Monday, March 30, 2015

What makes people happy in Boston vs. San Francisco?

In Boston, residents ranked their financial status, educational attainment (must have that Harvard or graduate degree), family support, and feeling of contributing to their community as essential factors that determine whether they’re satisfied with life. Work is important too.

In San Francisco, however, work is the only social norm that matters for life fulfillment—to heck with the diplomas and big bank accounts. Californians being Californians mainly feed on those ebullient free-to-be-you-and-me thoughts and experiences.

That’s the conclusion of an interesting series of experiments conducted by psychologists who set out to identify predictors of happiness and whether they differ from East Coast to West Coast. ...

In [psychologist Victoria Plaut and coauthors'] experiments, published as one paper in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Plaut surveyed a total of nearly 3,800 volunteers from both cities and found that people from Boston were significantly more likely than their counterparts to perceive clear norms in their city; Boston participants also reported higher levels of life satisfaction if they hewed to those cultural practices, such as rooting for their local sports teams or being active with community organizations, compared with those from San Francisco. ...

Folks from Boston are also more likely to report higher levels of happiness if they’re not aggravated by life annoyances such as demanding in-laws, a long commute, or a tough boss. On the other hand, those from San Francisco were more apt to say they needed to have fun and novel experiences in order to get a happiness boost.
--Deborah Kotz, Boston.com, on real differences between the coasts

Monday, March 23, 2015

A dying man's beautiful farewell to his daughter

Six years passed in a flash, but then, heading into chief residency, I developed a classic constellation of symptoms — weight loss, fevers, night sweats, unremitting back pain, cough — indicating a diagnosis quickly confirmed: metastatic lung cancer. The gears of time ground down. ...

Verb conjugation became muddled. Which was correct? “I am a neurosurgeon,” “I was a neurosurgeon,” “I had been a neurosurgeon before and will be again”? Graham Greene felt life was lived in the first 20 years and the remainder was just reflection. What tense was I living in? Had I proceeded, like a burned-out Greene character, beyond the present tense and into the past perfect? The future tense seemed vacant and, on others’ lips, jarring. I recently celebrated my 15th college reunion; it seemed rude to respond to parting promises from old friends, “We’ll see you at the 25th!” with “Probably not!”

Yet there is dynamism in our house. Our daughter was born days after I was released from the hospital. Week to week, she blossoms: a first grasp, a first smile, a first laugh. Her pediatrician regularly records her growth on charts, tick marks of her progress over time. A brightening newness surrounds her. As she sits in my lap smiling, enthralled by my tuneless singing, an incandescence lights the room.

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

Yet one thing cannot be robbed of her futurity: my daughter, Cady. I hope I’ll live long enough that she has some memory of me. Words have a longevity I do not. I had thought I could leave her a series of letters — but what would they really say? I don’t know what this girl will be like when she is 15; I don’t even know if she’ll take to the nickname we’ve given her. There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.
--Paul Kalanithi (1977 - 2015), Stanford Medicine, “Before I Go

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Why girls like Barbies and boys like trucks: a biological explanation?

In 2002, Gerianne M. Alexander of Texas A&M University and Melissa Hines of City University in London stunned the scientific world by showing that vervet monkeys showed the same sex-typical toy preferences as humans. In an incredibly ingenious study, published in Evolution and Human Behavior, Alexander and Hines gave two stereotypically masculine toys (a ball and a police car), two stereotypically feminine toys (a soft doll and a cooking pot), and two neutral toys (a picture book and a stuffed dog) to 44 male and 44 female vervet monkeys. They then assessed the monkeys’ preference for each toy by measuring how much time they spent with each. Their data demonstrated that male vervet monkeys showed significantly greater interest in the masculine toys, and the female vervet monkeys showed significantly greater interest in the feminine toys. The two sexes did not differ in their preference for the neutral toys. ...

If children’s toy preferences were largely formed by gender socialization, as traditional sociologists claim, in which their parents give “gender-appropriate” toys to boys and girls, how can these male and female vervet monkeys have the same preferences as boys and girls? They were never socialized by humans, and they had never seen these toys before in their lives. ...

