The patterns are inconsistent with intellectual distance simply contributing “noise” or being associated with private interests of evaluators.
--Kevin Boudreau, Eva Guinan, Karim Lakhani, and Christoph Riedl, Management Science, on biases of peer review

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Asian-American experience of otherness

To the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China:

Maybe I should have let it go. Turned the other cheek. We had just gotten out of church, and I was with my family and some friends on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We were going to lunch, trying to see if there was room in the Korean restaurant down the street. You were in a rush. It was raining. Our stroller and a gaggle of Asians were in your way.

But I was, honestly, stunned when you yelled at us from down the block, “Go back to China!”

I hesitated for a second and then sprinted to confront you. That must have startled you. You pulled out your iPhone in front of the Equinox and threatened to call the cops. It was comical, in retrospect. You might have been charged instead, especially after I walked away and you screamed, “Go back to your fucking country.”

“I was born in this country!” I yelled back.

It felt silly. But how else to prove I belonged? ...

You had on a nice rain coat. Your iPhone was a 6 Plus. You could have been a fellow parent in one of my daughters’ schools. You seemed, well, normal. But you had these feelings in you, and, the reality is, so do a lot of people in this country right now.

Maybe you don’t know this, but the insults you hurled at my family get to the heart of the Asian-American experience. It’s this persistent sense of otherness that a lot of us struggle with every day. That no matter what we do, how successful we are, what friends we make, we don’t belong. We’re foreign. We’re not American. It’s one of the reasons that Fox News segment the other day on Chinatown by Jesse Watters, with the karate and nunchucks and broken English, generated so much outrage.

My parents fled mainland China for Taiwan ahead of the Communist takeover. They came to the United States for graduate school. They raised two children, both of whom went to Harvard. I work at The New York Times. Model minority, indeed.

Yet somehow I still often feel like an outsider.
--My college friend Mike Luo, NYT, on an illustrative encounter

Monday, October 3, 2016

Steve Young's secret psychological frailties

The life story of [former San Francisco 49ers quarterback] Steve Young—“QB: My Life Behind the Spiral” by Steve Young with Jeff Benedict (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), due out Oct. 11, but available for preorder now—is the rare sports book in which the heretofore pristine hero admits to some legitimate human scars. Young grew up so close to his parents that he could never attend sleepovers at friends’ homes, and the separation anxiety and homesickness was a real problem. He threatened to quit Brigham Young multiple times. Young had such performance anxiety that, before a 1993 game, he didn’t sleep for 36 hours, so petrified he was that he’d fail, and spent hours with a psychologist. In fact, that year, Young admits in the book that a depression specialist in San Francisco diagnosed him with separation anxiety and told him: “Never once have I seen an adult with the kind of separation anxiety that you have.”

This was months after Young was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, in 1992.
--Peter King, Sports Illustrated, on the tenuous link between success and mental health

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The progression of MBA career aspirations

Universum Global essentially asked MBAs to map out their most important career aspirations. Participants were asked to choose their top career goals immediately after finishing their MBAs, within 10 years of earning their MBA, and before they retire. They were given 12 goals to choose from and allowed to pick a maximum of three.

Some 93% of MBAs said they wanted to be “competitively or intellectually challenged” in their first job — a significant insight into how MBA recruiters should be portraying and messaging their companies. After that, 71% said they wanted to have a “secure and stable job”; more than half (58%) said they wanted to “lead or manage a team” in their first role. And 52% said they wanted to feel their work is “serving the greater good.”
Interestingly, just 13% said they wanted to “become wealthy” in their first job. ...

Within 10 years of finishing an MBA, though, a lot changes. Becoming wealthy jumps from 13% to 57% and ranks as the most important career goal. The second-most popular goal, at 51%, is being “seen as a technical or functional expert” in a field. Remarkably, being “competitively and intellectually challenged” drops from 93% to 5%. Meanwhile, having a secure and stable job drops from 71% to 18%, and starting a company zooms from 5% to 29%.

