Saturday, September 23, 2017

Totoro is not a death god

There’s a persistent rumor, one which we’ve talked about ourselves, that claims there’s a dark side to feel-good anime classic My Neighbor Totoro. The theory holds that while the movie opens with two lively sisters in the spotlight, both of them die somewhere before the end of the film, and the immense huggable Totoro isn’t in fact a forest spirit, but a death god ushering them into the afterlife.

If this creepy interpretation has been spoiling the warm fuzzy sensation you used to get from watching what you once thought was a heart-warming film, you can breathe easy again, as none other than Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki has publicly put the rumor to rest. ...

“Everyone gets all stirred up about it on the Internet, don’t they?” he began. “They say things like, ‘They’re all dead at the end of the movie.’” Proponents of the theory often assert that 11-year-old Satsuki and four-year-old Mei don’t have shadows, which in turn marks them as spirits.

This depiction doesn’t entirely hold water, though, according to Takimoto. “I watched the movie, and up until the very end, Mei and Satsuki both have shadows, don’t they?”

“Yes, they do,” replied Suzuki.

“They don’t lose them part-way through, or anything?”

“No, they don’t.”

Still, some people who’ve watched Totoro with one hand on the pause button will probably tell you that in the very last scene, the sisters’ shadows aren’t so clearly visible. But if they’re not ghosts, why don’t their physical bodies block light like they should? ...

At the risk of destroying any more idyllic images, even Studio Ghibli sometimes has to put limits on the amount of time and effort it can pour into a scene. As explained on the Ghibli website:
Everyone, please put your minds at ease. The rumors of Totoro being a death god, Mei being dead, and others rumors of the like are absolutely not true…Someone made them up because they sounded interesting to him or her, and it seems to have spread around the Internet. In regards to comments that “Satsuki and Mei don’t have shadows in the final scene,” it was merely decided that is wasn’t necessary to draw when producing the animation. We hope that people will not believe the rumors, and the PR department would like to officially announce that here.
--Casey Baseel, Sora News 24, on less than meets the eye

Hell is Tinder

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a smartphone will swipe right on basically everyone.
--Julie Beck, The Atlantic, on gendered standards


Researchers at Queen Mary University, Sapienza University of Rome, and the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group created fake male and female Tinder profiles and automatically liked everyone within a 100-mile radius. Their findings, reported by the Washington Post, reinforce what many Tinder users know anecdotally: that women are overwhelmingly more discerning than men.

While the fake male profiles only matched with other users 0.6 percent of the time, around ten percent of female profiles were liked, mostly by men. The researchers postulate that women are more picky on Tinder, only liking the profiles of men they're attracted to, whereas men play a brutal numbers game by liking everyone in sight.

To make matters worse, men are less likely to send messages: only seven percent of men who matched with a fake profile sent a message, compared with 21 percent of women. This creates a horribly counterproductive feedback loop, wherein women become more picky because everyone they like seems to like them back—and men, faced with increasingly selective women, drop their standards even further.

Type "Tinder" into the App Store, and you'll see a plethora of apps aimed at maximizing your swiping game. Bonfire and Tinder Auto Liker (not an app you want a prospective date to see installed on your phone) will automatically approve every potential match, saving valuable time you can put towards clearing the search history on your work computer or re-reading seminal hook-up classic The Game. Swipe-happy office workers can even install software on their computers so they can auto-swipe continually without using their phones. ...

[Liam:] Saying yes to everyone means you match with everyone who likes you, including that magic overlapping part of the Tinder Venn diagram—those who are willing to match with you and those who you find attractive. Sure, it's a bit of a heartless approach as you end up ignoring girls who message you that you're not attracted to. But app dating in general is a fairly dehumanizing and mechanistic numbers game.
--Sirin Kale, Vice, on dating dystopia

The problem with Rawlsian ethics

Rawls is almost always invoked selectively, rarely being applied across national borders or across the generations, cases where it yields screwy results.  Rawls himself hesitated to approve of economic growth, because it does not maximize the well-being of the original “worst off” generation, which of course has to do some saving.  He had sympathies with the idea of Mill’s stationary state.  It’s fine to reject those conclusions, as indeed you should, but again maybe you’re not really a Rawlsian.  You are a selective Rawlsian, if that. ...

When it comes to redistribution as social insurance, the biggest problems with the Rawlsian method is this.  People have all sorts of preferences across the distribution of income.  Some are merit-related, some liberty-related, some non-Rawlsian-fairness related, some insurance-related, maybe even some rooted in prejudice.  The list of motives and reasons is long.  As the veil is typically used by economists, it strips away all of those preferences but…the preference for insurance.  So it is no wonder that the final construct produces an argument for insurance.  You get out of the construct what you put into it. ...

We do not always apply it to people in other countries, wealthy people who are poor in net terms because they are about to die, ugly men who cannot get sex, and many of the disabled.  Just about everyone is more of a particularist, situation-based egalitarian than they like to let on.
--Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution, on pushing Rawls to the limit

Monday, September 4, 2017

Posner vs. Sunstein writing deathmatch

In 1997, Ronald Dworkin, a fierce critic of [Richard] Posner’s, wrote an article that was in large part an attack on the two of us. Dworkin argued that we constituted a new “Chicago School,” that we were wrongly dismissive of high theory and philosophical questions, and that we were basically full of nonsense.

Posner suggested that we should do a joint reply, and I happily agreed. As I recall, it was a Friday, and I was determined to write the first draft, so as to shape both the tone and the content. Over the weekend, I worked as hard as I have ever done. On early Monday morning, probably around 7:45, I faxed him a 21-page, single-spaced draft. It lacked footnotes, and it was pretty rough, but, still, mission accomplished. I was pretty proud of myself.

When I got back to my office, I spotted something on my chair. It was from Posner. It had 35 pages. It was fully footnoted. It read like a dream. Needless to say, it was much more polished than mine, and better in every way.

As always, Judge Posner was ahead of the rest of us, even when we run as fast as we can.
--Cass Sunstein, Bloomberg, on pitting two of the fastest writers in legal academe against each other. HT: Marginal Revolution

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Countries conquer a lot less now

If you were to ask historians to name the most foolish treaty ever signed, odds are good that they would name the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. The pact, which was joined by 63 nations, outlawed war. Ending war is an absurdly ambitious goal. To think it could be done by treaty? Not just absurd but dangerously naïve.

And the critics would seem to be right. Just over a decade later, every nation that had joined the pact, with the exception of Ireland, was at war. Not only did the treaty fail to stop World War II but it also failed to stop the Korean War, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Indo-Pakistani wars, the Vietnam War, the Yugoslav civil war and the current conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Yemen.

But the critics are wrong. Though the pact may not have ended all war, it was highly effective in ending the main reason countries had gone to war: conquest. ...

First, some context. Before 1928... international law also gave countries the right of conquest, meaning they could benefit from war by keeping its spoils, territory and, in some cases, people. ...

When it outlawed war, the Kellogg-Briand Pact changed nearly every rule that states had followed for centuries. Most important, countries could no longer establish right, justice or title by brute strength. Because war was now illegal, except in cases of self-defense, states lost the right of conquest. ...

With the research assistance of 18 Yale law students, we found that from 1816 until the Kellogg-Briand Pact was first signed in 1928, there was, on average, approximately one territorial conquest every 10 months. Put another way, the average state during this period had a 1.33 percent chance of being the victim of conquest in any given year. ...

A country with a 1.33 percent annual chance of conquest can expect to be conquered once in an ordinary human lifetime. And these conquests were not small. The average amount of territory seized between 1816 and 1928 was 114,088 square miles per year.

Since World War II, conquest has almost come to a full stop. The average number of conquests per year fell drastically — to 0.26 per year, or one every four years. The average size of the territory taken declined to a mere 5,772 square miles per year. And the likelihood that any individual state would suffer a conquest in an average year plummeted — from 1.33 percent to 0.17 percent, or once or twice a millennium. ...

The illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 might seem to prove us wrong. But the seizure of Crimea is the exception that proves the rule, precisely because of how rare conquests are today. Consider that before 1928, the amount of territory conquered every year was equal to roughly 11 Crimeas. In addition, nearly every state in the world has rejected the 2014 annexation as illegal, refusing to recognize Crimea as part of Russia.
--Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro, NYT, on the power of norms

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Iranian tiger parents

At the same time in June that [Uber CEO] Mr. Kalanick was noisily being ejected from his company, [Expedia CEO and soon-to-be Uber CEO Dara] Khosrowshahi had a problem of his own — his parents. Glassdoor, a site where employees rank their companies, released its 2017 list of the top chief executives. Mr. Khosrowshahi’s score had dropped.