In a forthcoming article [as of 2008] in Hormones and Behavior, Janice M. Hassett, Erin R. Siebert, and Kim Wallen, of Emory University, replicate the sex preferences in toys among members of another primate species (rhesus monkeys). Their study shows that, when given a choice between stereotypically male “wheeled toys” (such as a wagon, a truck, and a car) and stereotypically female “plush toys” (such as Winnie the Pooh, Raggedy Ann, and a koala bear hand puppet), male rhesus monkeys show strong and significant preference for the masculine toys. Female rhesus monkeys show preference for the feminine toys, but the difference in their preference is not statistically significant.
--Satoshi Kanazawa, Psychology Today, on potentially evolutionarily ancient roots of toy preferences. HT: NS

Monday, February 23, 2015

Feed your baby peanuts to prevent peanut allergies

We randomly assigned 640 infants with severe eczema, egg allergy, or both to consume or avoid peanuts until 60 months of age. Participants, who were at least 4 months but younger than 11 months of age at randomization, were assigned to separate study cohorts on the basis of preexisting sensitivity to peanut extract, which was determined with the use of a skin-prick test...

Among the 530 infants in the intention-to-treat population who initially had negative results on the skin-prick test, the prevalence of peanut allergy at 60 months of age was 13.7% in the avoidance group and 1.9% in the consumption group (P < 0.001). Among the 98 participants in the intention-to-treat population who initially had positive test results, the prevalence of peanut allergy was 35.3% in the avoidance group and 10.6% in the consumption group (P = 0.004). There was no significant between-group difference in the incidence of serious adverse events.

CONCLUSIONS
The early introduction of peanuts significantly decreased the frequency of the development of peanut allergy among children at high risk for this allergy and modulated immune responses to peanuts.
--George Du Toit et al., New England Journal of Medicine, on how to slow the peanut allergy epidemic. HT: ACT

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why ramen is better in Japan

In Japan, flour companies have different divisions that make flour for noodles. In general, this flour is milled as much as ten times more finely than it is here. The flour doesn’t need to be as absorbent here in the U.S.—it’s primarily for bread production. So there’s not as much of a reason to mill it as fine. The result is that it’s harder to make a proper ramen noodle here, since the flour is just not fine enough.

Relative to pasta, ramen noodles are on the low end of the water-content spectrum—some can contain as little as 26 percent water. ... The more refined your flour, the better it will bind with water, and the better the texture of the final noodle.

When I talk to our flour salesman in Tokyo, I can say, “I’m thinking about making a tsukemen noodle, and I want it to be aromatic and have a chew,” and he’ll send me samples that make sense. Then we can talk on the phone and I can say, “I want my ash content to be a bit lower or higher” or “I want to be able to see more or less of the grain color in the noodle.” I can really talk to them and have a super intellectual conversation, and at the end of the day you’re able to make a really good product.

This is all to say that when I came back to New York, I felt like making my own noodles would be too big of a challenge. I had already met Ken Uki, of Sun Noodle, and I had worked with him a little bit. He’d done a really good job; they run a really professional operation. So I decided to take making noodles off of my plate. ...

In Japan, you can get great chicken fat for cheap. It’s orange and it doesn’t taste funky—it almost tastes like chicken soup. ...

You can’t get good chicken fat here in the States. A USDA plant needs approval for each part of the animal they want to use: necks, wings, heads, whatever. A guy at one of the chicken farms we use says he throws all his chicken fat away; it’s too much of a hassle to get it USDA approved, and nobody wants to buy it.

So I use whatever I can get. It’s not bad. It’s good, but it’s not as delicious. At the shop, people are like, You could use Flying Pigs Farms or whatever, and it’s like, Yeah, but they want $15 per pound for their birds. Then they’ll say, Why don’t you use pastured, sustainable, organic meat? And I’m like, Will you pay $25 per bowl of ramen?
--Ivan Orkin, Lucky Peach, on non-exportable production chains

Friday, February 20, 2015

The one-part Tversky Intelligence Test

As recounted by Malcolm Gladwell in 2013's David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, [Amos] Tversky's peers thought so highly of him that they devised a tongue-in-cheek one-part test for measuring intelligence. As related to Gladwell by psychologist Adam Alter, the Tversky Intelligence Test was "The faster you realized Tversky was smarter than you, the smarter you were."

