Thursday, December 20, 2012

The exacting craft of Jerry Seinfeld

Developing jokes as glacially as he does, Seinfeld says, allows for breakthroughs he wouldn’t reach otherwise. He gave me an example. “I had a joke: ‘Marriage is a bit of a chess game, except the board is made of flowing water and the pieces are made of smoke,’ ” he said. “This is a good joke, I love it, I’ve spent years on it. There’s a little hitch: ‘The board is made of flowing water.’ I’d always lose the audience there. Flowing water? What does he mean? And repeating ‘made of’ was hurting things. So how can I say ‘the board is made of flowing water’ without saying ‘made of’? A very small problem, but I could hear the confusion. A laugh to me is not a laugh. I see it, like at Caltech when they look at the tectonic plates. If I’m in the dark up there and I can just listen, I know exactly what’s going on. I know exactly when their attention has moved off me a little.

“So,” he continued, “I was obsessed with figuring that out. The way I figure it out is I try different things, night after night, and I’ll stumble into it at some point, or not. If I love the joke, I’ll wait. If it takes me three years, I’ll wait.” Finally, in late August, during a performance, the cricket cage snapped into place. “The breakthrough was doing this”— Seinfeld traced a square in the air with his fingers, drawing the board. “Now I can just say, ‘The board is flowing water,’ and do this, and they get it. A board that was made of flowing water was too much data. Here, I’m doing some of the work for you. So now I’m starting to get applause on it, after years of work. They don’t think about it. They just laugh.”
--Jonah Weiner, NYT Magazine, on the hard work of being funny

Monday, December 17, 2012

How to monitor the monitor

Ann owns a restaurant. She hires Bob to tally the till every night and report back any mismatch between the till and that night’s bills. Ann is too busy to check the till herself and has to trust what Bob says. How can Ann provide Bob with appropriate incentives to exert the effort required to tally the till and report back the truth? ...

Some economists have emphasized auditing, perhaps at random to economize on its cost. Unfortunately, Ann is just too busy to tally the till herself—this option is not credibly available to her. ...

I propose that Ann can solve her problem by sometimes secretly taking money from the till and offering Bob the following deal: if Ann took some money, she will pay Bob only when he reports a mismatch; if Ann did not take any money, she will pay Bob only when a mismatch is not reported. Bob’s incentives are now aligned with Ann’s. If Bob doesn’t bother tallying the till, he won’t know what to tell Ann in order to make sure he gets paid. On the other hand, if he does his job he’ll discover whether or not there is a mismatch and deduce whether or not Ann took some money. Only then will Bob know what to tell Ann in order to get paid. By asking Bob a “trick question,” Ann can now rest assured that he will acquire the requisite costly information and reveal it truthfully.
--David Rahman, American Economic Review, on better living through contract theory

The real reason the U.S. doesn't have more gun control

Yet I am troubled by something I've noticed in many of the calls for more robust gun control: the conceit that it's a subject America has yet to debate - that "the gun lobby" has somehow imposed its will on an unwilling citizenry, and that "a conversation about guns" must begin now. I'm all for more conversation about guns. It's just that we've already been having one for decades. ...

...gun control is a perennial controversy, the sort of controversial issue that Gallup tracks on an annual basis.

So what has been the result of decades of sustained public debate?

"Americans' support for stricter gun control laws has gradually declined over the last two decades, from 78% when this question was first asked in 1990 to 49% in 2008, and 44% in 2009 and again this year," Gallup reported in 2010 survey results. Said the organization in 2011:
A record-low 26% of Americans favor a legal ban on the possession of handguns in the United States other than by police and other authorized people. When Gallup first asked Americans this question in 1959, 60% favored banning handguns. But since 1975, the majority of Americans have opposed such a measure, with opposition around 70% in recent years. 
...

Says Nikolas Kristoff in the Times, "We even regulate toy guns, by requiring orange tips -- but lawmakers don't have the gumption to stand up to National Rifle Association extremists and regulate real guns as carefully as we do toys. What do we make of the contrast between heroic teachers who stand up to a gunman and craven, feckless politicians who won't stand up to the N.R.A.?" As in so many pieces I've read, the N.R.A. as an abstract entity is cast as the all-powerful villain. Ignored are the 4 million plus individuals who belong to it and the tens of millions who are sympathetic to many of the arguments it makes. If the N.R.A. vanished tomorrow, tens of millions of gun-loving Americans would still shape the behavior of politicians. And some of those politicians aren't craven so much as in substantial agreement with the N.R.A.
--Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, on the low public support for more gun control

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The 24/24/24 approach to ideas

Q. What are some things that you’ve learned from mentors?

A. One was Jay Chiat, one of the founders of the Chiat/Day ad agency. He had this incredible capacity for optimism, particularly optimism during mentorship. He had this amazing ability to think of every reason why an idea might work before criticizing it and thinking why it might not work. When you’re a mentor, you’ve got to realize that people are often sharing their dreams, and I think it’s human nature to be a critic. We’re skeptics. As you get older and more experienced, wisdom is great, but you also have to be careful not to automatically impose your mental framework and your lessons.

I’ve translated it into a rule that I try to get people to follow, and I’m still working on this. When someone gives you an idea, try to wait just 24 seconds before criticizing it. If you can do that, wait 24 minutes. Then if you become a Zen master of optimism, you could wait a day, and spend that time thinking about why something actually might work. In venture capital, you’re at the intersection of human capital and their big ideas, their dreams. My favorite quote is from Eleanor Roosevelt: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
--Tony Tjan, CEO of venture capital firm Cue Ball, on being generous towards ideas

Monday, December 10, 2012

Why 3 is halfway between 1 and 9

Ask adults from the industrialized world what number is halfway between 1 and 9, and most will say 5. But pose the same question to small children, or people living in some traditional societies, and they're likely to answer 3.

Cognitive scientists theorize that that's because it's actually more natural for humans to think logarithmically than linearly: 30 is 1, and 32 is 9, so logarithmically, the number halfway between them is 31, or 3. Neural circuits seem to bear out that theory.
--Larry Hardesty, MITnews, on the natural in logarithms. HT: Chris Blattman

Friday, December 7, 2012

What your birthday says about your family background

Research has found that season of birth is associated with later health and professional outcomes; what drives this association remains unclear. In this paper we consider a new explanation: that children born at different times in the year are conceived by women with different socioeconomic characteristics. We document large seasonal changes in the characteristics of women giving birth throughout the year in the United States. Children born in the winter are disproportionally likely to be born to women who are teenagers, who are unmarried, and who lack a high school degree. We show that controls for family background characteristics can explain up to half of the relationship between season of birth and adult outcomes. Our findings suggest that, though popular, using season of birth as an instrumental variable may produce inconsistent estimates. Finally, we provide evidence that seasonality in maternal characteristics is driven by high-socioeconomic status women disproportionately planning births away from winter.
--Kasey Buckles and Dan Hungerman on not-so-random birthdays

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Shareholder value creation

Diminishing marginal returns to physics research

Physicists Bummed That Physics Is Pretty Much What They Expected: A Scientific Nightmare is Coming True
--A headline appropriate for the Onion, but actually a headline from the Atlantic. Article excerpt below.


The Large Hadron Collider discovered the Higgs boson. Hooray! Success for the big machine!

But not really.

The discovery of the Higgs means that an entire era of physics -- in which the so-called Standard Model of particles was theorized and then proven -- has come to an end. And the LHC is not creating any new mysteries to investigate. Physics is following the predictions too closely.

"Despite all this build up of theoretical expectations, there is no experimental hint of anything outside the Standard Model at the LHC. Hence the long faces and worried words wherever theorists gather to drink coffee," reports physicists Glenn Starkman over at Scientific American. "Hence the disappointment in the eyes of the young experimentalists looking forward to the next accelerator, the next frontier where their mark will be made."
--Alexis Madrigal, Atlantic, on the career hazards of too much success

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The benefits of low-effort, low-cost gift giving

Many people shy away from regifting, or hide the fact they are doing it, out of fear the original giver of the item could be offended. Don't worry, says a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science. The person who first gave the item is less likely to be offended than the regifter expects.

Some gift givers spend time and energy trying to find just the right gift. But thoughtful gifts don't necessarily lead to greater appreciation, according to a study published in November in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The benefit of a thoughtful gift actually accrues mainly to the giver, who derives a feeling of closeness to the other person, the study found.

People are more appreciative when they receive a gift they have explicitly requested, according to a similar study published last year in a separate publication called the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. ...

Another study found spending more money on a gift doesn't necessarily translate into greater appreciation. That might come as a surprise to many gift givers, who often assume that a more expensive gift conveys a higher level of thoughtfulness, according to the research, published in 2009 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. ...

According to a nationwide consumer-spending survey by American Express, 58% of people believe it is OK sometimes to regift an item. That figure rises for the holiday season, when 79% of respondents said they believe regifting is socially acceptable. ...

In the study of regifting, researchers conducted five separate experiments involving nearly 500 people in both real and imagined scenarios. The reason people weren't overly bothered when their gifts were later regifted was because they generally believed the recipient was free to decide what to do with an item. ...

The adage "It's the thought that counts" was largely debunked by the recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, which concluded that gift givers are better off choosing gifts that receivers actually desire rather than spending a lot of time and energy shopping for what they perceive to be a thoughtful gift. The study found thoughtfulness doesn't increase a recipient's appreciation if the gift is a desirable one. In fact, thoughtfulness only seemed to count when a friend gives a gift that is disliked.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The real reason some colleges make SAT reporting optional for applicants

I sometimes think I should write a handbook for college admission officials titled “How to Play the U.S. News & World Report Ranking Game, and Win!” I would devote the first chapter to a tactic called “SAT optional.” The idea is simple: tell applicants that they can choose whether or not to submit their SAT or ACT scores. Predictably, those applicants with low scores or those who know that they score poorly on standardized aptitude tests will not submit. Those with high scores will submit. When the college computes the mean SAT or ACT score of its enrolled students, voilà! its average will have risen. And so too, it can fondly hope, will its status in the annual U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings.
--Colin Driver, President of Reed College, New York Times, 2006. HT: Michael Conlin, Stacy Dickert-Conlin, and Gabrielle Chapman, "Voluntary Disclosure and the Strategic Behavior of Colleges"

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Is everything we eat associated with cancer? A systematic cookbook review

Objective: We aimed to examine the conclusions, statistical significance, and reproducibility in the literature on associations between specific foods and cancer risk.

Design: We selected 50 common ingredients from random recipes in a cookbook. PubMed queries identified recent studies that evaluated the relation of each ingredient to cancer risk. ...

Results: Forty ingredients (80%) had articles reporting on their cancer risk. Of 264 single-study assessments, 191 (72%) concluded that the tested food was associated with an increased (n = 103) or a decreased (n = 88) risk; 75% of the risk estimates had weak (0.05 > P ≥ 0.001) or no statistical (P > 0.05) significance. Statistically significant results were more likely than nonsignificant findings to be published in the study abstract than in only the full text (P < 0.0001). Meta-analyses (n = 36) presented more conservative results... The [relative risks] from the meta-analyses were on average null (median: 0.96; IQR: 0.85, 1.10).

Conclusions: Associations with cancer risk or benefits have been claimed for most food ingredients. Many single studies highlight implausibly large effects, even though evidence is weak. Effect sizes shrink in meta-analyses.
--Jonathan Schoenfeld and John Ioannidis, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, on the weak link between food and cancer. HT: ACT

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Keeping your eye on the ball to improve sports performance

Back in elementary school gym class, virtually all of us were taught to keep our eyes on the ball during sports. But a growing body of research suggests that, as adults, most of us have forgotten how to do this. ...

Which is in part why the British researchers had half of their group of 40 duffers practice putting technique, while the other half received instruction in a gaze-focusing technique known as “Quiet Eye” training.

Quiet Eye training, as the name suggests, is an attempt to get people to stop flicking their focus around so much. But “Quiet Eye training is not just about looking at the ball,” says Mark Wilson, who led the study, published in Psychophysiology, and is a senior lecturer in human movement science at the University of Exeter in England. “It is about looking at the ball for long enough to process aiming information.” It involves reminding players to first briefly sight toward the exact spot where they wish to send the ball, and then settle their eyes onto the ball and hold them there.

This tight focus on the ball, Dr. Wilson says, blunts distracting mental chatter and allows the brain “to process the aiming information you just gathered” and direct the body in the proper motions to get the ball where you wish it to go. ...

And in fact, after Dr. Wilson had his golfing volunteers practice for hours on either specific aspects of stroke technique or on focusing their gaze and not worrying about technique, those who had worked on their gaze were more accurate than those who had fine-tuned their technique. ...

Similar results have been reported among soccer penalty kickers...

[I]n a study published last year in the journal Cognitive Processing, collegiate players who were instructed to look briefly toward one of the upper, far corners of the goal and then immediately back to the ball, ignoring the goalie, significantly improved their shooting accuracy and reduced by 50 percent the number of times the goalie blocked their try, compared to teammates who didn’t quiet their gaze. ....

Dr. Wilson says, after having extensively studied just how the best golfers look, he now teaches novice golfers at his lab to “keep their gaze on the back of the ball, which is the contact point for the putter, for a brief period before starting the putting action” — long enough to, for instance, “say ‘back of the cup’ to themselves,” he says. The golfers are told to hold that position throughout the putting stroke and, he says, “importantly, after contact for a split second. I often ask golfers to rate the quality of their contact on the ball from 1 to 10, before they look up to see where the ball went.”
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on the power of the gaze

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The richest metropolitan areas in the U.S.

New Haven, CT: #18!

Bridgeport, CT makes it to #1 because the metro area includes Greenwich, even though the city of Bridgeport is struggling economically.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis via The Atlantic.

Why do liberal women want more sex than they're having?

OK, I’ve been at it again, meaning that I’ve been exploring associations between various measures in the New Family Structures Study (the NFSS). ...

At the risk of sounding blunt, crass, and insensitive, the NFSS data clearly reveal that—for whatever reason—more politically liberal 18-39-year-old women report wanting more sex than they’ve been having. (No such association appears among men. ...) ...

Here are the simple numbers: 16% of “very conservative” women say they’d prefer more, compared with 29% of conservative women, 31% of moderates, 47% of liberals, and 50% of “very liberal” women. ...

...women of all political stripes report statistically-comparable frequency of sex.

In regression models, the measure of political liberalism remains significantly associated with the odds of wanting more sex even after controlling for the frequency of actual intercourse over the past two weeks, their age, marital status, education level, whether they’ve masturbated recently, their anxiety level, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, depressive symptoms, and porn use. ...

I floated this to a female friend, an economist, who offered this four-part theory:

1. More liberal women are less likely to be religious. (In the NFSS and other datasets, she’s correct in this). 
2. Given that, more liberal women are therefore more likely to have a difficult time attributing transcendent value to aspects of life such as their work, relationships, children, and daily tasks. Some scholars speak of this as “sanctifying daily life.” In other words, liberal women are less apt to conceive of mundane, material life as imbued with or reflecting the sacred. 
3. Nevertheless, most people experience sexual expression as–in some significant way–transcendent, or higher-than-other-experiences. 
4. More liberal women therefore want to have more sex because they feel the lack of sufficient transcendence in life. If sex is one of the few pathways to it, then it’s sensible to desire more of it.
Basically, liberal women substitute sex for religion. ...

So I added religious service attendance to the regression model described earlier, predicting wanting more sex, and—wouldn’t you know it—political liberalism finally went silent as a predictor. Barely.

Other theories are welcome…
--Mark Regnerus, Patheos, on the demand for transcendence. HT: Tim Dalrymple

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Fox News and MSNBC of Lincoln's day

The next day [after the Gettysburg Address] the Democratic-leaning Chicago Times observed, "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States."

Friday, November 23, 2012

How noisy is economics/finance peer review?

My paper’s first main finding is a quantitative estimate of the objective component in the economics/finance refereeing process. Consider a scale defined by a single parameter that measures referee accuracy, named lambda. Lambda can be from 0 to 1 and measures the fraction of the referee report that constitutes an objectively agreeable paper quality. ... λ = 1 means that every referee reports the paper’s objective aspect. λ = 0 means that every referee reports noise. ...

The observed consensus estimates among referees were λ ≈ 0.30 for the Journal of Finance (JF) and Review of Financial Studies (RFS), λ ≈ 0.35 for Econometrica (ECMTA), the Quarterly Journal of Economics (QJE) and the SFS Cavalcade; and λ ≈ 0.40 for the International Economic Review (IER), the Journal of Economic Theory (JET), the Journal of the European Economic Association (JEEA), and the Rand Journal of Economics (Rand). 

Roughly, referee reports were one part signal, two parts noise. ...

For economics journals, when two referees are consulted, the top-10p [percentile] paper receives two rejects with probability 14%, one reject and one non-reject with probability 47%, and two non-rejects with probability 40%. With three referees, the top-10p papers receives a majority of reject recommendations with 30% probability, a majority of non-reject recommendations with 70% probability.

For finance journals, with their lower lambdas and higher rejection probabilities, the higher than 50% reject probability for the top-10p paper results in a strange situation: The more referees are consulted, the more likely it is that the referees will agree that the top-10p paper is bad. For this top-10p paper, with one referee, the probability that the majority of referees recommends rejection is 38%; with three referees, it is almost 70%. (This also obviates the idea of using a tie-breaker referee when two referees disagree.) In fact, only the top-2p papers have a conditional probability of rejection that is less than 50%, resulting in a majority rejection probability that does not increase with the number of referees.

Fighting celebrity paparazzi using economics

Many celebrities seem to live like caged animals because they're beset by paparazzi whenever they leave their home.

Why not adopt the following supply-side solution to this problem?

My idea is that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie should hire a full-time photographer who follows them around whenever they leave the house and takes tons of photographs of them. They would then flood the market with these photographs, selling them to celebrity-gawking magazines for next to nothing, far undercutting the price that regular paparazzi charge these magazines. Because the private photographer would have better access than the regular paparazzi, the photos will be of higher quality and lower price, making them irresistible to the magazines. Now that the regular paparazzi can't make a living off of stalking Pitt and Jolie, they'll stop, and the couple can live in relative peace.

The monetary cost of maintaining a full-time photographer should be trivial to major celebrities. These celebrities are probably also used to having employed housestaff around all the time, so it's no big deal to have another one around. You would have to disseminate many private and somewhat unflattering moments, but that's already happening in the current equilibrium. (If no unflattering pictures were voluntarily disseminated, then you leave an opening for an outside paparazzo who specializes in capturing such shots to profitably remain in the market.) By becoming the low-cost provider in this market, the celebrity can prevent the really unflattering images from leaking out and avoid the unpleasant experience of being hounded by paparazzi stalkers. The total quantity of published photographic disclosure probably wouldn't increase that much, but the personal burden of that disclosure would decrease dramatically.

Brad and Angelina, you're welcome.
--A rare original post by the author of this blog

Even the car accidents are bigger in Texas


Two people died and more than 80 people were hurt Thursday when at least 100 vehicles collided in Southeast Texas in a pileup that left trucks twisted on top of each other and authorities rushing to pull survivors from the wreckage.

The collision occurred in extremely foggy conditions at about 8:45 a.m. Thanksgiving Day on Interstate 10 southwest of Beaumont, a Gulf Coast city about 80 miles east of Houston. ...

According to DPS, a crash on the eastbound side of the highway led to other accidents in a dangerous chain reaction. There were multiple crashes on the other side of the highway as well. ...

I-10's eastbound lanes were re-opened Thursday evening after more than eight hours.

An unintended consequence of electronic medical records

A few years ago, we doctors kept handwritten charts about patients. Back then, it sometimes seemed like we spent half our time walking around looking for misplaced charts, and the other half trying to decipher the handwriting when we found them. The upside was that if I did have the chart in front of me, and I saw that someone had taken the trouble to write something down, I believed it.

Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. The advent of electronic medical records has been a boon to patient safety and physician efficiency in many ways. But it has also brought with it a slew of “timesaving” tricks that have had some unintended consequences. These tricks make it so easy for doctors to document the results of standard exams and conversations with patients that it appears more and more of them are being documented without ever having happened in the first place.

For instance, doctors used to have to fill out a checklist for every step in a physical exam. Now, they can click one button that automatically places a comprehensive normal physical exam in the record. ...

Hospitals received $1 billion more from Medicare in 2010 than they did in 2005. They say this is largely because electronic medical records have made it easier for doctors to document and be reimbursed for the real work that they do. That’s probably true to an extent. But I bet a lot of doctors have succumbed to the temptation of the click. Medicare thinks so too. This fall, the attorney general and secretary of health and human services warned the five major hospital associations that this kind of abuse would not be tolerated.

And then there are the evil twins, copy and paste. I’ve seen “patient is on day two of antibiotics” appear for five days in a row on one chart. Worse, I’ve seen my own assessments of a patient’s health appear in another doctor’s notes. A 2009 study found that 90 percent of physicians reported copying and pasting when writing daily notes.

In short, reading the electronic chart has become a game of looking for a small needle of new information in a haystack of falsely comprehensive documentation and outdated, copied text. Why do we doctors do this to ourselves? Largely, it turns out, for the same reason most people do most things: money.

Doctors are paid not by how much time they spend with patients, how well they listen or how hard they think about what could be wrong, but by how much they write down. And the rules for what we have to write are Byzantine: Medicare’s explanation takes 87 pages.
--Leora Horwitz, NYT, on a result of lowering the cost of supplying medical documentation

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The struggle of writing

Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time. I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.
--Philip Roth on why he's retiring

Monday, November 5, 2012

Is corruption all that bad for economic growth?

To be clear, my point wasn’t that corruption is unimportant. But if we’re talking about where the world ought to focus its aid energy for the next fifteen years, I simply wouldn’t use corruption in the same sentence (or even paragraph) as civil war or property rights. ...

The reasons that corruption should hurt growth are so persuasive that economists have been pretty surprised not to find much evidence. One team reviewed 41 different cross-country studies of corruption and development. Two-thirds of the studies don’t even find a negative correlation. Cross-country studies have mostly bad data and empirics, so we should not rest here. But Jacob Svensson has a nice overview of the broader evidence and draws the same conclusion: there’s not much to show that corruption reduces growth on net. ...

Are we any good at stopping corruption? Svensson and Bardhan see some hope, but not many good answers. In this article, Rohini Pande’s more hopeful, especially if we design policy armed with economic theory and experiment. ...

[Pritchett, Woolcock, and Andrews] run the following thought experiment: What if we tried to measure the quality of governance (including corruption) over time and space, and figure out the 20 fastest improvements countries have made in recorded history? Then, using this best-case-scenario, we ask how long it will take today’s poorest and weakest states just to get to the median level of governance–not to the level of a Canada or Sweden, but to the (decidedly less ambitious) level of a Tanzania or Guatemala. The answer, depending on the country, is 15 to 35 years. And that’s if they experience a miracle of change.

The goal the US and UK commonly set for the Afghanistans and Liberias of the world, of course, is about three to five years. Just witness the public and political angst every time the NY Times uncovers corruption in its Afghan regime. Be prepared for more.

If this saddens you, just remember the first half of my post: it probably doesn’t matter much, and outsiders should probably be putting their attention elsewhere.

Companies respond to incentives: Health insurance edition

Some low-wage employers are moving toward hiring part-time workers instead of full-time ones to mitigate the health-care overhaul's requirement that large companies provide health insurance for full-time workers or pay a fee.

Several restaurants, hotels and retailers have started or are preparing to limit schedules of hourly workers to below 30 hours a week. That is the threshold at which large employers in 2014 would have to offer workers a minimum level of insurance or pay a penalty starting at $2,000 for each worker.

The shift is one of the first significant steps by employers to avoid requirements under the health-care law, and whether the trend continues hinges on Tuesday's election results. ...

Pillar Hotels & Resorts this summer began to focus more on hiring part-time workers among its 5,500 employees, after the Supreme Court upheld the health-care overhaul, said Chief Executive Chris Russell. The company has 210 franchise hotels, under the Sheraton, Fairfield Inns, Hampton Inns and Holiday Inns brands. ...

CKE Restaurants Inc., parent of the Carl's Jr. and Hardee's burger chains, began two months ago to hire part-time workers to replace full-time employees who left, said Andy Puzder, CEO of the Carpinteria, Calif., company. ...

Home retailer Anna's Linens Inc. is considering cutting hours for some full-time employees to avoid the insurance mandate if the health-care law isn't repealed, said CEO Alan Gladstone. ...

In a July survey, 32% of retail and hospitality company respondents told the consulting firm [Mercer] that they were likely to reduce the number of employees working 30 hours a week or more.
--Julie Jargon, Louise Radnofsky, and Alexandra Berzon, WSJ, on how a tax on full-time work reduces full-time work

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The MacGyver-like powers of dental floss

In Texas, officials believe a prisoner used floss to cut his way out of his cell, then jumped a fellow inmate and knifed him to death.

In Maryland, Illinois, West Virginia and Wisconsin, inmates collected enough floss to braid it into ropes and escape, or try to, over prison walls.

A group of escaped prisoners on the run in Texas used floss to sew up their gunshot wounds.

And a man in an Illinois jail used floss to stitch together the dummy he left in his bed when he took off.

Experts say floss, or the plastic holder it sometimes comes in, has been used to strangle enemies, to escape, to saw through bars, to pick handcuffs, to make a hand grip on a shank and to hoist contraband from one level of cells to another. ...

An episode of the science TV show "Mythbusters" a few years ago set up an experiment to challenge the floss-as-security-risk theory. The show used a floss-equipped robot to test whether floss — combined with toothpaste to make it more abrasive — could really saw through a bar on a jail cell.

The feat was declared "plausible," given 300 days at eight hours a day — the kind of time that an inmate might have. ...

It was waxed floss that was used in Wisconsin in 1997 by inmates Timothy Dummer and Guy Dunwald. They used ropes of braided floss to get over a wall at the Green Bay Correctional Institution. They were quickly recaptured and had five years added to their sentences.

A television story about the episode said the prisoners had collected 18,975 feet — more than 3½ miles — of dental floss.
--Jim Fitzgerald, Associated Press, on the potent combination of persistence, ingenuity, and dental floss. HT: Marginal Revolution

Christopher Nolan's Star Wars Episode VII

But a Christopher Nolan Star Wars would be terrible. There’s simply no bridging the brooding, cerebral mind of Christopher Nolan with the goofy, fantastical universe of that galaxy far, far away. ...

Take just a minute to “imagine the greatness” we could expect from Star Wars Episode 7: The Dark Jedi Knight. Struggling with the mysterious loss of his wife Mara Jade (played in flashback by Marion Cotillard), a middle-aged Luke Skywalker (Christian Bale) has found himself in a pained exile back on Tatooine. We gradually piece together that after losing an internal struggle with his anger, hate, and suffering, Skywalker was labeled a potential Sith by the Jedi Council, and thrown out by the terrorist and corporate businessman Jacen Solo. This all leads to a series of disorienting lightsaber battles and spaceship chases (mandated by Disney, and carried out half-heartedly by Nolan), culminating in a startling revelation: As the brass in Hans Zimmer’s score swells, we learn that it was Skywalker who accidentally sabered Mara Jade; he then used a Jedi Mind Trick on himself to wipe the memory. As Skywalker must decide whether to keep this memory—his only hope for channeling enough of the Dark Side to beat Jacen Solo—we cut to black.
--Forrest Wickman, Slate, on the case against Christopher Nolan taking over Star Wars

Stop donating canned goods

America, after all, is not a country stricken with famine. There’s no objective shortage of food, in other words, that makes it vitally important for you to draw down the stockpile in your kitchen cabinet. Indeed, many of us don’t even have that much food socked away, which leads to us going out to buy extra food in order to give it away. But having 100 different people go out and pay retail prices for a few cans of green beans is extraordinarily inefficient relative to pooling those funds to buy the beans in bulk.

But it’s even worse than that. All across America, charitable organizations and the food industry have set up mechanisms through which emergency food providers can get their hands on surplus food for a nominal handling charge. Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that food providers can get what they need for “pennies on the dollar.” She estimates that they pay about 10 cents a pound for food that would cost you $2 per pound retail. You’d be doing dramatically more good, in basic dollars and cents terms, by eating that tuna yourself and forking over a check for half the price of a single can of Chicken of the Sea.

Beyond the economies of scale are the overhead costs. Charities are naturally reluctant to turn down donations for fear of alienating supporters or demoralizing well-wishers, but the reality is that dealing with sporadic surges of cans is a logistical headache. A nationwide network of food banks called Feeding America gingerly notes on its website that “a hastily organized local food drive can actually put more strain on your local food bank than you imagine.” Food dropped off by well-meaning citizens needs to be carefully inspected and sorted. A personal check, by contrast, can be used to order what’s needed without placing extra burdens on the staff.

A lot of waste also occurs on the other side of the food-donation equation. Rosqueta observes that a surprisingly large proportion of food—as much as 50 percent—provided to needy families in basic boxes winds up going uneaten. ... Social service providers know their clients better and, with cash in hand, can pull together items people are likely to want and let them pick what they need, cutting down on waste.
--Matthew Yglesias, Slate, on why you should just write a check

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Official Disney Parks video in response to LucasFilm's purchase by Disney

Professional mattress jumpers

The man who gets paid to jump on mattresses says you can stop laughing now. There is nothing funny about jumping on mattresses day after day. Mattress after mattress. People refuse to understand.

"It's work," said professional mattress jumper Reuben Reynoso. "It's not for everybody. There is a right way and a wrong way to do it."

Reynoso, who jumps on three mattresses a day, does it the right way. He doesn't try for height. He doesn't go "boing" or turn a somersault. His 10 toes are not little piggies going to market. They are trained members of the team. It's not a trampoline, for goodness sakes, it's a $2,750 mattress.

"This is not a game," said Reynoso, bouncing up and down. "Not to me."

Jumping on a mattress is one of the final steps in making a handmade mattress or, to be more precise, a hand-and-foot-made mattress. It may be true that machines, which can be made to do most things, can be made to jump on a mattress. But a machine cannot do what Reynoso and his toes can do, which is to expertly compress no fewer than 28 layers of fluffy cotton batting while seeking to detect pea-size mattress lumps or other imperfections, the kind that can give insomnia to fairy-tale princesses and real-world princesses, too.

Reynoso does his jumping in the McRoskey mattress factory on Potrero Hill. McRoskey has been stomping out high-end mattresses in San Francisco for 112 years and is something of a cult among mattress fanciers. ...

He works a precise grid pattern, covering each section of the surface once, like an Augusta groundskeeper mowing the 18th green before the Masters. ...

Up, down, sidestep. Up, down, sidestep. One hundred bounces. Flip the mattress over and jump 100 more jumps on the other side.
--Steve Rubenstein, SFGate, on serious work

Where zombies came from

But the zombie is not an alien enemy who’s been CGI-ed by Hollywood. He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. ...

The only escape from the sugar plantations was death, which was seen as a return to Africa, or lan guinée (literally Guinea, or West Africa). This is the phrase in Haitian Creole that even now means heaven. ... Not surprisingly, suicide was a frequent recourse of the slaves, who were handy with poisons and powders. ...

And yet, the fear of becoming a zombie might stop them from doing so. The zombie is a dead person who cannot get across to lan guinée. ... To become a zombie was the slave’s worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand. It is thought that slave drivers on the plantations, who were usually slaves themselves and sometimes Voodoo priests, used this fear of zombification to keep recalcitrant slaves in order and to warn those who were despondent not to go too far.
--Amy Wilentz, NYT, on the functional purpose of zombies

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Rescuing Star Wars from George Lucas

The Walt Disney Company, in a move that gives it a commanding position in the realm of fantasy movies, said Tuesday it had agreed to acquire Lucasfilm Ltd. from its founder, George Lucas, for $4.05 billion in stock and cash.

The sale provides a corporate home for a private company that grew from Mr. Lucas’s hugely successful “Star Wars” series, and became an enduring force in creating effects-driven science fiction entertainment for large and small screens. Mr. Lucas, who is 68 years old, had already announced he would step down from day-to-day operation of the company.

Disney said in a statement that it would revive the “Star Wars” franchise with new feature films, and that Mr. Lucas would serve as creative consultant on them. Star Wars Episode 7 is scheduled to be released in 2015, with more films expected to follow, the company said.
--Michael Cieply, NYT, on Mickey Mouse taking over the Empire

Monday, October 29, 2012

Leonardo the late bloomer

By the age of 42 (in an era in which life expectancy was 40), Leonardo da Vinci had yet to create anything commensurate with his lofty ambitions. At that point, Ross King writes in his new book, “Leonardo and ‘The Last Supper,’ ” he “had produced only a few scattered paintings, a bizarre-looking music instrument, some ephemeral decorations for masques and festivals and many hundreds of pages of notes and drawings for studies he had not yet published, or for inventions he had not yet built.” Too many of his projects — like creating a gigantic bronze horse on commission for Lodovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan — had gone unfinished; other projects having to do with architecture, military engineering and urban planning had not found patrons.
--Michiko Kakutani, NYT, on hope for the rest of us

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Flakiness via text message

Texting and instant messaging make it easier to navigate our social lives, but they are also turning us into ill-mannered flakes. Not long ago, the only way to break a social engagement, outside of blowing off someone completely, was to do it in person or on the phone. An effusive apology was expected, or at least the appearance of contrition.

But now, when our fingers tap our way out of social obligations, the barriers to canceling have been lowered. Not feeling up for going out? Have better plans? Just type a note on the fly (“Sorry can’t make it tonight”) and hit send.

And don’t worry about giving advance notice. The later, the better. After all, bailing on dinner via text message doesn’t feel as disrespectful as standing up someone, or as embarrassing.

New Yorkers with social-driven ambitions and hyper schedules seem to be especially prone to this. And it is practically endemic among those in their 20s and younger, who were raised in the age of instant chatter. ...

“People don’t feel bad shooting someone a text to cancel, but no one would ever pick up the phone and say, ‘Let’s have dinner next week because I want to go to this party instead,’ ” said Danielle Snyder, 27, a founder of the jewelry line Dannijo. “But when you say it out loud, you realize how bad it sounds.” ...

Rachel Libeskind, a 23-year-old artist who lives in TriBeCa, is constantly navigating her social circles from her iPhone. She finds that she’ll triple- or even quadruple-book plans on weekend nights, knowing there’s only a 60 percent chance she’ll engage in any of them. ...

Moreover, it’s not considered boorish when her peers abandon one another. “Because there is very little at stake in terms of having these plans, it’s not that rude,” she said. “It’s implicit because that’s how everyone is operating.” ...

Ms. Medine added that she would often R.S.V.P. to five events a night, knowing there’s little chance she would attend them all. “I don’t think any plan is a plan until you’re inside the restaurant looking at someone else,” she said.
--Caroline Tell, NYT, on the commitment-free commitment

Foodism as art, status marker, and religion

But what has happened is not that food has led to art, but that it has replaced it. Foodism has taken on the sociological characteristics of what used to be known — in the days of the rising postwar middle class, when Mortimer Adler was peddling the Great Books and Leonard Bernstein was on television — as culture. It is costly. It requires knowledge and connoisseurship, which are themselves costly to develop. It is a badge of membership in the higher classes, an ideal example of what Thorstein Veblen, the great social critic of the Gilded Age, called conspicuous consumption. It is a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression. (My farmers’ market has bigger, better, fresher tomatoes than yours.) Nobody cares if you know about Mozart or Leonardo anymore, but you had better be able to discuss the difference between ganache and couverture.

Young men once headed to the Ivy League to acquire the patina of high culture that would allow them to move in the circles of power — or if they were to the manner born, to assert their place at the top of the social heap by flashing what they already knew. Now kids at elite schools are inducted, through campus farmlets, the local/organic/sustainable fare in dining halls and osmotic absorption via their classmates from Manhattan or the San Francisco Bay Area, into the ways of food. More and more of them also look to the expressive possibilities of careers in food: the cupcake shop, the pop-up restaurant, the high-end cookie business. Food, for young people now, is creativity, commerce, politics, health, almost religion.

It took me some effort to explain to a former student recently that no, my peers did not talk about food all the time when we were her age, unless she meant which diner we were going to for breakfast. “But food is everything!” she said. ...

“Eat, Pray, Love,” the title goes, but a lot of people never make it past the first. Nor do they have to. Food now expresses the symbolic values and absorbs the spiritual energies of the educated class. It has become invested with the meaning of life. It is seen as the path to salvation, for the self and humanity both.
--William Deresiewicz, NYT, on the idolization of food. See also food-sex reversals.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Some worthy affirmative action candidates

Ting Shi said his first two years in the United States were wretched. He slept in a bunk bed in the same room with his grandparents and a cousin in Chinatown, while his parents lived on East 89th Street, near a laundromat where they endured 12-hour shifts. He saw them only on Sundays. ...

Ting spent more than two years poring over dog-eared test prep books, attending summer and after-school classes, even going over math formulas on the walk home from school.

The afternoon his acceptance letter to Stuyvesant High School arrived in the mail, he and his parents gathered at the laundromat, the smell of detergent and the whirl of the washing machines filling the air. “Everyone was excited,” Ting recalled. ...

“Most of our parents don’t believe in ‘gifted,’ ” said Riyan Iqbal, 15, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, as he and his friends — of Bengali, Korean and Indian descent — meandered toward the subway from the Bronx High School of Science one recent afternoon. “It’s all about hard work.” ...

Riyan, the son of a taxi driver and a Duane Reade cashier, and his schoolmates said their parents routinely plied them with motivational tales about the trials they endured back home, walking to school barefoot, struggling with hunger, being set back by floods and political unrest. “You try to make up for their hardships,” Riyan said. ...

This fall, [Cambodian immigrant Emmie Cheng's] daughter Kassidi has spent every Tuesday afternoon and all of Saturday at the Horizon Program, a tutoring program near her house, reviewing work she has done over the past three years. Kassidi also takes a prep class on Sundays.

Still, Ms. Cheng, a director at a shoe importing company, said guiding her daughter through this process — which cost her about $2,000 this year alone — paled in comparison to what she had experienced earlier in her life. Her father and four brothers died of starvation during Cambodia’s civil war. And once here, she said, she watched her mother struggle in a garment factory.

“This is the easy part,” Ms. Cheng said.
--Kyle Spencer, NYT, on overcoming adversity

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Should anything be a dealbreaker for a voter?

Say that President Obama (who they regard to be the superior candidate on a wide array of crucial issues) was caught on a series of videotapes (surreptitiously recorded in the Oval Office) repeatedly using anti-Hispanic slurs to refer to Mexican Americans, musing that his personal dislike of Mexicans motivated the record number that he deported, and noting that while he'd never transgress against the law by unlawfully targeting Mexican Americans, he sure does hate them.

It proved a clarifying hypothetical.

A few people stuck to their utilitarian theory of voting. For example, faced with a Twitter length version of the hypothetical, Chris Hayes avowed that he would still vote for the lesser of two evils ...

But he was very much an exception. When pressed, most people who responded to my piece by touting a utilitarian model of voting couldn't bring themselves to apply it if it benefited an anti-Mexican racist who took pleasure in deporting illegal immigrants. ...

But if you tell me that uttering anti-Hispanic slurs while deporting illegal aliens is a dealbreaker (as it would be for me), while the combination of extrajudicial assassinations, indefinite detention, warrantless spying, dead Pakistani innocents, and waging war without Congressional approval isn't a dealbreaker ... well, I'd suggest that no one can defend holding both of those views at once.
--Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, on discovering how utilitarian you really are

Should the President be able to execute American citizens without a trial?

His name was Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and he was 16 years old when he died — when he was killed by a drone strike in Yemen, by the light of the moon. He was the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was also born in America, who was also an American citizen, and who was killed by drone two weeks before his son was, along with another American citizen named Samir Khan. Of course, both Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were, at the very least, traitors to their country — they had both gone to Yemen and taken up with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula ...

I spent the better part of this past spring researching and writing a story for the August issue of Esquire entitled "The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama," which explores how President Obama's expansive embrace of the power to kill individuals identified as America's enemies has transformed not only his presidency but probably all American presidencies to follow.

The idea that American citizenship is no more a refuge against the attacks of American drones than farflung geography; the idea that the secret deliberations of the executive branch count as "due process" even when an American citizen is being considered for execution without trial; the idea, indeed, that "due process does not guarantee judicial process": all these ideas have entered the public sphere largely because the Obama administration made the extraordinary decision to target and kill an American citizen named Anwar al-Awlaki. ...

[T]he killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki constitutes a counter-narrative that the Lethal Presidency would do anything to avoid: an innocent killed by an administration that has turned its argument that it hardly ever makes mistakes into an appeal for the right make its mistakes in secret, with no public accountability at all, even when one of its mistakes results in the death of an American citizen. ...

Barack Obama has created the Lethal Presidency by insisting he that he has been given the power to kill, in secret, anyone who is plotting against Americans or American interests, even if he or she is an American citizen.

It will be very difficult to constrain that power, no matter who is president.
--Tom Junod, Esquire, on the erosion of due process

Leviathan rising


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Big Bird's big cash

According to financial statements for the year ended June 30, 2011, Sesame Workshop and its nonprofit and for-profit subsidiaries had total operating revenue of more than $134 million. They receive about $8 million a year in direct government grants and more indirectly via PBS subsidies. Big Bird and friends also receive corporate and foundation support, and donations amount to about a third of revenue. Distribution fees and royalties comprise another third and licensing revenue makes up the rest.

At the end of fiscal 2011, Sesame Workshop and its subsidiaries had total assets of $289 million. About $29 million was held in cash and "cash equivalents," mainly money-market mutual funds. Another $121 million on the balance sheet was held in "investments." According to the accompanying notes, these investments included stakes in hedge funds and private-equity funds. It's unclear from the financial statements if Big Bird has ever invested in funds run by Bain Capital, founded by Mitt Romney, but no doubt Sesame would be welcomed as a client by many investment managers.
--Wall Street Journal Review & Outlook on the big business of Big Bird

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The cultural technology of K-pop

Three music agencies dominate the K-pop industry. ...

The agencies recruit twelve-to-nineteen-year-olds from around the world, through both open auditions and a network of scouts. ... (Native English- or Chinese-speaking boys and girls, usually of Korean origin, are highly prized.) ...

In Seoul, both Tiffany and Jessica attended an international school by day; after school, they reported to S.M., where they trained until ten, and then they had to do homework. Jessica’s training lasted for seven years.

In addition to singing and dancing, the idols study acting and foreign languages—Japanese, Chinese, and English. They also receive media coaching and are readied for the intense scrutiny they will receive on the Internet from the “netizens” of Korea, the most wired country on earth. ... On average, only one in ten trainees makes it all the way to a début. ...

The charts change rapidly, and, because youth and novelty are at such a premium, established groups usually don’t last long: five years is the average shelf life of an idol. (Some idols extend their careers by acting in K-dramas.) New groups appear regularly; in 2011, about sixty groups made débuts, an unprecedented number. Only a fraction are likely to last; most will fade away after a couple of songs. ...

Lee Soo-man, S.M.’s founder—people in the company refer to him as Chairman Lee—is K-pop’s master architect. ...

Lee called his system “cultural technology.” ...

Lee and his colleagues produced a manual of cultural technology—it’s known around S.M. as C.T.—that catalogued the steps necessary to popularize K-pop artists in different Asian countries. The manual, which all S.M. employees are instructed to learn, explains when to bring in foreign composers, producers, and choreographers; what chord progressions to use in what country; the precise color of eyeshadow a performer should wear in a particular country; the exact hand gestures he or she should make; and the camera angles to be used in the videos (a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree group shot to open the video, followed by a montage of individual closeups). ...

In February, 2011, three members of kara, a hugely popular girl group with D.S.P., one of the smaller agencies, filed a lawsuit claiming that, even though the group earned the agency hundreds of thousands of dollars, each member was paid only a hundred and forty dollars a month. The agency disputed that figure, and eventually the two sides settled. The onerous restrictions that some agencies place on idols have been widely publicized in Korea. Another small agency, Alpha Entertainment, forbids its female trainees to have boyfriends and bars any food or water after 7 p.m., according to the Straits Times, Singapore’s English-language newspaper. They are not allowed to go anywhere without supervision.
--John Seabrook, New Yorker, on the factory behind the pop

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

How much is government-provided healthcare worth?

In July, the Congressional Budget Office — the nonpartisan arbiter of the costs and consequences of government spending — decided that we had not been valuing these benefits [of government-provided health care] enough. In a report on how income and taxes are distributed across the population, it decided, for the first time, to value health benefits provided by the government at every penny they cost.

The decision stoked a long-simmering debate about how much health care is really worth to poor families who may not have enough to eat. The reclassification of health benefits added $4,600 a year to households in the bottom fifth of income. It shrank the nation’s yawning income gap and muted the increase of inequality over the last three decades. And it changed the picture of what the government does for Americans.

The reasoning behind the budget office’s action seems to make lots of sense: the government spends almost $8,000 on the average Medicaid beneficiary and more than $12,000 for each person on Medicare. Why shouldn’t that count as income? Without it, the recipients could not afford an essential, lifesaving service. Moreover, the budget office considers Social Security benefits as income. And that’s the way it treats the health insurance provided by employers to their workers.

But not everyone thinks health care is worth that much. In particular, the Census Bureau does not include health care and other noncash benefits when computing the official poverty rate. Even its Supplemental Poverty Measure — which was created to capture noncash sources of income, as well as all the costs faced by the poor — sets the value of Medicare and Medicaid at zero. ...

The change in approach alters the calculation of who is living in poverty. Including these health benefits at face value raises by 25 percent the income of households in the poorest fifth of the population, to $23,300 in 2009 from $18,900 under the previous calculation. This is more than three times the average income of the poorest fifth of households before federal taxes and government benefits kick in, which in 2009 was $7,600. ...

Because two-thirds of Medicare funds and 83 percent of Medicaid funds are spent on the poorest 40 percent of the population, the shift also narrows the nation’s income gap. Under the budget office’s old method, the richest fifth of American households made more than nine times the incomes of the poorest fifth, after taxes and government benefits. Under the new method, the rich take home less than 7.5 times what the poor do. ...

More of the nation’s income is being devoted to health care, [economist Richard Burkhauser] says, and that needs to be counted to help us decide the best way to spend our resources. We may ask why we are “spending so much to give poor people ‘Cadillac health care’ and nothing else,” he says.
--Eduardo Porter, NYT, on valuing healthcare at more than zero