Not surprisingly, by career’s end, holding a C-suite position is the most popular important goal, with 48% of MBAs indicating they want to do so. Serving on a company or nonprofit board becomes the second-most important goal at 36%. Some intriguing, albeit obvious, trends surface across all three time frames. Achieving a healthy work-life balance drops from 48% at the beginning of a career to 41% within 10 years, then to 6% in the “before I retire” prompt. Being competitively and intellectually challenged plunges from 93% to 5% to 1% across a career; similarly, feeling that one’s work is serving a greater good drops from 52% at the beginning of a career to 26%, and then to 14%.
--Nathan Allan, Poets and Quants, on some depressing trends

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

How drugs affected the course of World War II

At a company called Temmler in Berlin, Dr Fritz Hauschild, its head chemist, inspired by the successful use of the American amphetamine Benzedrine at the 1936 Olympic Games, began trying to develop his own wonder drug – and a year later, he patented the first German methyl-amphetamine. Pervitin, as it was known, quickly became a sensation, used as a confidence booster and performance enhancer by everyone from secretaries to actors to train drivers (initially, it could be bought without prescription). ...

In 1940, as plans were made to invade France through the Ardennes mountains, a “stimulant decree” was sent out to army doctors, recommending that soldiers take one tablet per day, two at night in short sequence, and another one or two tablets after two or three hours if necessary. ...

Was Blitzkrieg, then, largely the result of the Wehrmacht’s reliance on crystal meth? How far is [historian Norman] Ohler willing to go with this? He smiles. “Well, Mommsen always told me not to be mono-causal. But the invasion of France was made possible by the drugs. No drugs, no invasion. When Hitler heard about the plan to invade through Ardennes, he loved it [the allies were massed in northern Belgium]. But the high command said: it’s not possible, at night we have to rest, and they [the allies] will retreat and we will be stuck in the mountains. But then the stimulant decree was released, and that enabled them to stay awake for three days and three nights. Rommel [who then led one of the panzer divisions] and all those tank commanders were high – and without the tanks, they certainly wouldn’t have won.” ...

[Hitler's physician] began giving him a “wonder drug” called Eukodal, a designer opiate and close cousin of heroin whose chief characteristic was its potential to induce a euphoric state in the patient (today it is known as oxycodone). It wasn’t long before Hitler was receiving injections of Eukodal several times a day. Eventually he would combine it with twice daily doses of the high grade cocaine he had originally been prescribed for a problem with his ears...

The effect of the drugs could appear to onlookers to be little short of miraculous. One minute the Führer was so frail he could barely stand up. The next, he would be ranting unstoppably at Mussolini. ...

When the factories where Pervitin and Eukodal were made were bombed by the allies, supplies of his favourite drugs began to run out, and by February 1945 he was suffering withdrawal. Bowed and drooling and stabbing at his skin with a pair of golden tweezers, he cut a pitiful sight. “Everyone describes the bad health of Hitler in those final days [in the Führerbunker in Berlin],” says Ohler. “But there’s no clear explanation for it. It has been suggested that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. To me, though, it’s pretty clear that it was partly withdrawal.” He grins. “Yeah, it must have been pretty awful. He’s losing a world war, and he’s coming off drugs.”
--Rachel Cooke, The Guardian, on bioenhanced warfare. HT: Chris Blattman

Monday, September 26, 2016

Life as a bride in rural India

Upon reaching adulthood, they would be transferred to the guardianship of another family, along with a huge dowry that serves as an incentive to treat them well. The transfer is final. Once married, the new bride cannot return to visit her parents without permission, which is given sparingly, so that the bonds to her old home will weaken.

She must show her submission to the new family: She is not allowed to speak the names of her in-laws, because it is seen as too familiar, and in some places she is not allowed to use words that begin with the same letters as her in-laws’ names, requiring the invention of a large parallel vocabulary. Each morning, before she is allowed to eat, the daughter-in-law must wash the feet of her husband’s parents and then drink the water she has used to wash them.
--Ellen Barry, NYT, on a life to leave behind

Friday, September 23, 2016

Dhaka has the world's worst traffic

Dhakaites will tell you that the rest of the world doesn’t understand traffic, that the worst traffic jam in Mumbai or Cairo or Los Angeles is equivalent to a good day for Dhaka’s drivers. Experts agree. In the 2016 Global Liveability Survey, the quality of life report issued annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Dhaka ranked 137th out of 140 cities, edging out only Lagos, Tripoli and war-torn Damascus; its infrastructure rating was the worst of any city in the survey. ...

Yet on my flight to Dhaka I was told that the traffic in the city would be unusually light. For weeks, Bangladesh had been gripped by a hartal, a nationwide general strike and “transportation blockade.” ...