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The progressive weakening of Harvard

“Harvard University will close only for an act of God, such as the end of the world,” former Harvard Dean of Students Archie Epps III once said. If so, Harvard has seen a lot of evidence of The Almighty One these past few years.

Harvard schools have canceled classes on both Monday and Tuesday due to the latest snowstorm, which so far has dropped two feet of snow on the area and shut down the MBTA. That comes two weeks after the university suspended all operations on January 27 for the blizzard that led to a state of emergency and a travel ban across the state.

There was a time not long ago when canceling a single day of Harvard classes — not to mention three in one semester — would have been a surprise. Administrators called off three days of classes for the historic Blizzard of 1978, the first cancellation since an unnamed hurricane in 1938. Classes also closed in 1985 due to Hurricane Gloria.

But that was it for the entire 20th century. In 100 years, Harvard canceled classes only three times. ...

Graduate schools closed down classes in January 2011 after about 18 inches of snow. Harvard canceled all classes on October 29, 2012 ahead of the high winds and rain of Hurricane Sandy. The blizzard of February 2013 slammed the campus on a weekend, and university libraries were shut down. Officials also canceled classes on April 19, 2013 amid the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after the Boston Marathon bombing.

For undergraduates, there have been as many days off at Harvard in the last five years as there were in the entire 20th century.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Finns ration their hellos

“Well, you’re just special. You’re American,” remarked my colleague, smirking from across the coffee table. My other Finnish coworkers, from the school in Helsinki where I teach, nodded in agreement. They had just finished critiquing one of my habits, and they could see that I was on the defensive.

I threw my hands up and snapped, “You’re accusing me of being too friendly? Is that really such a bad thing?”

“Well, when I greet a colleague, I keep track,” she retorted, “so I don’t greet them again during the day!” Another chimed in, “That’s the same for me, too!”
--Tim Walker, The Atlantic, on eliminating redundancy

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Crusades were not what you think they were

Westerners in general (and Catholics in particular) find the Crusades a deeply embarrassing episode in their history. ...

On September 11, 2001, there were only a few professional historians of the Crusades in America. I was the one who was not retired. As a result, my phone began ringing and didn’t stop for years. ...

It is generally thought that Christians attacked Muslims without provocation to seize their lands and forcibly convert them. The Crusaders were Europe’s lacklands and ne’er-do-wells, who marched against the infidels out of blind zealotry and a desire for booty and land. As such, the Crusades betrayed Christianity itself. They transformed “turn the other cheek” into “kill them all; God will know his own.”

Every word of this is wrong. Historians of the Crusades have long known that it is wrong, but they find it extraordinarily difficult to be heard across a chasm of entrenched preconceptions. ...

All the Crusades met the criteria of just wars. They came about in reaction [to] attacks against Christians or their Church. The First Crusade was called in 1095 in response to the recent Turkish conquest of Christian Asia Minor, as well as the much earlier Arab conquest of the Christian-held Holy Land. The second was called in response to the Muslim conquest of Edessa in 1144. The third was called in response to the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem and most other Christian lands in the Levant in 1187.

In each case, the faithful went to war to defend Christians, to punish the attackers, and to right terrible wrongs. As Riley-Smith has written elsewhere, crusading was seen as an act of love—specifically the love of God and the love of neighbor. By pushing back Muslim aggression and restoring Eastern Christianity, the Crusaders were—at great peril to themselves—imitating the Good Samaritan. ...

Historians have long known that the image of the Crusader as an adventurer seeking his fortune is exactly backward. The vast majority of Crusaders returned home as soon as they had fulfilled their vow. What little booty they could acquire was more than spent on the journey itself. One is hard pressed to name a single returning Crusader who broke even, let alone made a profit on the journey. ...