His parents weighed in with that combination of celebration and criticism that many immigrant children know well. As Mr. Khosrowshahi reported on Twitter, his mother said, “Nice! You made the top 100!” But his father pointed out: “#39 is good but you were #11 in 2015.” ...

[Parents] Lili and Gary are clearly watching their son rise to their own expectations. After he was interviewed by Jim Cramer, the host of the financial TV show “Mad Money,” in May, Dara posted on Twitter: “didn’t screw it up (according to mom).”
--David Streitfeld and Nelli Bowles, NYT, on immigrant parents

Saturday, August 26, 2017

MI6's theory on Trump's kompromat

I can tell you what the veterans of the S.I.S. [the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6] think, which is yes, kompromat was done on [Trump]. Of course, kompromat is done on everyone. So they end up, the theory goes, with this compromising bit of material and then they begin to release parts of it. They set up an ex-MI6 guy, Chris Steele, who is a patsy, effectively, and they feed him some stuff that’s true, and some stuff that isn’t true, and some stuff that is demonstrably wrong. Which means that Trump can then stand up and deny it, while knowing that the essence of it is true. And then he has a stone in his shoe for the rest of his administration.
--Ben Macintyre on three-dimensional espionage chess

Friday, August 25, 2017

Economists and chivalry

The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.
--Edmund Burke, 1790, "Reflections on the Revolution in France," on a long tradition

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Popular music is too slow now on average

Yakov Vorobyev, who invented a popular app for DJs called Mixed in Key, used the program to analyze the 25 most-streamed tracks on Spotify in 2012 and 2017: He found that during that period, the average tempo dropped by 23 bpm (to 90.5 bpm) and the percentage of songs above 120 bpm fell markedly from 56 percent to 12.5 percent.

Part of the slowing is due to the continuing dominance of hip-hop, which now permeates every branch of music, even longtime holdouts like rock and country. "Hip-hop culture is the new pop culture, and our tempo ranges aren't too fast," says Sevn Thomas, who helped produce Rihanna's Number One smash "Work." "Rappers can really swag out on slower beats."

But maybe there are other reasons as well: Pop culture's insatiable appetite for the new demands a backlash against fast-moving singles, or a gloomy national moment encourages a different sort of listening. ...

[Radio business veteran Sean] Ross worries about the dearth of uptempo singles – if there's nothing modern to balance out playlists, in his view, programmers turn to older tracks for a jolt of speed, further reducing the already limited variety on the airwaves. "Top 40 has become tighter than any time in the last 35 years in terms of the actual number of titles," he notes. "If you combine that with the time records spend on the charts now, there aren't a lot of chances for songs to come along and break the logjam. ... I've had conversations with programmers in every format, and usually the solution is to play even less new music, which ends up reducing the chance the next uptempo record is going to get through."
--Elias Leight, Rolling Stone, on an era that is hard to dance to. HT: Marginal Revolution

Friday, August 11, 2017

Why does new money like bling and old money like discreetness?

[A] puzzling aspect of conspicuous consumption [is that] it is often subtle, in the sense that it is difficult for others to observe and recognize. Handwrought silverware only signals wealth to dinner guests. Someone who wishes to signal his wealth as clearly as possible can do better: acknowledging this puzzle, Bagwell and Bernheim (1996) suggest publishing “tax returns or audited asset statements”.

We argue that people engage in subtly conspicuous consumption to simultaneously signal wealth and social capital. Here, social capital is about connectedness—a measure of the relationships that enable access to potentially valuable resources through social interaction...

Consider the following example. Adam is wealthy and socially well-connected. He can distinguish himself from less wealthy individuals by consuming costly status goods; for example, he might purchase an expensive car to drive around town. However, if Adam seeks to demonstrate that he is well-connected as well as wealthy, his consumption choice also has to distinguish him from wealthy, poorly-connected individuals. Thus, a better option might be buying an expensive painting to display in his living room. His guests, observing the painting, and noting that only Adam’s guests ever observe it, infer that he is well-connected because using this painting as a signal of his type is cost-effective only if Adam’s parties are attended by people who Adam seeks to impress. ...

Conventional wisdom often associates loud consumption with the nouveau riche: those who have recently become wealthy. On the other hand, subtle consumption is associated with old money: those whose families have been wealthy for generations. Our interpretation is that old-money types possess large amounts of social capital, as they have been able to develop social connections over time, whereas the nouveau riche, who acquired wealth only recently, have accumulated little social capital. ...

Many forms of cultural knowledge, such as appreciation of music, art or wine, qualify as subtle status goods in our theory: they (i) are costly to acquire, and (ii) being tacit in nature, can only be recognized through extensive social interaction. ... Taking the perspective that cultural capital serves as a subtle good relative to material status goods, our model predicts that individuals with high social capital prefer cultural consumption, whereas people with low social capital favour material status goods.
--Juan Carlos Carbajal, Jonathan Hall, and Hongyi Li, "Inconspicuous Conspicuous Consumption," on subtle status symbols versus bling

Sunday, August 6, 2017

What happens when churches take government money?

Governments have used vouchers to spend billions of dollars on private education; much of this spending has gone to religiously-affiliated schools. ... We use a dataset of Catholic-parish finances from Milwaukee... We show that vouchers are now a dominant source of funding for many churches; parishes in our sample running voucher-accepting schools get more revenue from vouchers than from worshipers. We also find that voucher expansion prevents church closures and mergers. Despite these results, we fail to find evidence that vouchers promote religious behavior: voucher expansion causes significant declines in church donations and church spending on non-educational religious purposes. The meteoric growth of vouchers appears to offer financial stability for congregations while at the same time diminishing their religious activities.
--Daniel Hungerman, Kevin Rinz, and Jay Frymark, "Beyond the Classroom: The Implications of School Vouchers for Church Finances," on where your treasure is, there will your heart be also

Monday, July 31, 2017

A chokehold ruined the Patriots' perfect season

...the one lingering demon from the Belichick-Brady years: the pursuit of perfection that met a devastating end in their Super Bowl XLII loss to the New York Giants. ...

On the [Eli] Manning escape, the New England rush overwhelmed nearly the entire Giants offensive line. Jarvis Green exploded past Shaun O'Hara to the center's left and plowed through left guard Rich Seubert, and Richard Seymour looped behind Jarvis Green and beat O'Hara to his right. The offensive linemen tried to play the rush as if they were switching on a basketball pick-and-roll, and they failed miserably. As Seymour and Green converged on the immobile Manning, O'Hara said he saw "Eli curl up in the fetal position, which he normally does," and then thought, "OK, we're probably going to lose this game."

But as Manning kept moving his feet and staying alive, struggling to break free from the grasp of both New England rushers, a desperate O'Hara slid his gloved right hand onto Seymour's throat. "I said, 'Screw it,'" the Giants center would recall. "I was squeezing his trachea as hard as I could and not letting go." Choked by a 300-pound man, Seymour was temporarily disabled for the split-second that allowed Manning to get away. O'Hara gambled that the officials would miss his WWE move, and miss it they sure as hell did. If they threw a flag there, the Patriots would have ended up 19-0.
--Ian O'Connor, ESPN, on the choke that caused the Patriots' choke

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Marijuana is bad for your grades

Economists Olivier Marie and Ulf Zölitz took advantage of a decision by Maastricht, a city in the Netherlands, to change the rules for “cannabis cafes,” which legally sell recreational marijuana. Because Maastricht is very close to the border of multiple European countries (Belgium, France and Germany), drug tourism was posing difficulties for the city. Hoping to address this, the city barred noncitizens of the Netherlands from buying from the cafes.

This policy change created an intriguing natural experiment at Maastricht University, because students there from neighboring countries suddenly were unable to access legal pot, while students from the Netherlands continued.

The research on more than 4,000 students, published in the Review of Economic Studies, found that those who lost access to legal marijuana showed substantial improvement in their grades. Specifically, those banned from cannabis cafes had a more than 5 percent increase in their odds of passing their courses. Low performing students benefited even more, which the researchers noted is particularly important because these students are at high-risk of dropping out. The researchers attribute their results to the students who were denied legal access to marijuana being less likely to use it and to suffer cognitive impairments (e.g., in concentration and memory) as a result.