When my plane touched down I caught a taxi, which exited the airport into a roundabout before making its way onto the infamous highway. There, unmistakably, was a traffic jam: cars and trucks, as far the eye could see, stacked up in a configuration that bore no clear relationship to the lanes painted on the blacktop. ...

The distance from airport to hotel was eight and a half miles. The trip had taken two and a half hours. We wheeled into the hotel’s driveway and the cabby spun around to offer his verdict. “Some traffic,” he said. “Not so bad.”
--Jody Rosen, NYT, on my Manila experience

Winning the lottery makes you like incumbent politicians more

Incumbent politicians tend to receive more votes when economic conditions are good. In this paper we explore the source of this correlation, exploiting the exceptional evidence provided by the Spanish Christmas Lottery. Because winning tickets are typically sold by one lottery outlet, winners tend to be geographically clustered. This allows us to study the impact of exogenous good economic conditions on voting behavior. We find that incumbents receive significantly more votes in winning provinces. The evidence is consistent with a temporary increase in happiness making voters more lenient toward the incumbent, or with a stronger preference for the status quo.
--Manuel Bagues and Berta Esteve-Volart, Journal of Political Economy, on your wallet doing the voting

Friday, September 16, 2016

How to get a 3.5% riskfree interest rate for the next 20 years

If someone offered you a guaranteed 3.5% return for 20 years, you’d probably be tempted either to sign up right away or call the cops to arrest the guy for securities fraud.

But the guy offering this deal is Uncle Sam, and you should neither barge in nor run away screaming. You should look closer, because this offer from the U.S. Treasury is legitimate and highly attractive, although it isn’t right for everyone.

The government guarantees that if you hold Series EE savings bonds for 20 years, you will get back twice the amount of money you put in. That translates to a return averaging a whisker more than 3.5% annually. A 20-year U.S. Treasury bond, meanwhile, yields about 2.1%.

In today’s yield-starved world, a 3.5% return sounds almost like manna from heaven. Is there a catch? Of course there is — several, in fact.

First, and worst, that 3.5% return isn’t protected against inflation. And you will earn that rate only if you hold on for the full 20 years; until then, interest accrues only at the current rate of 0.1% annually. ...

You generally can’t redeem savings bonds the first year you own them and, if you cash out within the first five years, you will forfeit the last three months of interest. (That’s not much of a penalty at this point, though, at 0.025%.)

Finally, interest rates could take off between now and 2036, making that 3.5% look a lot less appealing. ...

And you can invest only $10,000 in EE savings bonds per Social Security number each year; if you’re married, you and your spouse together can buy $20,000.
--Jason Zweig, WSJ, on an easy 1.4% alpha per year. Buy at

Friday, September 9, 2016

Why Americans don't favor more redistributive taxation

[A] large share of survey respondents resist full equalization of after-tax incomes even when conventional optimal tax analyses would strongly recommend it. In a hypothetical situation meant to mimic the tax policy problem, between 50% and 95% of respondents choose not to fully offset inequality due to brute luck even when there are neither efficiency costs of redistribution nor differences in desert across individuals. These choices suggest that the two reasons why conventional optimal tax analyses tolerate after-tax inequality—the importance of encouraging effort and the possibility that some people "choose" to have low incomes—are not the only reasons why survey respondents, and perhaps Americans in general, accept it.

The second finding offers an explanation of the first: a large share of survey respondents prefer an alternative logic for taxation than that which is typically used in optimal tax analyses. The conventional logic stems from the use of a social welfare function that exhibits diminishing marginal social welfare of income. When presented with two possible justifications for their choices in the tax problem, between 62% and 79% of respondents prefer, instead of this logic, one tied to a centuries-old idea that Richard Musgrave (1959) named classical benefit-based taxation (CBBT). Under CBBT, taxes are assigned based on the benefit a taxpayer obtains from the activities of the state, with benefit being measured by the state's role in increasing the taxpayer's economic opportunities. In addition to being Adam Smith's first maxim of taxation, CBBT has a long history in public debate over taxes in the United States, from its use as a justification for the new personal income tax in 1913 to its use by presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack Obama to advocate for progressivity. In that context, finding support for CBBT among the American public is natural, despite its absence from modern optimal tax theory.

What it feels like to die

For those who do die gradually, there’s often a final, rapid slide that happens in roughly the last few days of life—a phase known as “active dying.” During this time, [Stanford palliative care specialist James] Hallenbeck writes in Palliative Care Perspectives, his guide to palliative care for physicians, people tend to lose their senses and desires in a certain order. “First hunger and then thirst are lost. Speech is lost next, followed by vision. The last senses to go are usually hearing and touch.” ...