It is commonly thought—even by Muslims—that the effects and memory of that trauma have been with the Islamic world since it was first inflicted in the eleventh century. As Riley-Smith explains, however, the Muslim memory of the Crusades is of very recent vintage. ... When, in 1291, Muslim armies removed the last vestiges of the Crusader Kingdom from Palestine, the Crusades largely dropped out of Muslim memory.

In Europe, however, the Crusades were a well-remembered formative episode. Europeans, who had bound the Crusades to imperialism, brought the story to the Middle East during the nineteenth century and reintroduced it to the Muslims. ...

Riley-Smith describes the profound effect that Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Talisman had on European and therefore Middle Eastern opinion of the Crusades. Crusaders such as Richard the Lionhearted were portrayed as boorish, brutal, and childish, while Muslims, particularly Saladin, were tolerant and enlightened gentlemen of the nineteenth century. With the collapse of Ottoman power and the rise of Arab nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century, Muslims bound together these two strands of Crusade narrative and created a new memory in which the Crusades were only the first part of Europe’s assault on Islam—an assault that continued through the modern imperialism of European powers. Europeans reintroduced Saladin, who had been nearly forgotten in the Middle East, and Arab nationalists then cleansed him of his Kurdish ethnicity to create a new anti-Western hero.
--Thomas Madden, First Things, on the professional historian's view of the Crusades. HT: Ross Douthat

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A better way to pay ransom to kidnappers

It all began in 2003, when a German official flew into the wilds of northern Mali with three suitcases full of cash to secure the release of 14 European hostages. That first big ransom breathed life into the militant group known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and laid the groundwork for a kidnap economy that now finances Islamist extremist groups around the globe.

Foreigners who stumble into this world are highly prized assets: They are tracked, abducted, sold from one militant group to another and held for months, or even years, in the hope of a multimillion-dollar payday. Such hopes are kept alive by France, Germany and other European governments that routinely facilitate ransom payments for the release of their own citizens.

The United States steadfastly refuses to pay ransom, which undoubtedly reduces the price that American hostages fetch in the kidnap economy. However, money isn’t the only motivator for those holding hostages; they are also used to demonstrate the groups’ ferocity, as shown recently by the Islamic State’s gruesome killings of two Japanese men. ...

The good news is there is a way to change this game, to turn the tables on terrorist kidnappers and undermine the kidnap economy. ...

Throughout the 1980s, federal investigators did not catch a single major business cartel, despite having a whole division at the Department of Justice devoted to the task. That’s because business cartels, groups of companies that work together in secret to fix prices, can be nearly impossible to detect. ...

That all changed, suddenly and dramatically, in 1993 when the Department of Justice instituted a new program offering complete immunity to the first firm in a cartel to confess. ...

And turn on each other they did; soon convictions and settlements in the United States alone were generating hundreds of millions of dollars in fines each year. ...

Imagine what would happen if the federal government were to offer a million-dollar reward and promise safety to anyone — Islamic State militant or not — who provided information that led to the rescue of American hostages, and the capture or killing of their kidnappers. Holding an American hostage would then become fraught with peril, no matter where the kidnappers might hide, as anyone, even one of their own, might turn on them at any time.
--David McAdams, NYT, on kidnapper jujitsu. HT: Marginal Revolution

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Why Seattle's final Super Bowl play call might not have been so dumb

Much will be made as to whether the Seahawks should have run the ball with Marshawn Lynch in the backfield.

Lynch had five previous runs from the 1 this season and had scored one touchdown.
--ESPN Stats & Information on why the Seahawks might have called a pass

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Why you often shouldn't go for it on 4th down


It doesn’t matter the distance; kicking has been on a steady upward climb. If we look back even further, we can see indicators that kicking has been on a similar trajectory for the entire history of the league. ...

If you’re reading this site, there’s a good chance you scream at your television a lot when coaches sheepishly kick or punt instead of going for it on fourth down. This is particularly true in the “dead zone” between roughly the 25- and 40-yard lines, where punts accomplish little and field goals are supposedly too long to be good gambles. ...