Other studies have tried to estimate the impact of marijuana legalization by studying those U.S. states that legalized medicinal or recreational marijuana. But marijuana policy researcher Rosalie Pacula of RAND Corporation noted that the Maastricht study provide evidence that “is much better than anything done so far in the United States.”

States differ in countless ways that are hard for researchers to adjust for in their data analysis, but the Maastricht study examined similar people in the same location — some of them even side by side in the same classrooms — making it easier to isolate the effect of marijuana legalization.
--Keith Humphreys, Washington Post, on the opportunity cost of studying

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Amos Tversky on how to do good research

The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.
--Amos Tversky

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The unhappiness of lawyers

According to some reports, lawyers also have the highest rate of depression of any occupational group in the country. A 1990 study of more than 100 professions indicated that lawyers are 3.6 times as likely to be depressed as people with other jobs. The Hazelden study found that 28 percent of lawyers suffer depression.

“Yes, there are other stressful professions,” said Wil Miller, who practices family law in the offices of Molly B. Kenny in Bellevue, Wash. He spent 10 years as a sex crimes prosecutor, the last six months of which he was addicted to methamphetamines. “Being a surgeon is stressful, for instance — but not in the same way. It would be like having another surgeon across the table from you trying to undo your operation. In law, you are financially rewarded for being hostile.” ...

Some research shows that before they start law school, law students are actually healthier than the general population, both physically and mentally. “There’s good data showing that,” said Andy Benjamin, a psychologist and lawyer who teaches law and psychology at the University of Washington. “They drink less than other young people, use less substances, have less depression and are less hostile.”

In addition, he said, law students generally start school with their sense of self and their values intact. But, in his research, he said, he has found that the formal structure of law school starts to change that.

Rather than hew to their internal self, students begin to focus on external values, he said, like status, comparative worth and competition. “We have seven very strong studies that show this twists people’s psyches and they come out of law school significantly impaired, with depression, anxiety and hostility,” he said. ...

“The psychological factors seen to erode during law school are the very factors most important for the well-being of lawyers,” Lawrence Krieger, a professor at Florida State University College of Law, and Kennon Sheldon, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, wrote in their 2015 paper “What Makes Lawyers Happy?” Conversely, they wrote, “the factors most emphasized in law schools — grades, honors and potential career income — have nil to modest bearing on lawyer well-being.”

After students began law school they experienced “a marked increase in depression, negative mood and physical symptoms, with corresponding decreases in positive affect and life satisfaction,” the professors wrote.

Students also shed some of their idealism. Within the first year of law school, students’ motivation for studying law and becoming lawyers shifted from “helping and community-oriented values to extrinsic, rewards-based values.”

Young lawyers in treatment at the Center for Network Therapy, an ambulatory detox facility in Middlesex, N.J., frequently tell Dr. Indra Cidambi, the medical director, that the reality of working as a lawyer does not match what they had pictured while in law school. She has found that law students often drink and use drugs until they start their first job. After that, Dr. Cidambi said, “it’s mostly alcohol, until they are established as senior associates or partners and they move back to opiates.”
--Eilene Zimmerman, NYT, on a challenging profession

Saturday, July 15, 2017

How clean is the John Harvard statue?

The John Harvard statue is probably the most touched object in the University. Its left foot is subjected to almost incessant rubbing by tourists who believe that the act brings good luck; the standard pose, for photos, is to place a hand on John Harvard’s shoe, which has become shiny from the human contact.

But Harvard students themselves know better than to touch it—not least because one of three traditional deeds* that some College students strive to complete before graduation involves urinating on John Harvard.

So, how clean is the John Harvard statue?

Administrative staff in charge of its maintenance say the statue is cleaned on an as-needed basis, and is power-washed five to six times a year. “The maintenance really revolves around when the students do their business on it,” reports Joel Day, the facilities manager of University Hall. “The grounds crew are good at noticing; sometimes you can walk by and it smells like it needs to be cleaned.” The statue is not washed during winter, he adds, because hosing it in freezing temperatures would create slipping hazards. ...

Do the maintenance staff themselves think it’s hygienic to touch the statue?

“I don’t imagine it would be hygienic, but I don’t know how you would avoid it,” says McCarthy.

“They really should put a sanitizing station there,” says Day.

“I wouldn’t do it,” says Smith.
--Zara Zhang, Harvard Magazine, on what every Harvard student knows

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Warren Buffett's approach to bidding wars

For decades, Mr. Buffett has included in his company’s annual report a list of criteria for companies that might want to sell businesses to Berkshire. Berkshire is looking for large companies with little debt, the list says—and it isn’t interested in bidding wars or hostile takeovers.

“We don’t participate in auctions,” Mr. Buffett wrote in the latest annual report. “A line from a country song expresses our feeling about new ventures, turnarounds, or auction-like sales: ‘When the phone don’t ring, you’ll know it’s me.’” ...

Mr. Buffett has long been known for quickly negotiating deals and sticking with his initial price offer. ...

Mr. Buffett did raise the offer price in 1999 when he bought a majority stake in MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., now called Berkshire Hathaway Energy. But he made the switch before the deal was announced, as he explained in his 2007 letter to shareholders.

Mr. Buffett originally offered $35 a share for MidAmerican, but after pressure from investment bankers, he raised it to $35.05, he said in the letter. “With that, I explained, they could tell their client they had wrung the last nickel out of me,” he wrote. “At the time, it hurt.”

But given MidAmerican’s growth since then, he said in the same letter, “I’m glad I wilted and offered the extra nickel.”
--Nicole Friedman, WSJ, on avoiding the winner's curse

Friday, July 7, 2017

A shortage of marriageable men doesn't explain the marriage bust

Five percent of births in the U.S. were to unmarried mothers in 1960. Fast forward now — to 2014.
MELISSA KEARNEY: In 2014, over 40 percent of births in the U.S. were to unmarried mothers.
...
It’s really hard for researchers to establish the causal effect of family structure or marriage on kids’ outcomes, of course, because we don’t randomly assign kids to married or unmarried parents. But there’s a lot of research that works really hard to isolate factors. That research consistently shows that kids who live with two married parents have lower rates of poverty, have higher cognitive test scores in childhood, have fewer behavioral problems. They seem to have better health outcomes. They’re less likely to live in poverty when they’re 25. They’re more likely to complete college and they’re less likely to become young, unmarried parents themselves.
...what accounts for so many more unmarried births among mothers with less education? Social conservatives tend to point to the breakdown of old-school social norms. Social liberals cite less access to contraception — although that has improved a lot; and, especially, the lack of economic opportunity — that is, men without good jobs aren’t eager to marry or, from the other end of the equation, they aren’t considered good husband material. In Melissa Kearney’s world, this is called the “marriageable men” theory.
KEARNEY: Yeah. That’s based on this idea that’s been around since William Julius Wilson’s really seminal work in the 1980s arguing that this decline in the economic security of less-educated men — and in certain populations or demographic groups in particular — is behind this rise in nonmarital childbearing and retreat from marriage.
...
And so, hypothesizing the reverse, I’ve been keen to find a situation where we’ve seen an improvement in less-educated men’s economic situation, and the fracking boom constitutes the rare context where men without a college degree have seen an improvement in their employment and earnings prospects in recent years. That gave us a place to look at how family formation outcomes responded.
...
The fracking boom, these localized fracking booms, really meets our standard in the sense that it’s determined by pre-existing geological formations in the earth. Even the most persnickety economists will tend to grant that whether there is this geological formation under your county is probably exogenous to family formation preferences.
...
What our estimates suggest is that an additional $1,000 of fracking production per capita is associated with an increase of six births per thousand women. ...
One of the most interesting things in our research was a comparison to the coal boom and bust situation. It’s a similar economic shock. It’s a similar industry. They’re in similar areas: the Appalachian region in both.
The coal boom and bust happened in the 70s and 80s. What we find is that a 10 percent increase in earnings associated with the coal boom led to very similar-sized increases in married birth rates, as it did in the fracking boom: an 8 percent increase in marital birth rates for a 10 percent increase in earnings with the coal boom, and a 12 percent increase in married birth rates associated with the fracking boom. But the nonmarital birth response is very different: a 10 percent increase in earnings associated with the coal boom actually led to a reduction in nonmarital births. But a 12 percent increase in nonmarital births with a 10 percent increase in earnings associated with fracking. That’s where the response differed.
In the earlier period, when earnings increased associated with the coal boom, marriage increased. And as we’ve been saying, there’s no increase with the fracking boom. ...
In the 70s and 80s, very few births were outside of marriage and there was a social stigma associated with nonmarried births. And so, in the 70s and 80s, when you got more income, it looks like you had more births but only if you were married. Now, we’re at a period where nonmarital births are extremely common among less-educated populations. Now, what we see is if you get more income you have more babies. Right? But it doesn’t matter whether you’re married or not. That’s a real difference.
--Freakonomics Radio on the importance of norms

Romantic kissing doesn't exist in 54% of human cultures

...a recent article in American Anthropologist by Jankowiak, Volsche and Garcia questions the notion that romantic kissing is a human universal by conducting a broad cross cultural survey to document the existence or non-existence of the romantic-sexual kiss around the world.

The authors based their research on a set of 168 cultures compiled from eHRAF World Cultures (128 cultures) as well as the Standard Cross Cultural Sample (27 cultures) and by surveying 88 ethnographers (13 cultures). The report’s findings are intriguing: rather than an overwhelming popularity of romantic smooching, the global ethnographic evidence suggests that it is common in only 46% (77) of the cultures sampled. The remaining 54% (91) of cultures had no evidence of romantic kissing. In short, this new research concludes that romantic-sexual kissing is not as universal as we might presume.

The report also reveals that romantic kissing is most common in the Middle East and Asia, and least common of all among Central American cultures. Similarly, the authors state that “no ethnographer working with Sub-Saharan African, New Guinea, or Amazonian foragers or horticulturalists reported having witnessed any occasion in which their study populations engaged in a romantic–sexual kiss”, whereas it is nearly ubiquitous in northern Asia and North America. ...

Overall, we found that the perception of romantic kissing in non-kissing societies ranges from simple disinterest or amusement to total disgust.

Among the indigenous Tapirapé people of Central Brazil, Wagley (1977) found that “couples showed affection”, but “kissing seems to have been unknown”. He explains,
When I described it to them, it struck them as a strange form of showing physical attraction … and, in a way, disgusting.
...

Across the Pacific Ocean in Melanesia, Bronislaw Malinowski’s (1929: 330) classic account describes the impression of kissing among Trobriand Islanders, who were equally bemused by the foreign custom:
The natives know, however, that white people “will sit, will press mouth against mouth–they are pleased with it.” But they regard it as a rather insipid and silly form of amusement.
The Tsonga people of Southern Africa are also openly disgusted by the practice: “Kissing was formerly entirely unknown… When they saw the custom adopted by the Europeans, they said laughingly: “Look at these people! They suck each other! They eat each other’s saliva and dirt!” Even a husband never kissed his wife” (Junod 1927: 353-354).
--Yale Human Relations Area Files on surprisingly non-universal behaviors. HT: Megan McArdle

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Mike Pence is not an outlier on solo dinners with women

Many men and women are wary of a range of one-on-one situations, the poll found. Around a quarter think private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate. Nearly two-thirds say people should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work. A majority of women, and nearly half of men, say it’s unacceptable to have dinner or drinks alone with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse. ...

Further, the poll results provide societal context for Vice President Mike Pence’s comment — made in 2002 and resurfaced in a recent profile — that he doesn’t eat alone with any woman other than his wife.

Attitudes reflect a work world shadowed by sexual harassment. In recent news about Uber and Fox News, women see cautionary tales about being alone with men.
--Claire Cain Miller, NYT, on how out of touch the negative press coverage about Pence's personal rule was

Monday, June 26, 2017

You don't like Greek yogurt's taste, just its story

Consider, for instance, the unlikely tale of Chobani, the company that essentially created the Greek yogurt industry in the United States. In 1996, as Chobani’s well-oiled promotional machine will tell you, a Turkish immigrant named Hamdi Ulukaya arrived in the United States with $3,000 in his pocket. Sixteen years later, he was selling $1 billion worth of Greek yogurt by employing refugees from local resettlement centers and extolling the artisanal virtues of Chobani for the body, environment and soul.

This story of authenticity has been essential to Chobani’s success and central to positioning Greek yogurt as an alternative to the sugary concoctions that come from companies like Yoplait. ...

As Chobani grew, Big Yogurt got worried. So Yoplait commissioned a series of focus groups that initially soothed executives’ anxieties: Taste tests revealed that most people disliked Greek yogurt. It was too sour and unfamiliar, the data said. The products’ names were too hard to remember. There was little need, Yoplait executives told one another, for concern.

But as the Greek phenomena gained steam — today, it accounts for more than a third of all yogurt sales in the United States — Yoplait’s studies found an interesting hiccup: Even though people said they disliked Greek yogurt, they kept on trying it, again and again, until they learned to like it. Why? Because, consumers told Yoplait’s researchers, they liked the Chobani story.

Consumers heard that Greek yogurt made it easier to lose weight. (There are 15 grams of sugar in a strawberry Chobani cup; Yoplait’s strawberry has 18.) People said they had heard Chobani was more natural. (Though Chobani does not contain preservatives, other ingredients are similar to those of competitors.)

But the most powerful story, according to current and former Yoplait executives who described their research, was that consumers simply thought Chobani was cool. It was easier to believe it was authentic and healthy because it had an exotic name, a founder who embodied rags-to-riches success and lots of buzz.
--Charles Duhigg, NYT, on ignoring your taste buds

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Remedial failure

Nearly perfect on paper, with résumés packed full of extracurricular activities, [students] seemed increasingly unable to cope with basic setbacks that come with college life: not getting a room assignment they wanted, getting wait-listed for a class or being rejected by clubs.

“We’re not talking about flunking out of pre-med or getting kicked out of college,” Ms. Simmons said. “We’re talking about students showing up in residential life offices distraught and inconsolable when they score less than an A-minus. Ending up in the counseling center after being rejected from a club. Students who are unable to ask for help when they need it, or so fearful of failing that they will avoid taking risks at all.”

Almost a decade ago, faculty at Stanford and Harvard coined the term “failure deprived” to describe what they were observing: the idea that, even as they were ever more outstanding on paper, students seemed unable to cope with simple struggles. “Many of our students just seemed stuck,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of “How to Raise an Adult.”

They soon began connecting the dots: between what they were seeing anecdotally — the lack of coping skills — and what mental health data had shown for some time, including, according to the American College Health Association, an increase in depression and anxiety, overwhelming rates of stress and more demand for counseling services than campuses can keep up with. ...

It was Cornell that, in 2010 after a wave of student suicides, declared that it would be an “obligation of the university” to help students learn life skills. Not long after, Stanford started an initiative called the Resilience Project, in which prominent alumni recounted academic setbacks, recording them on video. “It was an attempt to normalize struggle,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims said.

A consortium of academics soon formed to share resources, and programs have quietly proliferated since then: the Success-Failure Project at Harvard, which features stories of rejection; the Princeton Perspective Project, encouraging conversation about setbacks and struggles; Penn Faces at the University of Pennsylvania, a play on the term used by students to describe those who have mastered the art of appearing happy even when struggling. ...

“For a long time, I think we assumed that this was the stuff that was automatically learned in childhood: that everyone struck out at the baseball diamond or lost the student council race,” said Donna Lisker, Smith’s dean of the college and vice president for student life. “The idea that an 18-year-old doesn’t know how to fail on the one hand sounds preposterous. But I think in many ways we’ve pulled kids away from those natural learning experiences.” ...

Researchers say it’s a complicated interplay of child-rearing and culture: years of helicopter-parenting and micromanaging by anxious parents. “This is the generation that everyone gets a trophy,” said Rebecca Shaw, Smith’s director of residence life. College admissions mania, in which many middle- and upper-class students must navigate what Ms. Simmons calls a “‘Hunger Games’-like mentality” where the preparation starts early, the treadmill never stops and the stakes can feel impossibly high.
--Jessica Bennett, NYT, on the need to let kids fail from time to time

Friday, June 23, 2017

David Ortiz hit .786 in walkoff situations for 1.5 years

Back in 2005 and 2006, when Ortiz came to the plate at Fenway Park with a chance to win the game, he never made an out. That is barely an exaggeration. When I compiled the data for the first version of this post (August 1, 2006), I noted that from the end of the 2004 regular season through July 2006, Ortiz came to the plate 19 times in a walkoff situation - and made only three outs. He had a .786 batting average (11-for-14) with seven home runs and 20 RBI! ...

Of course, the walkoff opportunities listed below tell only a small part of Ortiz's story. But it is a huge part of Big Papi's legend, one that led to Ortiz being dubbed, officially, by the team, as The Greatest Clutch Hitter In Red Sox History.

2003-2016
          PA   AB   H  HR  RBI BB  Walkoffs
2003       7    6   2   1   2   1     2
2004      14   13   5   3   8   1     5
2005       5    3   3   2   5   2     3
2006      10    7   5   3  10   3     5
2007       7    5   1   1   2   1     1
2008       9    5   1   0   0   3     0
2009       3    3   1   1   1   0     1
2010       6    5   1   0   3   1     1
2011       7    5   3   0   0   2     0
2012       3    2   0   0   0   1     0
2013       8    7   1   1   3   1     1
2014      14    8   1   0   0   6     0
2015       6    3   0   0   0   3     0
2016       7    7   3   0   2   0     1
TOTALS   106   79  27  12  36  25    20   (.342 batting average) 
--Allan Wood, Joy of Sox, on Mr. Clutch

Babies who never cry

The creepiest sound I have ever heard was nothing at all. My wife, Maria, and I stood in the hallway of an orphanage somewhere in the former Soviet Union, on the first of two trips required for our petition to adopt. Orphanage staff led us down a hallway to greet the two 1-year-olds we hoped would become our sons. The horror wasn’t the squalor and the stench, although we at times stifled the urge to vomit and weep. The horror was the quiet of it all. The place was more silent than a funeral home by night.

I stopped and pulled on Maria’s elbow. “Why is it so quiet? The place is filled with babies.” Both of us compared the stillness with the buzz and punctuated squeals that came from our church nursery back home. Here, if we listened carefully enough, we could hear babies rocking themselves back and forth, the crib slats gently bumping against the walls. These children did not cry, because infants eventually learn to stop crying if no one ever responds to their calls for food, for comfort, for love. No one ever responded to these children. So they stopped.

The silence continued as we entered the boys’ room. Little Sergei (now Timothy) smiled at us, dancing up and down while holding the side of his crib. Little Maxim (now Benjamin) stood straight at attention, regal and czar-like. But neither boy made a sound. We read them books filled with words they couldn’t understand, about saying goodnight to the moon and cows jumping over the same. But there were no cries, no squeals, no groans. Every day we left at the appointed time in the same way we had entered: in silence.

On the last day of the trip, Maria and I arrived at the moment we had dreaded since the minute we received our adoption referral. We had to tell the boys goodbye, as by law we had to return to the United States and wait for the legal paperwork to be completed before returning to pick them up for good. After hugging and kissing them, we walked out into the quiet hallway as Maria shook with tears.

And that’s when we heard the scream.

Little Maxim fell back in his crib and let out a guttural yell. It seemed he knew, maybe for the first time, that he would be heard. On some primal level, he knew he had a father and mother now. ...

Little Maxim’s scream changed everything—more, I think, than did the judge’s verdict and the notarized paperwork. It was the moment, in his recognizing that he would be heard, that he went from being an orphan to being a son. It was also the moment I became a father, in fact if not in law. We both recognized that something was wrong, because suddenly, life as it had been seemed terribly disordered.
--Russell Moore, Adopted for Life, on the goodness of baby cries

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Non-stinky kimchi?

If Western consumers on a health kick can be convinced to drink yeasty, probiotic tea and tart, cultured yogurt, then why wouldn’t they be up for spicy pickled cabbage fermented with garlic for months on end?

Well, that’s the goal of South Korean scientists at the World Institute of Kimchi on Kimchi Street in Kimchi Town, on the outskirts of the southern city of Gwangju.

“We are trying to globalize kimchi,” said Ha Jae-ho, head of the institute, describing it as a “functional food.” ...

Even among kimchi-loving Koreans, many have separate kimchi fridges to stop the dish from tainting other food. If they keep it in their regular fridge, it goes into a vault-like box.

For this reason, scientists are trying to increase the good bacteria — especially the lactic acid that gives kimchi its probiotic qualities — and decrease the bad parts, namely the smell so pungent it can take days to work its way out a person’s pores. ...

In labs at the institute, scientists are working on the distinctive fumes, at least. “We’re trying to engineer the smell out of kimchi,” said Lee Mi-ae, a white-coated researcher. “But it’s difficult because the smell is linked to the flavor of the kimchi.”
--Anna Fifield, Washington Post, on creating a culinary abomination

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Claw machines for toys are rigged

At some point or another you've probably played one of these claw machines, hoping to score the plush toy of your dreams. But despite your skill at perfectly positioning the claw over the prize and activating it, you've found that the pincers just don't grab tightly enough to pick up a stuffed animal.

It's not your imagination. Those claw machines are rigged. ...

Some people think the claw machine is so hard to win because the stuffed animals are packed so tightly together. But the bigger reason is more insidious than that: the claw machine is programmed to have a strong grip only part of the time.

This isn't a closely kept secret. It's publicly available information, pulled straight from the instruction guides for the biggest claw games out there. ...

The machine's owner can fine-tune the strength of the claw beforehand so that it only has a strong grip a fraction of the time that people play.

The owner can manually adjust the "dropping skill," as well. That means that on a given number of tries, the claw will drop a prize that it's grabbed before it delivers it to you.

The machines also allow the owner to select a desired level of profit and then automatically adjust the claw strength to make sure that players are only winning a limited number of times...

This isn't isolated to one claw machine or one company — this is standard practice industry-wide.

Starting in 1951, the machines were regulated as gambling devices, but in 1974, those regulations were relaxed. A claw boom began. Today, they're ubiquitous in grocery stores, malls, and anywhere else with lots of foot traffic.
--Phil Edwards, Vox, on money from suckers. HT: MEL

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Friendliness can come from a genetic disorder

Eli D’Angelo has a superpower: the ability to win over strangers in seconds flat.

I once watched the gregarious 12-year-old approach a scowling man in a leather jacket and chaps as he secured his Harley in a restaurant parking lot. He didn’t look like he was in the mood for conversation, but his expression softened as soon as Eli complimented his bike. When Eli reached out to hug him, he hugged back.

Even more intimidating was the group of teenage girls Eli once greeted at an after-school soccer practice. With smiles and flattery, he talked them into drawing him a picture of a two-headed guitar-playing zombie who shoots laser beams from his eyes. ...

Eli’s superpower is actually a symptom. He has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder sometimes called “cocktail party syndrome” because it makes people extremely outgoing and irrepressibly friendly. When I first heard of the disorder — before I knew much about the intellectual impairments and serious health issues it also entails — I was envious of the apparent social ease it imparted. ...

But Eli violated the standard rules of etiquette more often than he obeyed them. ... Again and again, people forgave Eli’s faux pas and responded instead to the earnestness of his interest in them and the sincerity of his care.

And Eli truly cares about people. He wants to talk to them, hug them, invite them over for a sleepover. He can’t help feeling this way; almost everyone with Williams does. It’s one of the quirks of the disorder, caused by the deletion of about two dozen genes from chromosome seven. The absence of these genes, it seems, produces an insatiable drive to connect with other people. ...

Spending time with Eli, and others with Williams, made me realize that this is the key difference between us: It’s not that they’re not awkward, it’s that they’re not afraid of being awkward. They don’t have the fear of looking foolish that holds many of us back. We’re so terrified of that one-in-100 chance of embarrassment or rejection that we avoid the 99 interactions that are more likely to be fulfilling. ... Lacking that concern, Eli grasped what has long eluded me: that most people aren’t excessively judgmental. They’re quick to forgive. And more often than not, they want to connect.
--Jennifer Latson, New York, on the darnedest genetic influences on behavior

Liberals on immigration a decade ago

A decade ago, liberals publicly questioned immigration in ways that would shock many progressives today.

In 2005, a left-leaning blogger wrote, “Illegal immigration wreaks havoc economically, socially, and culturally; makes a mockery of the rule of law; and is disgraceful just on basic fairness grounds alone.” In 2006, a liberal columnist wrote that “immigration reduces the wages of domestic workers who compete with immigrants” and that “the fiscal burden of low-wage immigrants is also pretty clear.” His conclusion: “We’ll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants.” That same year, a Democratic senator wrote, “When I see Mexican flags waved at proimmigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”

The blogger was Glenn Greenwald. The columnist was Paul Krugman. The senator was Barack Obama.

Prominent liberals didn’t oppose immigration a decade ago. Most acknowledged its benefits to America’s economy and culture. They supported a path to citizenship for the undocumented. Still, they routinely asserted that low-skilled immigrants depressed the wages of low-skilled American workers and strained America’s welfare state. And they were far more likely than liberals today are to acknowledge that, as Krugman put it, “immigration is an intensely painful topic … because it places basic principles in conflict.”

Today, little of that ambivalence remains. In 2008, the Democratic platform called undocumented immigrants “our neighbors.” But it also warned, “We cannot continue to allow people to enter the United States undetected, undocumented, and unchecked,” adding that “those who enter our country’s borders illegally, and those who employ them, disrespect the rule of the law.” By 2016, such language was gone. The party’s platform described America’s immigration system as a problem, but not illegal immigration itself. And it focused almost entirely on the forms of immigration enforcement that Democrats opposed. In its immigration section, the 2008 platform referred three times to people entering the country “illegally.” The immigration section of the 2016 platform didn’t use the word illegal, or any variation of it, at all. ...

In July 2015, two months after officially announcing his candidacy for president, Sanders was interviewed by Ezra Klein, the editor in chief of Vox. Klein asked whether, in order to fight global poverty, the U.S. should consider “sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders.” Sanders reacted with horror. “That’s a Koch brothers proposal,” he scoffed. He went on to insist that “right-wing people in this country would love … an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country.”

...progressive commentators now routinely claim that there’s a near-consensus among economists on immigration’s benefits.

There isn’t. According to a comprehensive new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Groups comparable to … immigrants in terms of their skill may experience a wage reduction as a result of immigration-induced increases in labor supply.” But academics sometimes de-emphasize this wage reduction because, like liberal journalists and politicians, they face pressures to support immigration.
--Peter Beinart, The Atlantic, on why we should be charitable towards our opponents

Friday, June 16, 2017

Why do fathers abandon their children?

Millions of poor children and teenagers grow up without their biological father, and often when you ask them about it, you hear a litany of male barbarism. ... The children’s tales often reinforce the standard image we have of the deadbeat dad — the selfish cad who spreads his seed and leaves generations of wreckage in his wake.

Yet when you ask absent fathers themselves, you get a different picture. You meet guys who desperately did not want to leave their children, who swear they have tried to be with them, who may feel unworthy of fatherhood but who don’t want to be the missing dad their own father was.

In truth, when fathers abandon their own children, it’s not a momentary decision; it’s a long, tragic process. A number of researchers have tried to understand how father abandonment happens, most importantly Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson, who moved to Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., immersed themselves in the neighborhoods there and produced an amazing account, “Doing the Best I Can.”

Pregnancy is rarely planned among the populations they studied. Typically the parents are in a semi-relationship that is somewhere between a one-night stand and an actual boyfriend-girlfriend bond. ...

When the men learn that their partner is pregnant, they don’t panic, or lament all the freedom they are going to miss. On the contrary, three-quarters of the men in Edin and Nelson’s research were joyous at the news. The men are less likely than the women to want to end the pregnancy with an abortion.

These guys have often had a lot of negativity in their lives. The child is a chance to turn things around and live a disciplined life. The child is a chance to have a respected role, to find love and purpose.

The men at this stage are filled with earnest resolve. They begin to take the relationship more seriously and commit to the kid during infancy. ...

The key weakness is not the father’s bond to the child; it’s the parents’ bond with each other. They usually went into this without much love or sense of commitment. ...

By the time the child is 1, half these couples have split up, and many of the rest will part ways soon after. Suddenly there’s a new guy living in the house, a man who resents the old one. The father redefines his role. He no longer aims to be the provider and caregiver, just the occasional “best friend” who can drop by and provide a little love. This is a role he has a shot at fulfilling, but it destroys parental responsibility.

He believes in fatherhood and tries it again with other women, with the same high hopes, but he’s really only taking care of the child he happens to be living with at any given moment. The rest are abandoned.
--David Brooks, NYT, on pregnancy without love

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Anxiety disorder is becoming the new norm

According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, some 38 percent of girls ages 13 through 17, and 26 percent of boys, have an anxiety disorder. On college campuses, anxiety is running well ahead of depression as the most common mental health concern, according to a 2016 national study of more than 150,000 students by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University. Meanwhile, the number of web searches involving the term has nearly doubled over the last five years, according to Google Trends. (The trendline for “depression” was relatively flat.)
--Alex Williams, NYT, on our anxious age

Richard Thaler's conflict of interest

Declaration of Conflicting Interests
R. H. Thaler has served as an uncompensated advisor to the United Kingdom Behavioural Insights States Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, both from their inception. He also has numerous behavioral biases so would personally benefit from evidence-based noncoercive nudges.
--Conflict of interest section from Benartzi et al., "Should Governments Invest More in Nudging?"

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Fetuses prefer face-like images

It is dark in the womb—but not that dark. Human flesh isn’t fully opaque, so some measure of light will always pass through it. This means that even an enclosed space like a uterus can be surprisingly bright. “It’s analogous to being in a room where the lights are switched off and the curtains are drawn, but it’s bright outside,” says Vincent Reid from the University of Lancaster. ...

But what exactly do fetuses see? And how do they react to those images? To find out, Reid shone patterns of red dots into the wombs of women in the third trimester of their pregnancies, and monitored the babies within using high-definition ultrasound. By looking at how the babies turned around, Reid showed that they have a preference for dots arranged in a face-like pattern—just as newborn infants do. ...

For decades, scientists have known that third-trimester babies can perceive sounds and other stimuli while still in the womb. For example, in 1980, Anthony DeCasper and William Fifer asked pregnant women to read The Cat in the Hat to their fetuses, again and again for the last 7 weeks of their pregnancies. As soon as the babies were born, DeCasper and Fifer gave them pacifiers. The babies could then choose to hear a recording of either The Cat in the Hat or a different children’s story, by sucking at different times. And they sucked for the cat.

“People showed that a fetus could learn, was aware of elements of language, and preferred its mother’s own voice,” says Reid. ...

[The study] also confirms that the preference for faces isn’t the result of experiences that happen after birth. Some scientists have suggested that babies imprint on the first things they see—usually their mother’s face—in the same way that baby chicks or ducklings do. It’s very hard to test that idea: If imprinting happens and is important, it would be unethical to deprive a baby of that stimulus. “But this study rules that out,” says Reid. The preference already exists in utero.
--Ed Yong, The Atlantic, on consciousness before birth

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The decline of the Big Mac

The Big Mac, wrote a top McDonald’s franchisee in a memo to fellow operators in July, “has gotten less relevant.” This is the problem facing the world’s largest hamburger maker—its burgers aren’t good enough.

Just one in five millennials, the fast-food industry’s core customer, has tried the flagship product, the memo said.
--Julie Jargon, WSJ, on how times change

Monday, May 29, 2017

The dark side of self-driving cars

I can’t count the number of emails I get from cybersecurity researchers who are predicting a spike in acts of terrorism carried out via self-driving cars. Picture everything from suicide-bombing cars (minus the actual suicide bombers) to triggering a 10-car pileup on a freeway by remotely taking over the controls of a car.
--Sheera Frenkel, NYT, on the advantage of wetware

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Wealth is the adult version of magic

Wealth, I realized, is the adult version of magic: an incredibly powerful but ultimately arbitrary resource that transfers primarily through inheritance. It has some logic to it— but also enough randomness that those without can hope for a spontaneous windfall in the form of an improbably lucrative investment or a secret inheritance. (Harry Potter and Rachel Chu were both thrust into lands of glittering palaces and gem-studded talismans after discovering secret inheritances.) Particularly in the rapidly growing economies of post-WWII Asia and post-communist China, the acquisition [of] wealth has, at times, taken on a sort of magical quality — with all the confusion and trauma that can imply.
--Maureen O'Connor, New York, on the popularity of Crazy Rich Asians and other books/shows about rich people

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Why are MLB pitchers taking longer between pitches?

Compared with 2007, the average MLB pitcher now holds the ball a full two seconds longer between consecutive pitches. ...

...in terms of baseball’s most valuable currency — fastball velocity — pitchers do benefit from a slower pace of delivery. I found this using a model that compared every pitch to the pitcher’s own average velocity, while normalizing for the count and number of pitches he had thrown in the game. ...
For every additional second they spend (up to 20 seconds), pitchers throw about .02 miles per hour harder.

Such a small difference in fastball velocity might seem too insignificant to chase. But every mile per hour matters: According to a 2010 study by Mike Fast (now employed in the Houston Astros’ front office), a single tick of fastball velocity is worth 0.3 runs per nine innings for a starter, and even more (0.45 runs per mph) for relievers. ...

If a team’s entire pitching staff took an average of 10 extra seconds, the resulting 0.2-mile per hour increase would equate to about 10 extra runs saved per season. Using the classic sabermetric rule of 10 runs per win, that’s one whole extra victory — something general managers have been willing to pay upwards of $7 million to acquire. ...

Across baseball, the average four-seam fastball velocity has spiked a full mile per hour since 2010, and that jump has coincided with the drop in pace. ... All in all, declining pace could be responsible for about 20 percent of the leaguewide increase in fastball velocity since 2010.
--Rob Arthur, FiveThirtyEight, on why baseball games last more than three hours

Revenge of the nerds on Wall Street

When Michael Savini came to Wall Street in 2006, banks and brokers had stocked their annual recruiting classes with a preponderance of new hires who shared at least one thing in common: They’d played college sports. ...

Ex-jocks had the right stomach for risk-taking, the theory went, and the ideal temperament to win clients’ trust and business. ...

As an economics major at Columbia University, where he was a four-year starter and co-captain of the wrestling team, Mr. Savini followed two older brothers, also college athletes, into finance. There, he believed, his background gave him an edge. “Athletes are better equipped at knowing you’re not always going to win,” he said. “In sales, you’re going to get a lot of doors slammed in your face. It’s how you bounce back from those losses that define us.”

Yet these days, when he attends mixers for former wrestlers in finance, Mr. Savini, 42 years old, says he hears more gripes than enthusiasm. If college athletes asked him for advice in pursuing a career on the trading floor, he said, his message would be a simple one.

Don’t. ...

Two years ago, after nearly a decade working as an equity salesman, Mr. Savini left for 303 Capital Markets, a boutique investment-banking firm. “The business is changing,” he said. “It’s all going electronic.”

“These guys are on the wrong side of Moore’s Law,” said Rett Wallace, a former investment banker, referring to the axiom on the exponential growth of computing power. ...

The industry started to shift away from athletes in the 1990s as derivatives grew in number and complexity. That necessitated a hiring spree for Ph.D.s who could understand and price them. More recently, the advent of electronic trading and quantitative investing called for many more recruits with math or computer-programming skills.
--Justin Baer, WSJ, on brains over brawn

The astronomical improbability of life

Nor do we know how life began. At some point, the Earth made the transition from chemistry to biology, yes, but we cannot “agree on a definition that separates the nonliving chemistry from life,” as the geneticist Johnjoe McFadden puts it. (He then paraphrases the astronomer Fred Hoyle, who famously said that the odds of assembling something like a bacterium out of the primordial ooze were akin to the odds of a tornado’s assembling a jumbo jet out of a junkyard heap as it sweeps through.)

There are scientists who will go so far as to say that life is a spectacular fluke. Not everyone, mind you: Researchers now estimate that there are one billion Earthlike exoplanets in the Milky Way. “To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational,” Stephen Hawking has said.

But a powerful essay by the evolutionary biologist Matthew Cobb will make you wonder whether any form of multicellular life is far less likely than one in a billion. He points out that “there are more single-celled organisms alive on Earth than there are Earthlike planets in the observable universe”; that the number of single-celled organisms that have lived on this planet over the course of 3.8 billion years is beyond calculation; that these organisms have interacted “gazillions” of times (I love it when words of the appropriate magnitude desert even the experts). Yet we’ve never had a second instance of eukaryogenesis — that remarkable moment when one unicellular life form lodged inside another, forming something much more complex — in all this time.
--Jennifer Senior, NYT, on the uniqueness of life as we know it

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Maybe macroeconomic forecasts aren't so bad

Macroeconomists... are asked to routinely produce forecasts to guide fiscal and monetary policy, and are perhaps too eager to comply. ...

...the supposedly most embarrassing forecast errors come with regards to large crises. Yet, these crises are rare events that happen once every many decades. Since typical economic time series only extend over a little more than one hundred years, statistically forecasting the eruption of a crisis will always come with large imprecision.

Compare how economics does relative to the medical sciences. ...

Imagine going to your doctor and asking her to forecast whether you will be alive 2 years from now. That would sound like a preposterous request to the physician, but perhaps having some actuarial mortality tables in her head, she would tell you the probability of death for someone of your age. For all but the older readers of this article, this will be well below 50%. Yet, one year later, you have a heart attack and die. Should there be outrage at the state of medicine for missing the forecast, with such deadly consequences?

One defense by the medical profession would be to say that their job is not to predict time of death. They are driven to understand what causes diseases, how to prevent them, how to treat them, and altogether how to lower the chances of mortality while trading this off against life quality and satisfaction. ... This argument applies, word for word, to economics once the word disease is replaced by the words financial crisis. ...

A more sophisticated defense would note that medical sciences are about making conditional forecasts: if you make some lifestyle choices, then your odds of dying change by this or that much. These forecasts are at best probabilistic. ...

Economics is not so different, even in 2007-08. Within days or weeks of the failure of Bear Sterns or Lehman Brothers, economists provided diagnoses of the crisis, and central banks and finance ministries implemented aggressive measures to minimize the damage, all of which were heavily influenced by economic theory. ... The economy did not die, and a Great Depression was avoided, in no small part due to the advances on economics over many decades.

Too many people all over the world are today being unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer, undergo enormously painful treatment, and recover to live for many more years. This is rightly hailed as a triumph of modern oncology, even if so much more remains to be done. After suffering the worst shock in many decades, the global economy’s problems were diagnosed by economists, who designed policies to respond to them, and in the end we had a painful recession but no melt down. Some, somehow, conclude that economics is at fault. ...

Macroeconomists are... asked to predict what will happen to the changes in the CPI or GDP over the next 1-5 years. The comparison of forecast quality must be made for the same time horizon and for a similar level of aggregation. The fairer comparison would be to ask doctors to predict what will be the percentage change in the annual number of patients that eventually die after being admitted to an emergency room due to a stroke. For these similar units, my guess is that medical forecasts will look almost as bad as macroeconomic forecasts.
--Ricardo Reis on comparing apples to apples

Why do dads tell dad jokes?

But now I know why dads tell dad jokes. You have this captive audience that laughs at 100% of your jokes for eight straight years, so your jokes just get worse and worse. And then one day, the laughter stops.
--MEL on the fate of the monopolist

Why do your sports teams suck? Taxes

Between 1989, when the team entered the N.B.A., and this season, the [Minnesota] Timberwolves have the worst record in the league. ...

In a state synonymous with hockey, neither the Wild nor the Stars (while in Minnesota) has won the Stanley Cup. Same for the Vikings and the Super Bowl. The Twins did win the World Series, but that’s the exception to the losing rule. ...

Minnesota has one of the highest top marginal income tax rates for any state at 9.85 percent. ...

It’s unclear how much professional athletes value these public goods, but the Timberwolves still have to pay extra to offset those taxes. And given the competition under a salary cap, it means Minnesota teams spend almost 10 percent less than teams from Florida or Texas, which have no income tax. This could be enough money to upgrade from an average player to an All-Star.

To test my theory, I gathered data on the outcomes of every professional sports game over the past 40 years as well as data on state and local tax rates each team member faces. I then computed how much taxes predict winning for each league in every year while controlling for other factors such as population, income, franchise age and local amenities (i.e., weather).

Results of the analysis show that higher taxes consistently predict worse performance in every league — not just the N.B.A. but also Major League Baseball, the N.H.L., and the N.F.L. over the past 20 years. ...

Several other factors connect the income tax effect to my theory. Comparing player salary to player value measures provides evidence that higher-taxed teams in baseball and basketball pay more for players of similar quality, suggesting tax compensation is real. The income tax effect also relies on the assumption that players and teams are responding to income tax rates when negotiating contracts. This explains why the effect arises only in the wake of collective bargaining agreements in the late 1980s and early 1990s that allowed players to become unrestricted free agents and have teams compete to sign them.

The income tax effect could also be explained if people in low-tax states such as Texas and Florida just enjoy sports more and support their teams more and this translates to more winning. But I found that in college football and basketball, where athletes are not paid and should not care about income tax rates, teams from lower-tax states do not perform better than teams in higher-tax states.
--Erik Hembre, NYT, on the tax elasticity of labor supply

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Does education make people less religious?

The idea is peppered through the writings of scholars, great thinkers, and New Atheist-types: Education is the cure for religion. ...

New data from the Pew Research Center doesn’t disprove these claims, but it does challenge them. ...

There are at least two different ways to think about the relationship between education and religiosity: how schooling affects belief, and how it affects practice. Pew’s researchers looked at data from a number of recent surveys, including their 35,000-person study of American religion from 2014. They found that educated people are generally less likely to believe in God: Among all U.S. adults, only 83 percent of college grads said they think God exists, while 92 percent of people with only a high-school degree or less said the same.

Within Christianity, though, the difference all but disappears. Among educated mainline Protestants, 96 percent said they believe in God, compared to 97 percent among the less educated; among Catholics, 98 percent of both groups said the same. Among Mormons, black Protestants, and evangelical Protestants, there was effectively no difference at all, because virtually everyone in those groups said they believe in God.

Educational differences had a much bigger effect on religious practice. Sixty-eight percent of college-educated evangelical Protestants go to church every week, compared to 55 percent of those who only went to high school. In fact, college grads show up in the church pews more often in nearly every kind of Christian tradition: Among mainline Protestants, weekly attendance was 36 to 31 percent, more educated to less; among black Protestants, 59 to 52 percent; and among Catholics, 45 to 39 percent. The effect was perhaps greatest among Mormons: 85 percent of Mormon college graduates go to church at least once a week, compared to 66 percent of their peers with a high-school education or less.
--Emma Green, The Atlantic, on religiosity among the knowledgable

Monday, April 24, 2017

Who has buyer's remorse? Hillary voters, not Trump voters

I argued last week that anecdotal stories about disillusioned Trump supporters were overdone. The fact is that, on a broad scale, Trump supporters say they aren't disappointed. In fact, a poll showed they were more pleased than disappointed, by about 5 to 1:
...The Pew Research Center released a poll showing very little buyer's remorse among Trump voters. The poll showed just 7 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say Trump has performed worse than they expected him to. Fully 38 percent — five times as many — say he has performed better.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll confirms this — in spades. And, in fact, it shows more buyer's remorse for Trump's opponent in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton. And were the 2016 election held again today, it shows Trump would avenge his popular-vote loss.

While just 4 percent of Trump's supporters say they would back someone else if there was a redo of the election, fully 15 percent of Clinton supporters say they would ditch her. Trump leads in a re-do of the 2016 election 43 percent to 40 percent after losing the popular vote 46-44. ...

Just 2 percent of those who voted for Trump say he has been a worse president than they expected. Only 1 percent say he has been “much worse,” and 1 percent say he has been “somewhat worse.”

In contrast, 62 percent say he has been better than expected, with one-third (33 percent) saying he has been “much better.”
--Aaron Blake, Washington Post, on happenings outside the liberal bubble

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Correlation between likability and status is nearly zero for teenage girls

“In elementary school, the kids who are really well-liked and who are nice are also the kids who are popular,” said Amanda Rose, a psychology researcher at the University of Missouri. “But in middle school, this starts to change.” By the time high school starts, there are two kinds of popularity: There are the well-liked students, and then there is the emergence of a new group, which researchers call the high-status students — these are the ones who dominate their social groups, who are perhaps voted to the homecoming court, or are captain of the soccer team.

This distinction — between status and likability — is especially important in understanding the alpha girl over her teenage-boy counterpart. Alpha boys tend to be aggressive in physical ways, starting fights or pushing each other around, while alpha girls are more likely to act in relationally aggressive ways, spreading rumors or using the silent treatment. ...

For girls, “the more aggressive you are, the less likable you will be. But it will make you more popular,” said Mitch Prinstein, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of the upcoming book Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. “For boys, a lot of them can be [high-status] and also well-liked at the same time. But that is so not the case for girls. The correlation between likability and status approaches zero for girls.” Alpha girls are admired and feared, but they’re not often liked. ...

For teenagers, as you’ll no doubt recall, their peers’ opinions mean everything. Their parents’ opinions, on the other hand, means nothing — less than nothing. The farther they can get from anything adults approve of, the better. ...

Hence the allure of the alpha girl. High-status teenagers, the research suggests, tend to behave in ways adults find inappropriate, which other teenagers find exhilarating. ... They skip class, they dabble in drugs, they go to parties. They are, in a word, cool. ...

One might assume, as I did, that your high school’s alpha girl grew up to be the office alpha girl, too. But every researcher I talked to said the opposite; several of them, for that matter, pointed me toward a fascinating study led by Allen and published in 2014 in the journal Child Development, titled: “What ever happened to the ‘cool’ kids?” For that paper, Allen and his colleagues interviewed a group of teenagers — including the “high-status” ones, otherwise known as the popular kids — when they were seniors in high school, and then tracked them down and reinterviewed them ten years later. “And a decade later,” Allen tells me, “they’re not doing so well. They’re doing less well in romantic relationships, they’re more likely to have problems with alcohol use and criminal behavior.”

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Do diets make you fat?

...in a 2012 study, researchers followed over 4,000 twins aged 16 to 25. Dieters were more likely to gain weight than their non-dieting identical twins, suggesting that dieting does indeed increase weight gain even after accounting for genetic background...

The causal relationship between diets and weight gain can also be tested by studying people with an external motivation to lose weight. Boxers and wrestlers who diet to qualify for their weight classes presumably have no particular genetic predisposition toward obesity. Yet a 2006 study found that elite athletes who competed for Finland in such weight-conscious sports were three times more likely to be obese by age 60 than their peers who competed in other sports.

To test this idea rigorously, researchers could randomly assign people to worry about their weight, but that is hard to do. One program took the opposite approach, though, helping teenage girls who were unhappy with their bodies to become less concerned about their weight. In a randomized trial, the eBody Project, an online program to fight eating disorders by reducing girls’ desire to be thin, led to less dieting and also prevented future weight gain. Girls who participated in the program saw their weight remain stable over the next two years, while their peers without the intervention gained a few pounds. ...

If dieting doesn’t work, what should we do instead? I recommend mindful eating — paying attention to signals of hunger and fullness, without judgment, to relearn how to eat only as much as the brain’s weight-regulation system commands.

Relative to chronic dieters, people who eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full are less likely to become overweight, maintain more stable weights over time and spend less time thinking about food. Mindful eating also helps people with eating disorders like binge eating learn to eat normally. Depending on the individual’s set point, mindful eating may reduce weight or it may not. Either way, it’s a powerful tool to maintain weight stability, without deprivation.
--Sandra Aamodt, NYT, on winning by letting go

Friday, April 14, 2017

Reporting bias drives half of the starting MBA gender pay gap

Women MBAs are at a salary disadvantage from the onset of their post-business school careers, new data shows. According to self-reported data from MBAs graduating from top U.S. business schools, women earn an average total compensation package of $14,000 less than men in their first year of work. The data has been compiled by Transparent Career, an online MBA job reporting platform founded by an MBA team from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. ...

[Transparent Career CEO Mitch] Kirby continued, after running multiple regressions, “roughly $4.5K of the gap was driven by this difference in job function choice, or about 33% of the total.”

To go even further still, Kirby honed in on consulting, because of its “notoriously standardized compensation packages.” Yet, in the data, there was still a wage gap of more than $12,000. How could this be? ...

“We used data from a set of top consulting firms, which we know to offer completely standardized compensation to MBAs regardless of gender,” Kirby wrote of their methodology to examine the hypothesis. “We looked to see if there was a difference in how women and men reported these offers.”

While men and women both reported salaries around $144,400, men reported earning $8,000 more in “bonus” and “other compensation.” Of the $12,000 gap in consulting, Kirby reasoned at least two-thirds of it was due to men inflating their projected bonuses and overall compensation. According to the report, an additional 43% of the overall wage gap was a result of this phenomenon.

“What’s noteworthy here is that offered salary is an objective, immutable number,” Kirby wrote. “Performance bonuses and other compensation, however, can be interpreted more subjectively — based on a range candidates are given in an offer letter. Its likely that men are estimating they will achieve higher performance bonuses than women, which leads to a larger reported wage gap.”

--Nathan Allen, Poets and Quants, on self-confidence in pay estimates. Next step is to see how much of the forecasted bonus gap materializes in actual bonuses.