“As the brain begins to change and start to die, different parts become excited, and one of the parts that becomes excited is the visual system,” [director of UCLA Brain Injury Research Center David] Hovda explains. “And so that’s where people begin to see light.”

Recent research points to evidence that the sharpening of the senses some people report also seems to match what we know about the brain’s response to dying. Jimo Borjigin, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, first became intrigued by this subject when she noticed something strange in the brains of animals in another experiment: Just before the animals died, neurochemicals in the brain suddenly surged. While scientists had known that brain neurons continued to fire after a person died, this was different. The neurons were secreting new chemicals, and in large amounts.

“A lot of cardiac-arrest survivors describe that during their unconscious period, they have this amazing experience in their brain,” she says. “They see lights and then they describe the experience as ‘realer than real.’” She realized the sudden release of neurochemicals might help to explain this feeling.

Borjigin and her research team tried an experiment. They anesthetized eight rats, and then stopped their hearts. “Suddenly, all the different regions of the brain became synchronized,” she says. The rats’ brains showed higher power in different frequency waves, and also what is known as coherence—the electrical activity from different parts of the brain working together.

“If you’re focusing attention, doing something, trying to figure out a word or trying to remember a face—when you’re doing high-level cognitive activity, these features go up,” Borjigin says. ...

[A] half-dreaming, half-waking state is common in dying people. In fact, researchers led by Christopher Kerr at a hospice center outside Buffalo, New York, conducted a study of dying people’s dreams. Most of the patients interviewed, 88 percent, had at least one dream or vision. And those dreams usually felt different to them from normal dreams. For one thing, the dreams seemed clearer, more real. The “patients’ pre-death dreams were frequently so intense that the dream carried into wakefulness and the dying often experienced them as waking reality,” the researchers write in the Journal of Palliative Medicine.

Seventy-two percent of the patients dreamed about reuniting with people who had already died. Fifty-nine percent said they dreamed about getting ready to travel somewhere. Twenty-eight percent dreamed about meaningful experiences in the past. (Patients were interviewed every day, so the same people often reported dreams about multiple subjects.)

For most of the patients, the dreams were comforting and positive. The researchers say the dreams often helped decrease the fear of death. “The predominant quality of pre-death dreams/visions was a sense of personal meaning, which frequently carried emotional significance for the patient,” they report.

In patients’ final hours, after they’ve stopped eating and drinking, after they’ve lost their vision, “most dying people then close their eyes and appear to be asleep,” says Hallenbeck, the Stanford palliative-care specialist. “From this point on … we can only infer what is actually happening. My impression is that this is not a coma, a state of unconsciousness, as many families and clinicians think, but something like a dream state.”
--Jennie Dear, The Atlantic, on the drift into eternity

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Richer people spend less time on the Internet

Our dataset contains information for more than forty thousand primary home computers, or “home devices,” at US households in 2008 and more than thirty thousand in 2013. These data come from ComScore, a firm that tracks households over an entire year, recording all of the web sites visited, as well as some key demographics. ...

We find that higher income households spend less total time online per week. Households making $25,000-$35,000 a year spend ninety-two more minutes a week online than households making $100,000 or more a year in income, and differences vary monotonically over intermediate income levels.
--Andre Boik, Shane Greenstein, and Jeffrey Prince on reality as a luxury good

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The new college orientation: Microaggression edition

A freshman tentatively raises her hand and takes the microphone. “I’m really scared to ask this,” she begins. “When I, as a white female, listen to music that uses the N word, and I’m in the car, or, especially when I’m with all white friends, is it O.K. to sing along?”

The answer, from Sheree Marlowe, the new chief diversity officer at Clark University, is an unequivocal “no.”

The exchange was included in Ms. Marlowe’s presentation to recently arriving freshmen focusing on subtle “microaggressions,” part of a new campus vocabulary that also includes “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”

Microaggressions, Ms. Marlowe said, are comments, snubs or insults that communicate derogatory or negative messages that might not be intended to cause harm but are targeted at people based on their membership in a marginalized group.

Among her other tips: Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say “you guys.” It could be interpreted as leaving out women, said Ms. Marlowe, who realized it was offensive only when someone confronted her for saying it during a presentation. ...