As of 10 years ago — around when these should-we-go-for-it models rose to prominence — we were still right. But a lot has changed in 10 years. Field-goal kicking is now good enough that many previous calculations are outdated. ...

There’s no one universally agreed-upon system for when you should go for it on fourth down. But a very popular one is The New York Times’ 4th Down Bot...

Comparing those to my model, it looks to me like the bot’s kickers are approximately 2004-quality. (I asked Burke about this, and he agrees that the bot is probably at least a few years behind, and says that its kicking assumptions are based on a fitted model of the most recent eight years of kicking data.) ...

The following table compares “Go or No” charts from the 4th Down Bot as it stands right now, versus how it would look with projected 2015 kickers:
Having better kickers makes a big difference, as you can see from the blue sea on the left versus the red sea on the right. ...

While the updated version still concluded that coaches were too conservative (particularly on fourth-and-short), it found that coaches were (very slightly) making more correct decisions than the 4th Down Bot.
--Benjamin Morris, FiveThirtyEight, on updating our football analytic intuitions

Monday, January 26, 2015

Why you shouldn't become a professional cartoonist

[Tom] Toro has since moved into his own apartment, and he continues to submit a dozen or so cartoons to the New Yorker weekly. In the past year and a half, the magazine has bought 16 of his 1,600 submissions. "It's a kind of life of rejection," Toro deadpans. "It's a bittersweet game of odds, and you have to overwhelm them."

Among the bittersweet realities of Toro's cartooning success is that the pay is mediocre. The New Yorker abandoned its staff cartoonists several years ago and now offers its stable of 30 or so regular ones a fee of $675 per cartoon, with old-timers such as Roz Chast and George Booth probably earning more.
--Tamara Straus, SFGate, on overwhelming supply meeting tepid demand. FYI, 16 * 675 / 1.5 = $7,200 per year


Every cartoonist I know has a second career doing something else, or is married to a lawyer. How I make ends meet is I work part-time customer service jobs, and if that’s not enough I shamelessly mooch off my parents. I’m almost thirty-two years old. Welcome to the paradise of the modern artist. ...

This is pretty much the plateau. There’s no better venue than The New Yorker. It’s the acme of cartooning.

609 rejections later...

Tom Toro didn't always dream of becoming a cartoonist at The New Yorker. Sure, he drew cartoons in college, but he didn't see that as a career path. Instead, he went to film school at NYU.

Then he came to the sudden realization that he was in the wrong field — and he had no idea what he was going to do.

"Up to my neck in debt, directionless, feeling lost in the huge city," Tom Toro says. "I went into a pretty dark depression. I ended up dropping out of film school. I floundered around for a little while, and I finally just had to come back home." ...

"I had sort of been a golden child," he says. "I was valedictorian in my high school class, I went to Yale, I got into NYU right out of undergrad, and all of a sudden, I'm back at home. " ...

One afternoon, Toro went to a used book sale in his hometown. He opened a cardboard box and found an old stack of magazines. ...

They were stacks of old New Yorkers.

"There they were, these cartoons in among the articles," he says. "I don't know. Something just clicked. And I started drawing again."

Toro decided to submit some of his work to the magazine. ...

Shortly after, he received a reply in the mail: It was his first rejection note.

"It's like two of the most elegantly phrased sentences," he says. "The New Yorker found the way to most courteously and most briefly reject people. It's just beautiful. You feel so honored to receive it and yet it's a brushoff." ...

A year and a half later, Toro had a pile of rejection letters. But instead of feeling discouraged, he says, it only fueled his determination. ...

And then, one day, he wandered into his mom's office to check his email.

"Went in there, logged in, and there sitting at the top of my inbox was an email from [Bob Mankoff's] assistant," Toro says.

The subject line read, "Cartoon Sold."

It was the 610th drawing Toro had submitted to The New Yorker.