“What’s an environmental microaggression?” Ms. Marlowe asked the auditorium of about 525 freshmen. She gave an example. “On your first day of class, you enter the chemistry building and all of the pictures on the wall are scientists who are white and male,” she said. “If you’re a female, or you just don’t identify as a white male, that space automatically shows that you’re not represented.” ...

Another subset of microaggression is known as the microinvalidation, which includes comments suggesting that race plays a minor role in life’s outcomes, like “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.” ...

But some students appeared slightly confused.

“When you use the term ‘self identify’ as a white woman, are you saying that you can choose your race?” one white male student asked.

“I’ll give you an example,” Ms. Marlowe said. “I went to a conference. I was talking to this man. I thought he was black. I was talking about diversity and social justice.”

“He said, ‘I’m Cuban,’ ” Ms. Marlowe told the crowd. “I assumed he was black because he was the same skin complexion as me, and the same type of hair.”

But, Ms. Marlowe said, while it is sometimes difficult to identify a person’s racial or ethnic background based on appearance, she does not believe that gives license to people like Rachel A. Dolezal, the white woman who claimed to be African-American while working for the N.A.A.C.P. in Spokane, Wash. “You can’t say you’re black if you’re not, historically.”

The student still seemed confused.

“Maybe we can unpack it afterward,” Ms. Marlowe told the student. “You want to come see me afterward?”
--Stephanie Saul, NYT, on re-education

Monday, September 5, 2016

What it's like for a chef to get a bad NYT review

[David] Chang, knowing that the [New York Times] review would appear online the next day, slept fitfully, and woke in a bed that “was wet with sweat,” he told me later. Mid-morning, he went uptown, to discuss an expansionary media venture. During the meeting, he broke a promise to himself, and read the review on his phone. He then apologized to his hosts and left. He took a taxi to Momofuku Nishi, where he told his colleagues that they were experiencing something akin to a diagnosis of terminal cancer.

[New York Times critic Pete] Wells’s review began, “Searching for money, for love and for food, we strike bargains. We may be content with one for years until we begin to be shadowed by the suspicion that the terms aren’t working out in our favor anymore.” He protested, genially, about the restaurant’s noise and its uncomfortable seats, praised some dishes, and continued, “Too much of the cooking at Nishi is self-referential, inward looking, and so concerned with technique that you can’t help being conscious of it. In his early days, Mr. Chang used to serve the kind of food chefs like to eat: intense, animalistic, okay with messiness, indifferent to prettiness. Nishi serves the kind of food chefs cook to impress each other.” He gave the restaurant one star.

When I spoke to Chang that day, he talked almost without interruption for ninety minutes, in bursts of defiance, anger, and self-laceration. We met a few days later, and he was barely calmer, although self-awareness softened the effect. He apologized for whining; when he dreamed up conspiracy theories, he labelled them as conspiracy theories, and laughed dryly. (He came to accept, in time, that this article wasn’t planned with thoughts of discussing his restaurant.) When he said “Fuck him!” it was as often with resignation as with scorn. ...

“I can’t ever read that review again—I’ll get so fucking angry I’ll die,” Chang said. “I made a lot of that food! I tasted it! It was delicious. And . . . fuck!”...

Within weeks, the restaurant had abandoned its no-tipping policy and added a brunch menu.

Design secrets of medieval castles

A moat, which is a body of water that surrounds a castle, is often thought of as a water obstacle that had to be crossed; but this wasn’t the primary function of a moat. One of the biggest concerns of the inhabitants of a medieval castle or fortress was the fear that an invading army would dig tunnels under the fortification. This tunneling could either provide access to the castle or cause a collapse of the castle walls. A moat prevented this because any tunnel under the moat would collapse and fill with water. ...

Stairwells were often very carefully designed in Medieval Castles. Stairwells that curved up to towers often curved very narrowly and in a clockwise direction. This meant that any attackers coming up the stairs had their sword hands (right hand) against the interior curve of the wall and this made it very difficult for them to swing their swords. Defenders had their sword hands on the outside wall, which meant they had more room to swing. Another ingenious design of stairs was that they were designed with very uneven steps. Some steps were tall and other steps were short. The inhabitants, being familiar with the uneven pattern of the stair heights could move quickly up and down the stairs but attackers, in a dimly lit stairwell, would easily fall and get bogged down in the stairwells. This made them vulnerable to attacks and slowed their attacks down significantly.
--Will Kalif, The Vintage News, on the ingenuity inspired by war

Saturday, September 3, 2016

How companies track your web browsing without cookies

In the ad tech industry, cookies are gradually being shunted in favor of fingerprinting. The reason that fingerprinting is so effective is that even if you have a device that you think is identical to the device of the person sitting next to you, there are going to be a number of differences in the behavior of your browser. The set of fonts installed on your browser could be different. The precise version number of the browser could be different. Your battery status could be different from that of the person next to you, or anybody else in the world. And it turns out that if you put all of these pieces of information together, a unique or nearly unique picture of the behavior of your device emerges that’s going to be relatively stable over time. And that enables your companies to recognize you when you come back. ...

[Editor’s note: Earlier in the interview, Narayanan had mentioned that the rate at which your battery depletes might be an identifier.] But let’s say you’ve got 41 fonts installed on your browser today. You come back in a week, maybe you have 43 fonts installed. But 41 of those are going to be the same as what they saw a week ago. And it changes slowly enough that statistically you can have a high degree of confidence. In the industry they call these things statistical IDs. It’s not as certain as putting a cookie on your browser, but you can derive a very high degree of confidence.
--Arvind Narayanan, FiveThirtyEight, on the shrinking private domain

Sunday, August 28, 2016

One man's nuclear fears helped create today's San Francisco housing crisis

In 1948, a federal housing bureaucrat named Paul Oppermann, trying to come to terms with the perils of the nuclear age, proposed a solution to the problem of protecting America’s cities from the bomb: empty them out preëmptively by encouraging the population to move to suburbs and small towns of fifty thousand or fewer. “No power in the world could afford to drop an atomic bomb on a city of 50,000 or less” is how the San Francisco Chronicle summarized the talk that Oppermann gave to a local planning organization. Plus, Oppermann explained, you get slum clearance into the bargain. The next year, Oppermann assumed office as San Francisco’s planning director.

The story of Oppermann—who did not send the residents of San Francisco packing but merely crippled growth with arcane lot-size rules and off-street-parking-space minimums—comes down to us via a San Francisco Bay Area cartographer, programmer, and amateur historian named Eric Fischer.
--Mark Gimein, New Yorker, on the power of a single bureaucrat. HT: Marginal Revolution

Friday, August 26, 2016

Foreign intervention has made Syria's civil war endless and more brutal

Most civil wars end when one side loses. Either it is defeated militarily, or it exhausts its weapons or loses popular support and has to give up. About a quarter of civil wars end in a peace deal, often because both sides are exhausted.

That might have happened in Syria: the core combatants — the government and the insurgents who began fighting it in 2011 — are both quite weak and, on their own, cannot sustain the fight for long.

But they are not on their own. Each side is backed by foreign powers — including the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and now Turkey....

Government and rebel forces are supplied from abroad, which means their arms never run out. They also both draw political support from foreign governments who do not feel the war’s costs firsthand, rather than from locals who might otherwise push for peace to end their pain. ...

This is why, according to James D. Fearon, a Stanford professor who studies civil wars, multiple studies have found that “if you have outside intervention on both sides, duration is significantly greater.” ...

Whenever one side loses ground its foreign backers increase their involvement, sending supplies or air support to prevent their favored player’s defeat. ...

These foreign powers are strong enough to match virtually any escalation. None can force an outright victory because the other side can always counter, so the cycle only continues. ...

In most civil wars, the fighting forces depend on popular support to succeed. This “human terrain,” as counterinsurgency experts call it, provides all sides with an incentive to protect civilians and minimize atrocities, and has often proved decisive.

Wars like Syria’s, in which the government and opposition rely heavily on foreign support, encourage the precise opposite behavior, according to research by Reed M. Wood, Jacob D. Kathman and Stephen E. Gent, political scientists at, respectively, Arizona State University; the State University of New York at Buffalo; and the University of North Carolina.

Because Syria’s combatants rely on foreign sponsors, rather than the local population, they have little incentive to protect civilians. In fact, this dynamic turns the local population into a potential threat rather than a necessary resource.

The incentives push them to “utilize collective violence and terror to shape the behaviors of the population,” the researchers found. The images we see of dead mothers and children may not represent helpless bystanders but deliberate targets, killed not out of madness or cruelty but coldly rational calculation.

Severe, indiscriminate attacks on civilians bring little near-term risks and substantial benefits: disrupting the enemy’s control or local support, pacifying potential threats, plundering resources and others.