Tom Toro's first accepted cartoon, published the week of his 28th birthday
--NPR on the power of persistence

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Belief in Google's omniscience

One of the more common questions for Google about a penis is “How big is my penis?” That men turn to Google, rather than a ruler, with this question is, in my opinion, a quintessential expression of our digital era.
--Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, NYT, on asking the Google genie

Friday, January 23, 2015

SkyMall depended on boredom for its business

The SkyMall catalog, a dog-eared best friend to bored and lonely fliers for 25 years, has filed for bankruptcy.

The seatback mainstay may have suffered a steep decline as airlines began loosening the rules that allow fliers to use electronics, according to court documents.
--Penelope Patsuris and Katie Lobosco, CNN Money, on a partial answer to why anybody would buy that useless stuff. HT: JF

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why New York state politicians are so corrupt

Wilson’s (1966) seminal contribution argued that state-level politics was particularly prone to corruption because state capitals are often far from the major metropolitan centers, and thus face a lower level of scrutiny by citizens and by the media...

Our first contribution is to establish a basic stylized fact that is very much in line with this “accountability view”: isolated US state capital cities are associated with higher levels of corruption. A simple depiction of that can be seen in Figure 1, where our baseline measure of corruption is plotted against our baseline measure of the isolation of a state’s capital city. ...



When it comes to the media, we show that newspapers give more coverage to state politics when their readership is more concentrated around the state capital city. This is matched by individual-level patterns: individuals who live farther from the state capital are less informed and display less interest in state politics, but not in politics in general.

When it comes to elections, we find that voter turnout in state elections is greater in counties that are closer to the state capital. In addition, we also show that isolated capital cities are associated with a greater role for money in state-level elections, as measured by campaign contributions, and that, in states with a relatively isolated capital, firms and individuals who are closer to it contribute disproportionately more. ...

Finally, we provide some evidence on whether this pattern of low accountability affects the ultimate provision of public goods: states with isolated capital cities also seem to spend relatively less, and get worse outcomes, on things like education, public welfare, and health care.
--Filipe Campante and Quoc-Anh Do, American Economic Review, on the case for moving state capitals closer to population centers

Monday, January 19, 2015

The importance of proper capitalization

Loan candidates who fill out online forms in proper case – the first letter of your first and last names capitalized and other letters lower case, for example – tend to be more reliable payers. Those who use all lower-case letters are slightly less reliable, and all capital-letter typists the worst.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Americans' cash-carrying habits

Quick, how much cash is in your wallet? If you’re like the average American, barely enough for a couple of movie tickets: The median consumer carries just $22.

A handful of people roll bigger. Roughly one in five people carry more than $100. One in twenty carry a pickpocket’s dream—$100 bills—according to a new study by Claire Greene and Scott Schuh of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. ...

The amount of cash in circulation keeps rising. There’s $1.2 trillion in cash outside banks, up 20 percent since 2011. Use of credit and debit cards is growing, too, but they’re mostly taking over where checks left off. Cash is still used for 40 percent of all purchases, and from 2003 to 2012 the amount of cash pulled from ATMs rose 32 percent faster than inflation. ...
In fact, people who carry around lots of cash aren't that different from anyone else, with one important distinction: They make more money. Consumers who make more than $75,000 are about 50 percent more likely to be carrying around $100 than those who make less than $35,000. That might not seem surprising—more money in the paycheck means more in the wallet—but it undercuts the idea that wads of cash are mainly for poor people who don’t have access to banks or credit cards. In fact, holders of more than $100 were more likely to have a credit card, though they tended to pay it off every month. They were also more likely to be older than 55 and have more than a high school education. Beyond those, the study concluded, “other demographic factors are not statistically significant.”

Most people use cash only to buy small things, and people with lots of cash are no exception. When spending their $100 bills, they’re usually asking a clerk to make change. The Boston Fed study tracked daily spending and found that 78 percent of $100 bills were used on purchases of less than $100. One-third of the time, they were using a $100 bill to buy less than $20 of stuff.
--Ben Steverman, Bloomberg Businessweek, on how far away we are from a cashless economy. HT: EP

And the classic clip on the use of $100 bills: