Monday, February 28, 2011

Just... gross

Okay, okay... in the vein of my last post, while I am by no means an expert in the fields of biology, chemistry, or even the culinary arts, this is just... nasty.
A restaurant in London's Covent Garden is serving a new range of ice cream, made with breast milk.
The dessert, called Baby Gaga, is churned with donations from London mother Victoria Hiley, and served with a rusk and an optional shot of Calpol or Bonjela.
Mrs. Hiley, 35, said if adults realised how tasty breast milk was more new mothers would be encouraged to breastfeed.
Look, I'm all for encouraging breastfeeding... but really? Really? Is this the best way to accomplish that?


On feigned expertise

One of the fears I have as a "generalist" blogger--one who writes on a variety of topics but specializes in none--is that I will be written off by some (or many) readers as a false expert, one who professes to know more than he does. This fear was reinforced a bit for me this weekend in an otherwise unrelated incident.

The weather here in Virginia was unseasonably warm the past couple of days, which made it an ideal time to enjoy the UVA baseball team's 3-game weekend series against East Carolina, a solid out-of-conference opponent (side note--I couldn't be happier that baseball season is finally here, a couple of months earlier than I'm accustomed to from growing up in New England). I attended portions of the Friday and Saturday afternoon games--both wins for the home team--and I decided to stick around for the entirety of the Sunday game as our boys went for the sweep.

From the outset, it clearly wasn't UVA's day, and the Cavaliers entered the bottom of the ninth down by a run. A leadoff single gave the home fans some hope, but a failed hit-and-run led to the baserunner being caught stealing, snuffing out the rally. Immediately, the home fans began grumbling, doing their usual armchair managing. When the next two batters were retired to end the game--the last one on a called third strike on which the hitter was clearly expecting a different pitch--the grumbling and complaining went to the next level.

From the way the fans around me were talking, you'd have thought that the failed hit-and-run and the taken third strike had violated long-standing rules from the baseball strategy bible. As a long-time player myself, however, I had no problem with either play--both of them fell into the "sh** happens" category of baseball happenings. The East Carolina closer did a great job of sniffing out the hit-and-run and making it difficult for the batter to execute it properly, and he later threw a fantastic (and unexpected) pitch for the final strike. Kudos to him. But the false experts in the crowd--ones who clearly knew just enough about baseball to be dangerous, but not enough to be fair critics--ruined the end of the game for me, and sent me home with a sour taste in my mouth.

I cowered with fear, wondering if that's how I come across on my blog when I write about politics, psychology, or technology, topics on which I am more an observer than a participant. It's a hard thing for me to gauge, but I readily admit that I am not an "expert" on all that I survey and discuss on this site. I nevertheless try to be a fair and impartial critic, using what expertise I do have to shed light on complicated issues.

On the plus side, the "Comments" section does allow for a built-in reality check for me. Please don't hesitate to use it when you feel as though I'm acting like the fans who surrounded me yesterday--or even when you feel like I'm not. That's what it's there for. Hopefully, though, my fears are generally unfounded.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The uneven economic recovery

I've certainly written here before about my belief that the policies which have been enacted--both by Congress and by the Fed--in response to our economic crisis have disproportionately benefited the interests of the rich and the corporate, at the expense of the poor (and the retired on fixed incomes).

Earlier this week, I came across an interesting item (and graphic) from the New York Times which gave a further indication of the impact of these policies.
Americans are becoming more optimistic about the prospects for the economy, but are still concerned about their own financial situation.
For the first time in six years, at least half of Americans questioned for the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index said they believed that business conditions had improved over the previous year, according to the preliminary results from the February survey...
Before the recent downturn, only once — in early 1980, during a sharp recession accompanied by high inflation — has a majority said their families were worse off financially than they had been a year earlier. But a majority felt that way for all but one of 18 consecutive months beginning in mid-2008, as the financial crisis took hold.
Even now, 37 percent say they are worse off, compared with just 28 percent who think they are doing better.
In the past, there were only a few times when an absolute majority of people thought they would not be able to keep up with inflation over the next year, and before the financial crisis, all of those times came when inflation was high. But now, 53 percent feel that way, while a record-low 8 percent think their income will rise faster than prices.
The reason for that seems to be largely based on worries about income rather than prices. Although expected inflation rates have been rising, a majority still expect prices to rise by 4 percent or less.
Regardless of what Ben Bernanke says about inflation, it's clear that the impact on the typical American family has been devastating. Despite the steady improvement in summary economic statistics, the gains simply have not been equally shared. That's why you see charts like these, and persistent pessimism in polls like these even when people see the general situation improving.

Economic "recoveries" that are built on inflationary policies will always leave the majority of Americans behind, while disproportionately benefiting a very small subset of the richest of the rich. One of the only reasons that we are not seeing widespread riots in America (like we saw in Egypt, where inequality and inflation were primary driving factors behind the rebellion) is that so many Americans are in fact delusional--they don't realize how unequal we really are, as this post expertly points out.

Sooner or later, as already happened in 2008, the majority of Americans will realize that they have been scammed by Bernanke, et al. GDP statistics may be improving, but the reality--that more and more Americans seem to be waking up to--is that most Americans are getting effectively poorer, not richer. And those who really are getting richer certainly aren't sharing.

[New York Times]

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Clip of the Week

In case you missed it, an IBM computer named Watson took on the two greatest Jeopardy! champions of all time last week in an exhibition contest. Watson's victory has been hailed as the latest triumph of computing power, and welcomed by many as a sign of the future.

This week's video, which is admittedly a self-congratulatory marketing piece from IBM, nevertheless does a fantastic job of summarizing the Watson project and its implications. I think it's pretty cool. And I, for one (like Ken Jennings), welcome our new computer overlords.

Feminism's internal glass ceiling

I've been sitting on an interesting story for a couple of days now (actually, I've been sitting on a few of them, since the crazy market activity this week has kept me busier than usual, but I digress), stemming from a paper co-written by Princeton economist Alan Krueger and policy researcher Stacy Dale. The paper aimed to study the impact of college selectivity on career earnings--in other words, Dale and Krueger were investigating whether attending an elite college in fact predicted higher career earnings for the graduates.

In general, the researchers found that attending an elite college (versus a "very competitive" college) did not in fact increase earnings in a statistically significant way. But as economist Robin Hanson notes, this summary finding obscures a very important (and statistically significant) underlying dynamic.
Men who attend the most competitive colleges [according to Barron's 1982 ratings] earn 23 percent more than men who attend very competitive colleges, other variables in the equation being equal.
[But] attending a college with higher SAT scores clearly lowered the wages of women 17-26 years after starting college (in 1976) — a school with a 100-point higher average SAT score reduced earnings by about 6-7%!...
One obvious explanation is that women at more elite colleges married richer classmate men, and so felt less need to earn money themselves. Why don’t the study’s authors want us to hear about that?
Hanson is obviously a bit peeved at what he perceives as misleading reporting by the study's authors, who don't mention this divergence in the abstract to their paper. I don't blame him at all, and the omission of this finding is definitely a bit curious.

For me, though, the finding is not terribly surprising. The simple fact is, for various reasons, intelligent and hard-working women do not always WANT the high-powered, high-paid jobs that the elite colleges tend to funnel them into (banking, consulting, etc.). Those jobs often require very long hours a significant amount of travel (not to mention minimal schedule flexibility), and family dynamics and realities make those jobs difficult propositions for married women. This dynamic is especially true when the woman's husband already has a similar type of job, as is of course often the case for graduates of elite universities--it's tough to raise a family when both parents spend tons of time away from home. That last dynamic is likely what accounts for the difference between "elite" and "very competitive" colleges--that is to say, it's not about the woman, so much as it's about her husband.

I definitely don't mean to suggest that women who attend Harvard or Princeton or Stanford do so in the explicit hopes of finding a meal-ticket husband and retiring to the home. Though I did meet several women like that during my college years, their numbers are not sufficient to produce a finding as significant as the Princeton paper uncovered. More likely, family dynamics are very real, whether as a result of chauvinistic men wanting to push their wives into the kitchen or simply a woman's inherent desire to bond with her children.

Either way, the study's findings have to be troubling for feminists who fought for so long to achieve equality in the classroom and the office. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of feminism's greatest legacies has been to create a tremendous sense of confusion among women and their role. Much of our society still values their ability (and rewards their willingness) to be warm, nurturing figures, which makes them a natural fit for child-rearing. But the classroom and the office reward the opposite, and women are caught in between.

The results of this study are definitely a bit difficult to fully sort out, but so too are all issues in the realm of gender inequity. It's hard to know where personal choice ends and institutional discrimination begins, which is what makes this study's findings so perplexing. Are the women choosing the lower-paying jobs, or are they bizarrely being forced into them? Could it be that the workplace punishes women for having gone to an elite university? Or is Robin Hanson's initial explanation on the money? It could be that all of these things are true, but it'll take a completely different kind of study to find out.

[Overcoming Bias]

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Quote of the Week

Once again, I forgot to post the Quote of the Week yesterday. On the heels of the three-day weekend, and amidst all the chaos in Libya and the markets, I pretty much lost track of what day it was. But that's okay, because the most intriguing quote I've seen this week just came across my desk this morning, so the delay was worth it.

There has been a lot of media coverage of the suicide of former star NFL defensive back Dave Duerson (a member of the '85 Bears, who famously trounced my Patriots in the Super Bowl), who reportedly shot himself in the chest so that his angst-ridden brain could be studied. His actions cast a new light on the issue of football player safety, which is becoming even more poignant now as the league and its players' union continue negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement.

This morning, the sports blog Deadspin posted an extended interview with Duerson conducted three months before his death. It's alternately interesting, saddening, and spooky to read his unfiltered words, now that we know just how much pain he was in. But the interview also gives rare insight into the human side of the athletes we worship and heap expectations on, rarely wondering or realizing what they may be going through off (or on) the field.

As a fan, it's hard for me to view the Duerson situation without accepting at least some blame for his tragic end, knowing that my expectations as a spectator can often be insatiable and unreasonable. At any rate, I highly suggest you read the whole interview. But if you don't want to, I'll give you a take-home quote anyway.


"People would ask me about longevity and all that. I would tell them I was going to die at 42."
                      -Former NFL Pro Bowler Dave Duerson, three months before his suicide at age 50


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Teetotaling Americans

Hope you all had an enjoyable Presidents' Day weekend (though if you were in Libya, you probably didn't). I spent a portion of my weekend up in Washington, DC, a pretty appropriate place for the occasion.

Following in the spirit of what I'm sure many of us did this weekend, I came across this graphic at The Economist, detailing per capita alcohol consumption by nation. I was surprised to note that, at least in the "developed" world, the United States shapes up as somewhat of a teetotaler as compared to most other nations.

Unsurprisingly, Russia shapes up as among the largest abusers of alcohol, with The Economist noting that nearly 1 in 5 male deaths can be attributed to excessive boozing. But I was somewhat surprised that Moldova took home the dubious prize of the world's highest liquor consumption, with its 18.2 liters per capita edging out second-place Czechoslovakia by 2 liters.

Who knew that America's colonial roots of temperance and Puritanism had survived so well over the centuries?

(h/t The Mess That Greenspan Made)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Putting a price on safety, Part 2 (inflation gets personal)

Back in December, I wrote about the safety dynamic at airports, and how the tension between security and efficiency meant that we were effectively placing a price on our own safety. In the post, I made mention of the necessity for many businesses to place a number on the value of a human life. For a refresher:
Many attempts have been made to quantify the value of human life--a task which, unseemly as it may be, is necessary in fields from insurance to air travel and beyond--with estimates ranging anywhere from $1.54 million to $5 to 8 million. To run a profitable business (including an airline), it is absolutely essential to understand what value potential employees and customers will place on their own lives, as well as the lives of others. If you value human lives too little, you will find yourselves outcast as corporate pariahs, and end up in the poorhouse. But at the other extreme, if you value safety significantly more highly than do your customers, you are almost certain to lose customers as well--such is the predicament that our airlines now face.
That dynamic has managed to work its way back into the conversation, as an article from yesterday's New York Times attests.
To protests from business and praise from unions, environmentalists and consumer groups, one agency after another has ratcheted up the price of life, justifying tougher — and more costly — standards.
The Environmental Protection Agency set the value of a life at $9.1 million last year in proposing tighter restrictions on air pollution. The agency used numbers as low as $6.8 million during the George W. Bush administration.
The Food and Drug Administration declared that life was worth $7.9 million last year, up from $5 million in 2008, in proposing warning labels on cigarette packages featuring images of cancer victims.
The Transportation Department has used values of around $6 million to justify recent decisions to impose regulations that the Bush administration had rejected as too expensive, like requiring stronger roofs on cars.
And the numbers may keep climbing. In December, the E.P.A. said it might set the value of preventing cancer deaths 50 percent higher than other deaths, because cancer kills slowly. A report last year financed by the Department of Homeland Security suggested that the value of preventing deaths from terrorism might be 100 percent higher than other deaths.
First of all, well played, Homeland Security. Your attempts at self-justification know no bounds--terror deaths are twice as "valuable" as other deaths? Sure, guys. Whatever makes you feel alright about your bloated budget.

But setting all of the bizarre, chest-pounding, bureaucratic "our cause is more important than your cause" competitiveness in Washington aside for a bit, the economist in me looks at this situation and wonders. With the persistent population growth that our country and the world continues to experience, shouldn't the value of a human life be declining if anything, given the increased supply? That is, of course, unless demand for human beings is growing, which... doesn't really seem to be the case.

Yeah, I know, we're talking about human beings here, so it probably seems crass to apply supply-and-demand curve logic to the human condition. But economists are crass by nature--it's the "dismal science" for a reason--and that character flaw doesn't mean that their insights can't be valuable.

Ultimately, I take this as more of a sign that inflation via a debased dollar is very real, and applies not only to corn, gold, cotton, oats, sugar and oil, but to human lives as well. So, yeah. Inflation just got personal. Good work, Bernanke.

[New York Times]

Thursday, February 17, 2011

This is catchy

Alright, this AC/DC-Ghostbusters mashup might be a little incoherent at times, but it's so awesome and 80's-tastic that I had to share it. I couldn't keep myself from smiling when I listened to it, so hopefully some of my fellow '80s kids out there will be with me on this.

Enough writing, I'm gonna go listen to that again.

Clip of the Week

These guys are insane. That is all.

Do yourself a favor...

...and read this. Just don't read it while you're operating heavy machinery, standing up, or in the vicinity of any children or small animals--because I don't want to be held responsible for your actions when your anger boils over, like mine already did.

Matt Taibbi has already received a lot of attention for his insightful investigative articles on Goldman Sachs, the Tea Party, and the Arizona shootings (a story which really dropped off the news radar quickly, didn't it?). Yesterday he published his latest piece, entitled simply "Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail?"--I thought it followed up fairly nicely after my Bernie Madoff Quote of the Week yesterday. Here's a teaser:
Over drinks at a bar on a dreary, snowy night in Washington this past month, a former Senate investigator laughed as he polished off his beer.
"Everything's fucked up, and nobody goes to jail," he said. "That's your whole story right there. Hell, you don't even have to write the rest of it. Just write that."
I put down my notebook. "Just that?"
"That's right," he said, signaling to the waitress for the check. "Everything's fucked up, and nobody goes to jail. You can end the piece right there."
That's a hell of a lead, but of course Taibbi doesn't stop there. It only gets better (or worse).
Nobody goes to jail. This is the mantra of the financial-crisis era, one that saw virtually every major bank and financial company on Wall Street embroiled in obscene criminal scandals that impoverished millions and collectively destroyed hundreds of billions, in fact, trillions of dollars of the world's wealth — and nobody went to jail. Nobody, that is, except Bernie Madoff, a flamboyant and pathological celebrity con artist, whose victims happened to be other rich and famous people...
Here's how regulation of Wall Street is supposed to work. To begin with, there's a semigigantic list of public and quasi-public agencies ostensibly keeping their eyes on the economy, a dense alphabet soup of banking, insurance, S&L, securities and commodities regulators like the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), as well as supposedly "self-regulating organizations" like the New York Stock Exchange. All of these outfits, by law, can at least begin the process of catching and investigating financial criminals, though none of them has prosecutorial power...
But a veritable mountain of evidence indicates that when it comes to Wall Street, the justice system not only sucks at punishing financial criminals, it has actually evolved into a highly effective mechanism for protecting financial criminals. This institutional reality has absolutely nothing to do with politics or ideology — it takes place no matter who's in office or which party's in power.
Yup. In my opinion, the biggest problem with the global response to the economic crisis (especially here in the U.S.) is that every policy has, at its roots, been devised in a way that won't "spook" the markets. We don't prosecute the banks or their officials because we fear that doing so will cause a panic in the markets and send us right back to square one of this whole financial mess.

That's as back-asswards as government policy can get, and it should have individual workers and voters furious. It's exactly why prosecutors across the country have dragged their feet in the prosecution of foreclosure fraud cases, and why Congress actually passed--only to be trumped by a Presidential veto--a bill that would have made it easier for banks to process and enforce fraudulent foreclosure documents. All of that in the name of "promoting market stability".

As far as I'm concerned, if I have to overlook criminal activity in order for the Dow to clear 12,000, I'd rather have the Dow at 8,000 and preserve the rule of law. Market activity that is built on fraud and overlooking bad behavior is always a house of cards--a lesson we should have already learned in 2008-2009. Clearly, Matt Taibbi agrees with me.

[Rolling Stone]

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Interactive view of the US federal budget

I mentioned in passing in a post last week that most Americans suffer from a certain type of cognitive dissonance when it comes to the federal budget (and by extension, our deficit and debt)--essentially, we humans are just very bad at visualizing really big numbers. Hence this video, which I also shared in last week's post.

For those of us who think that we can solve our budgetary woes simply by "trimming the fat", the New York Times is here to help, with an interactive view of President Obama's 2012 budget proposal. The green rectangles indicate increases from 2010, while the red rectangles indicate cuts from the 2010 budget. Notice that the majority of the red spaces are small, where the majority of the green spaces are quite large.

The graphic isn't embeddable, so you'll have to click on this link to play around with it. Personally, the more time I spend perusing the graphic, the more hopeless it all starts to seem.

You can't balance a budget by going out to dinner less often but also buying a bigger house--that's essentially what this budget is trying to do. Most Americans--and apparently politicians, too--seem to think that we can solve our deficit problems by making our smaller programs more efficient, while letting our bigger programs (Medicare, Defense, and ahem, interest on our debt) grow ever larger. That's a losing proposition, akin to bailing out a sinking ship using a leaky bucket.

The only way we will ever be able to balance our budget is by hacking away at the big green rectangles--that's simple mathematics, because you better believe we aren't balancing it through tax increases. It won't be easy or fun, but we literally don't have a choice.

[New York Times]

This seems important, but I'm not sure how

I don't know what to make of this, but in reading through this post, I couldn't help but notice that Judge Judy makes $45 million a year to film her show on CBS. While that figure pales in comparison to Oprah Winfrey's absurd are-you-kidding-me $315 million, it blows away basically everyone else in the TV universe.

It's 60% more than David Letterman ($28mm), 80% more than Jay Leno ($25mm), and more than Katie Couric ($15mm), Brian Williams ($12.5mm), and Diane Sawyer ($12mm) combined. (I could easily argue that TV news anchors shouldn't even make as much money as they do, since their salaries could and should go to pay field reporters to actually perform journalistic tasks, but that's not the point here... or is it?)

Ultimately, I have a hard time getting over the fact that the second-highest paid TV personality performs a show that airs during normal work hours, a show that represents and encourages rubbernecking in its purest form. Is anyone even working any more? Oh... right. Forget I asked.

[The Big Picture]

Quote of the Week

I somehow managed to let yesterday slip by without posting the Quote of the Week. It's probably because I thought it was Wednesday all day (today's Thursday, right?), so it never dawned on me that it was time for Quote of the Week. So be it.

Without further excuses, here it is. It's from Bernie Madoff's latest jailhouse interview, as published in the New York Times.


"[The banks] had to know. But the attitude was sort of, 'If you’re doing something wrong, we don’t want to know.'"
                    - Bernie Madoff, from prison, on his fraudulent Ponzi scheme

It's difficult to know exactly what to make of this line from Madoff. Is it simply a broken and desperate man trying vainly to blame others for his own shortcomings and crimes? Or is there more to his claims of complicity on the part of the large banks and hedge funds whom he claimed as clients?

On the surface, I think there has to be some truth to his statement. As the Times notes, there were significant discrepancies between Madoff's regulatory filings and other information that he provided to prospective investors, discrepancies that should have been revealed during the normal due diligence process. So either the banks were negligent in their research, or they were indeed complicit in the crimes--either way they must shoulder some blame, whether for a crime of omission or a crime of commission.

In that regard, I view the banks (and every Madoff investor) much the same way that I view over-leveraged home-buyers during the housing bubble. Both sides knew--or should have known--that the home in question was overvalued and that the buyer was overextended, but neither cared, and both thought that they could get out for a profit before the "fraud" was revealed. But it's always easier for us to blame the perpetrator--one bad man--rather than to admit that there is shared blame.

Admitting shared blame would require us to ask some hard questions about human nature and capitalism, and whether fraud is inevitable in all systems. It's much easier and more comfortable to blame these situations on isolated bad actors, and to banish them forever while we pretend to be innocent bystanders. I'm not certain we're doing ourselves any favors with that approach.

[New York Times]

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Oh, ESPN...

Hey, it's been a while since I took a shot at my old favorite punching bag (no, I don't mean Krugman), so let's have at it, shall we?
Erin Andrews, who signed an endorsement deal with Reebok last month, is not the only ESPN personality or member of its “College GameDay” team to have a contract with a major shoe company. 
Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso have deals with Nike that Corso described as a joint arrangement that largely involves speaking engagements for the athletic shoe and apparel company. 
After an inquiry to ESPN about the announcers’ Nike contracts, Josh Krulewitz, an ESPN spokesman, said that Fowler, the host of “GameDay,” is “ending his minor association” with Nike “to avoid any potential perception issues.” Fowler was not made available for an interview. 
In defending the announcers, Krulewitz said: “By any objective measure, Chris, Kirk and Lee’s on-air work is unassailable. Their content has not been compromised by this relationship.” 
Corso, Fowler and Herbstreit’s deals with Nike were never announced or disclosed to viewers. “We were unaware of these deals,” Krulewitz said...
ESPN and Nike are major forces in college sports. ESPN has numerous contracts to carry games and Nike has sponsorship agreements with dozens of universities, to which it supplies shoes and apparel. So it is not a surprise that Nike has aligned itself with announcers from a marquee program like “GameDay.”...
Still, Nike’s tie to the “GameDay” announcers creates potential conflicts of interest, said Bob Steele, the director of the Prindle Institute for Ethics and a journalism professor at DePauw University. “It’s not just what’s said or written but what stories are covered and the frame for the story,” he said. “It’s the questions that are asked and not asked in an interview, and who gets interviewed.” 
He added, “You do have to wonder why a sports journalist, or any journalist, would wander in this kind of ethical minefield without recognizing the consequences.”
I'll give Fowler--who, incidentally, seems like the most level-headed and intelligent member of the bunch--credit for terminating his relationship, though he never should have had it to begin with, at least not without disclosing it to his viewers.

But at ESPN, it's pretty clear that journalistic integrity takes a significant back seat to promoting the network's programming schedule. Journalism, then, is merely a vehicle by which to advertise and increase the value of the rest of the company's assets--and increasingly, I'm afraid that's what journalism has become across the board.

[New York Times]  
(h/t reader Ted)

It's not easy to save the world

I wrote a post here recently about charity (specifically, on incentives vs. grants), and in the wake of the Super Bowl, I've come across another interesting item that falls in the same basic category. Once again, there is some question as to what might be the best (or at least, most efficient) way of donating to charitable causes.

Every year before the Super Bowl (and other large sporting events, I'd imagine), officially licensed t-shirt producers print up two batches of "Super Bowl Champions" shirts, one for each participant in the game. The winning team's shirts are sold and/or given to the winning players, while the losing team's unfortunate shirts are shipped to Africa by an intermediary. As a Patriots fan, it's a process I'm all too familiar with:

This donation seems like a nice and charitable use for what would otherwise be wasted textiles, but according to guest poster Dean Karlan at the Freakonomics Blog, it's not quite that simple.
The Super Bowl stirred up an old controversy in the international aid community.  What happens to all those preprinted “Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 Super Bowl Champion” t-shirts?  Apparently, each year the NFL gives them to the international relief and development organization World Vision, who then ships them to Africa.
Is this good or bad? And why should anyone care?
This is not the first time these questions have been asked. Less than a year ago, [web entrepreneur] Jason Sadler planned to send a million t-shirts to Africa, only to be bombarded by scathing criticism from the aid blogosphere...
Opponents argue that sending shirts destroys local textile economies by flooding the market with free goods and undercutting local t-shirt producers. World Vision responds by saying something to the tune of, “but we spread it out.” That is kind of like arguing that something bad is okay if you do it in small enough doses to lots of people (rather than a large dose to a few people). Of course, such arguments don’t hold water: bad is bad, even if marginally so.
I think World Vision might have a better defense. They could argue that critics of the annual t-shirt migration (or at least all the critics I’ve heard) are thinking about the wrong counterfactual. The choice is not between (a) doing nothing — which, critics infer, would leave Africans to produce and sell 100,000 new t-shirts — and (b) shipping 100,000 t-shirts to Africa. Rather, the choice is between (a) selling the t-shirts in the U.S. as rags (or novelty souvenirs for delusional Steelers fans) and then sending to Africa the proceeds plus the money that would have been spent on shipping, or (b) shipping 100,000 t-shirts to Africa.
In other words, the NFL surely isn’t going to pay local producers to make 100,000 t-shirts after the Super Bowl. That option is not on the table. So in the end, the t-shirt migration has one pro and two cons, and we have no real data to tell us what to do. The pro: some people in Africa get some t-shirts, and hopefully those people extract some value from the t-shirts (either by wearing them or by selling them). The first con: market prices for t-shirts may go lower in Africa, and this adversely affects some. The second con: there may simply be a better way, such as selling the t-shirts in the US and sending the profits, as in (a) above.
Because of a lack of reliable data, Karlan is unable to go much farther in his analysis, leaving us to grapple with an open-ended question. As in my previous case of incentives vs. grants, it's not completely clear whether our "charity" is in fact doing more good than harm.

In attempting to devise a proper charitable program, these are exactly the kinds of questions that must be answered, and yet they're the most difficult ones to decipher. It is indeed difficult to save the world, even if our hearts are in the right place. So, as Dean Karlan did before me, I'll ask you: what do you think? Is it better to try and do harm than never to have tried at all?

[Freakonomics Blog]

Monday, February 14, 2011

The strange drug/surgery dichotomy

I've dabbled in the realm of health care here before, most notably when I discussed the explosion of the prescription drug industry and its somewhat questionable benefits. I thought it was pertinent, then, to give some mention here to this item from the University of Michigan's Risk Science Blog, which cited a JAMA study that found that many women have undergone unnecessary surgeries in futile attempts to help cure their breast cancer.
It has long been believed that women diagnosed with breast cancer should have “sentinel” lymph nodes near the affected breast checked to see if cancer has spread to them. If cancerous cells were found, standard practice was to have surgery to remove many nodes near the breast and under the arm. This procedure was supposed to help prevent the spread of cancer throughout the body. However, it comes with significant side effects, including infection and lymphedema, a type of chronic and often painful swelling.
In the JAMA study, however, researchers found that some women with early stage breast cancer gained no survival benefit from removal of the lymph nodes even though cancer had been found in the lymphatic system. This finding sparked a wave of publicity, including an insightful Room for Debate feature in the New York Times that included 7 authors’ perspectives on whether American surgeons promote unnecessary surgery.
I have no doubt that many of the issues raised by the New York Times commentators are important. Surgeons do have financial incentives, established practices, and natural responses to clinical uncertainty that lead them to suggest surgery in some cases where there is no clinical evidence to support such an action.
Yet, I think we also need to acknowledge that we, the public, also contribute to overuse of surgical procedures. We do not often complain when our doctor recommends surgery. Many times, in fact, I think patients are relieved when a doctor suggests surgery. We trust that the physical act of cutting out a cancerous tumor, fusing vertebrea in our back, or replacing an aging hip will “fix” our problems. We do not stop to consider whether other approaches might work just as well or better. We do not worry about the fact that someone will cut us open and potentially cause us pain and expose us to significant complication risks.
In the world of drugs, at least, several rounds of famously onerous clinical trials are required before a medication can be brought to market. This process guarantees that a drug has at least displayed some efficacy before it is put into widespread use. But there is no such process for vetting and approving experimental surgical procedures, and patients are therefore given drastically fewer safeguards when the surgical option is proposed.

I'll admit that my ignorance of the health care world makes me unable to go to much farther in my analysis, lest I say (or accuse or criticize) something that is not fully true. But I nevertheless find it unsettling that a relatively cheap and non-invasive procedure like a medication can be subject to a world of regulation, while a much more expensive and invasive surgical procedure can be put into practice nearly on a whim, with little scientific evidence to support it.

I have to wonder if this dynamic is at least in part to blame for our skyrocketing medical costs. How many people have undergone an expensive but unnecessary surgical procedure, taxing our medical community (and the insurance community) for no tangible benefit? It's an almost unanswerable question, especially because it is impossible to decide what is a "necessary" as opposed to an "unnecessary" surgery.

If any of you out there have any insight as to why there is this strange dichotomy between drug approval and surgical procedure approval, I'd be interested to hear more. These are exactly the kinds of questions that must be answered if we are ever to have meaningful health care reform (which, of course, is a much larger question, isn't it?)

[Risk Science Blog]
(h/t Overcoming Bias)

Happy Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day to all you lovers out there. I've always thought of Valentine's Day as an interesting holiday, cherished by many as the most romantic of all days, but derided by others as the Hallmarkiest of Hallmark holidays. Having been married for over three years, I must admit that Valentine's Day now takes a pretty significant back seat to my wedding anniversary when it comes to important romantic holidays, but I nevertheless take the opportunity to show some gesture of my love and gratitude.

In anticipation of the big day, the New York Times published an interesting article over the weekend, studying the practice of gift-giving in relationships (both on February 14 and other days generally) and whether it correlates with successful long-term relationships. It's a difficult article to excerpt, but I'll give it my best shot.
As if we needed another sign that Valentine’s Day is getting awfully expensive, the coupon Web sites [LivingSocial, Groupon] have now gotten into the game...
These group buying sites may be trying to strike decent bargains for users. But now that so many people subscribe to their e-mails, gift givers have to be playing a weird psychic game with themselves. Will he know I used a Groupon? Will she think less of me for doing so? Cut-rate romance feels somehow wrong, so plenty of people simply pay up. It’s a special day, after all.
Once you head down that road, however, it’s hard not to feel like a sucker, swept up in the frenzy of an occasion that might not have endured were it not for the Hallmark crowd. After all, there is something kind of pathetic about having to designate a day to be good to your mate. Still, we dutifully participate in this mass ritual of public devotion, paying extra for the prix fixe while packed elbow to elbow with others when it would be way more romantic to have a great restaurant mostly to ourselves the next night.
It all seems wrong somehow. So I set out to prove that successful couples have gotten wise to all the fuss and spend less on gifts for one another as time passes. No such luck, alas. The data does not seem to exist. What I did discover, however, was that many of us were probably taking the wrong approach to quantifying our generosity in the first place. Long-term relationships do not survive without gifts, to be sure. But they are not the gifts you may think...
Many gifts are of the psychological and intangible sort. They range from simple empathy, affection and a catch-all category called “understanding,” to complex actions like sacrificing your career so your family can move to a city where a spouse or partner has a new and better job.
This is a useful construct during tough economic times. Worrying about the gift-giving ritual is a high-class problem, after all. But if you count yourselves among the working (or nonworking) class and can’t afford to buy many gifts, it sure seems as if there are still plenty of gifts you can give...
This maps exactly, it turns out, to some of the findings of Terri Orbuch, a professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan who leads a continuing study of married couples that dates to the mid-1980s. “Romance and passion is all about using the elements of surprise and the elements of newness,” she said. “That’s what couples say, and that’s what I’ve found in the research.”
So practice random acts of generosity, whether it’s with traditional gifts or more psychic ones. And if you and your better half want to partake in this national ritual of devotion, it certainly can’t hurt.
But it probably isn’t necessary, either.
Yeah, I ended up excerpting more than I'd planned, but I think it's an interesting article. There's significant discussion in the article as to the difference between courtship and marriage, and how gestures of gift-giving change (or don't change) over time. My wife and I have certainly dialed back the "spending money" type of gift-giving over the years (especially since we combined our finances when we got married), but we've probably stepped it up in terms of the intangible gifts.

From a personal standpoint--and recognizing that all relationships are different--I don't think our relationship has suffered much because I don't buy her flowers every February like clockwork. In all honesty, I think the concept of buying her flowers on a random Tuesday in April seems much more romantic. But that certainly doesn't mean I should (or do) ignore Valentine's Day entirely. It can be a difficult balance to strike, but relationships (especially romantic relationships) are all about striking difficult balances.

It's never easy to know how much gift-giving is too much or not enough, especially when the answer might--and often does--change over time. But we certainly shouldn't assume that spending more on Valentine's Day is sufficient to support a good relationship. Now get out there and buy some flowers and chocolate, cheapskate.

[New York Times]

Friday, February 11, 2011

Feigned outrage is the worst kind of outrage

Yes, the Drudge Report is famously alarmist in nature, but when I read the headline "REPORT: Navy Spends $450K on Closed Roof Superbowl Flyover", it nevertheless piqued my interest. It definitely caught my eye on Sunday when the (butchered) pre-Super Bowl national anthem was followed by a fly-over, despite the fact that the roof to Cowboys Stadium was closed. The concept seemed a little silly to me, but then, there were a whole lot more people watching that game on TV than in the stadium, so more people saw the fly-over than missed it.

But the more I thought about Drudge's headline, the more upset I got. His attempt to spark outrage among anti-federalist conservatives is a hack move, and it fails the sniff test on a number of counts. First of all, $450k is a number that sounds large to most of us (and it is, for our personal budgets), but one that is in fact minuscule when we consider the massive size of our national budget (and deficit). Our cognitive dissonance in this regard is well explored in this video, which is an old classic:

Drudge is taking advantage of our psychological inclinations here, overblowing a story to make it seem indicative of a culture of wasteful government spending. (In fairness, he didn't write the article, The Daily Mail did, but his linking to it without any further explanation makes him nonetheless culpable).

The concept of government waste may have something to it, and it probably does. But we're not going to balance our budget simply by trimming some fat here and there, as is a common misconception--the deficit (and debt) is simply too large to be explained away by "government inefficiency". Furthermore, the more you chip away at this "REPORT", the less meat there is to it.

In my former life as a sports marketer, I helped to arrange and coordinate multiple fly-overs at sporting events. There is in fact a well-developed process for doing so, and it almost always involves rerouting a training flight for a local branch of the military--that is to say, no (or few) additional dollars are spent for sports arena flyovers. The planes are simply diverted from one patch of airspace to another, flying over Cowboys Stadium instead of flying over random non-descript land in eastern Texas. (Yes, these planes came from Virginia and not the Dallas area, which seems a bit strange, but the additional fuel costs to cover those 1,000 miles really don't move the needle much in terms of "wasteful spending".) As the Naval Air Force spokesman quoted in the Daily Mail article noted,
"These missions are included in the annual operating budget of all branches of the military and they are used as training... There was no additional money provided to us - Congress did not cut us a special cheque to do this flyover. This is considered a training mission whether they were to fly over the Super Bowl or not."
That last point, even more so than the cognitive dissonance point, is what makes this "news item" such a glaring example of bad journalism. The $450k is--for the most part--an accounting trick, a phantom "expense", newsworthy only on the merits of a technicality. If the headline had instead said "REPORT: Navy spends $450k on pilot training exercise", would anyone have cared? Of course not. But by twisting around the facts and perverting the accounting, Drudge and the Daily Mail have created a story where there was none. That sort of behavior is exactly what has dragged our political rhetoric so far down into the mud, and it simply needs to stop. Happy Friday.

[Daily Mail]

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Clip of the Week

Alright, this was a fairly loaded week for video clips, especially since there was a Super Bowl (with plenty of commercials) on Sunday. Given my focus last week on those Super Bowl ads, it was hard for me to pass up this ad, from the NFL itself, especially with its brief nod to The Simpsons.

But I'm a sucker for sports videos, and for anything that mesmerizes me, and this video from UConn (backup) quarterback Johnny McEntee qualifies on both counts. This guy is either the best college backup QB in history, or he has the most patient cameraman ever. (Yeah... it's the latter... college kids have way too much time on their hands.)

But whatever. It amused me, so I'm giving it the honor of this week's Clip of the Week.

The fuel economy puzzle

After yesterday's post about incentivizing gym-goers, a friend and reader tipped me off to this TED video (you know how much I love those) featuring Harvard professor Sendhil Mullainathan, the behavioral economist whose teachings were the inspiration for the gym incentive program. In the video (which is worth watching if you've got time), the professor raised an interesting paradox that had me scratching my head all night because it just seemed so wrong.

The puzzle involves fuel efficiency, and it's particularly pertinent to me at the moment since my wife and I are currently in the market for a new car. To paraphrase the professor...
Consider two car-buying customers. Customer A, a conscientious environmentalist, walks into a Toyota dealership prepared to buy a Toyota Yaris, with a fuel economy estimated at 35 miles per gallon. At the last minute, Customer A changes his mind and decides to go with the more fuel-efficient choice, the Prius, improving his fuel economy to a fantastic 50 miles per gallon.
Customer B, on the other hand, walks into a Hummer dealership (yeah, I know, Hummer's been discontinued, but stay with me here), prepared to buy himself a brand new fully-loaded Hummer with its gas-guzzling 9 miles per gallon fuel "efficiency". Like Customer A, he makes a last-second switch, passing up the Hummer's turbo engine for its more fuel-efficient cousin, thereby improving his Hummer's fuel economy to 11 miles per gallon.
So, with their respective last-minute decisions, which customer has done more to save fuel and end our nation's dependence on foreign oil? Our hippie friend, with his increase from 35 to 50 MPG, or our lead-footed Hummer-driving clod, with his measly increase from 9 to 11 MPG?
The counter-intuitive answer (which you probably already know, otherwise I wouldn't have brought it up), is our gas-guzzling, booze-swilling, chest-thumping friend, Customer B.
Don't believe me? I initially didn't believe it myself, either--after all, even in percent terms, Customer A has clearly made a bigger improvement, increasing his fuel economy by 43% as opposed to Customer B's 22%. But let's walk through this.

Assume both customers exhibit average driving tendencies, and drive 12,000 miles in a year. For Customer A, the Yaris would require about 343 gallons of gas over the course of the year. With the Prius, that number decreases to 240 gallons, a savings of 103 gallons. Customer B, on the other hand, with his 9 MPG Hummer, would require a staggering 1,333 gallons of gas in a year. His switch to the 11 MPG option reduces that number to 1,091 gallons, a savings of 242 gallons (enough to fuel Customer A's new Prius for the whole year).

Clearly we'd like everyone to be like Customer A and buy a fuel-efficient car, but in isolation, Customer B has done more in a split second to reduce our nation's fuel requirements than Customer A ever could. The problem, ultimately, is one of metrics--that is to say, we're looking at the wrong metric to make our decision. More specifically, we're looking at the reciprocal of the right metric.

To gauge true fuel efficiency, the more important metric is not the generally accepted miles per gallon (MPG), but actually gallons per mile (GPM), which measures how much fuel we'll actually require to drive our necessary mileage. When we consider that metric, we see that Customer A has improved his GPM from .029 to .02 (a decrease of .009), while Customer B has improved his GPM from .111 to .091 (a decrease of .02, more than double Customer A's improvement). Looking at the right metric enables us to view the problem correctly, whereas the answer to the puzzle was counter-intuitive using our usual measures--our metrics misled us.

I threw together the chart above to show the problem visually. From that graph, you can see clearly that improving fuel efficiency exhibits diminishing returns--that is to say, the improvement from 9 to 11 MPG counts more than the improvement from 11 to 13 MPG, and so forth. By the time we've gotten down to the tail end of the curve where our friend Customer A lives, there's really not much he can do to improve his impact--he's already gotten the easy gains.

This kind of a problem can have significant implications for public policy (and for our personal decisions). Those who already agonize over fuel economy aren't the problem--assuming they are driving cars above 20-25 MPG already, there's little they can do to help. Even a doubling of their MPG would only save a tiny bit.

What we need to do is get the people who aren't currently worried about fuel efficiency to recognize that small changes by them can indeed make a big difference. Nobody else is capable of doing the heavy lifting that they are, as the chart shows. Therefore, if we were to introduce a minimum allowable MPG of 11 or 12 for all vehicles (which should be a reasonable goal), we could do much more good from a fuel efficiency standpoint than introducing a Chevy Volt or a Nissan Leaf or a 100 MPG super-Prius could ever do. It's a vexing problem, but an interesting one to chew on.

(h/t reader Emily)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Gyms experiment with incentivization

Given my obvious interest in obsession with the topic of incentives, I was interested by this Boston Globe article (a couple of weeks old, but new to me).
Every year, we resolve to hit the gym more often and get fit. And by the end of January, many of us have missed workouts or given up altogether.
According to Yifan Zhang, a 2010 graduate of Harvard College, part of the problem is that customers see gym membership fees as money spent, or “a sunk cost, especially if you pay at the beginning of the year.’’ That prompted the idea for Gym-Pact in Boston, which she created with Harvard classmate Geoff Oberhofer.
Gym-Pact offers what Zhang calls motivational fees — customers agree to pay more if they miss their scheduled workouts, literally buying into a financial penalty if they don’t stick to their fitness plans. The concept arose from Zhang’s behavioral economics class at Harvard, where professor Sendhil Mullainathan taught that people are more motivated by immediate consequences than by future possibilities.
Zhang and Oberhofer translated that principle to workout motivation. If missing a workout cost people money, they’d be more motivated to stick with it, they thought.
In general, I tend to think that people respond more powerfully to incentives (positive inducements) than they do to punishments (negative impacts)--hence the proliferation of white-collar crime. But the immediacy dynamic that is cited in this piece is interesting and important--people respond to incentives most powerfully when the payoff is immediate, less so when it is delayed. That psychological tendency in large part describes the puzzle of why people (in general) do not work out more often.

I think that testing a concept like Gym-Pact suffers from some design problems (specifically, self-selection bias), given that it would take a very unique type of gym-goer to opt in to such a program. That is to say, the people most likely to choose to sign up for such a program are those who are most likely to remain vigilant about their workouts--a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. I'd be surprised if anyone who knew (or suspected) themselves to be lazy or fickle about their workout schedule would choose such a program, knowing that there was a high likelihood of a financial punishment. But it's an interesting concept nonetheless.

[Boston Globe]

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Quote of the Week

From what I've read, I think I can assume that we all watched the Super Bowl on Sunday night. Well, most of us, anyway. Of course, with the terrible weather in Dallas all week long leading up to the big game, it seems like it was a game best watched from many hundreds of miles away.

From the four hour taxi waits to the fan injuries from falling ice to the ticket debacle, it seems like Dallas was unprepared for this event in every regard. Gladly, Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl was here to sum it all up nicely for us.


By the sounds of it, Qatar hosting the World Cup might work out better than Dallas hosting the Super Bowl.
             - Grant Wahl; Sports Illustrated columnist

Well said. I've made my feelings about the 2022 Qatar World Cup fairly clear, and let's hope things can't go any worse than they did this past week in Dallas. But who am I kidding? Of course they will.


Uplifting news from the world of sports

The more I follow and pay attention to collegiate athletics, the more I think I should focus more on the low (or non) revenue-generating sports, rather than on the cash cows that football and basketball have become. Everything that I rail against the NCAA for seems to stem from those two sports, whereas the true unadulterated beauty and power of college sports--coaches as teachers and leaders, players as developing leaders, lessons in teamwork and sacrifice--often lies in the largely ignored sports like soccer, baseball, hockey, tennis, and volleyball.

It's not that the greatness of collegiate athletics can't be found in basketball and football, it's just that it's so brutally obscured and perverted by the temptation and power of big money that it's hard to even know whether a coach, player, or administrator is acting in a selfless or self-serving manner. As a season-ticket holder for (and former employee of) Virginia Baseball, I can attest that one of the things fans love most about the "smaller" sports is that they simply seem more pure--less preening for the cameras, more worrying about one's teammates, more genuine care and attention paid to the fans (especially the young children). Granted, many of these sports are supported financially by football and basketball, making the unsavory aspects of those sports a somewhat necessary evil, but the contrast is nonetheless striking.

Setting that aside--and stepping off my soapbox for a minute--reading this article this morning reminded me of everything that sports (college or otherwise) are supposed to be about. The news was a refreshing break from the infuriating articles that I always seem to read about recruiting violations and the like over in college football world.
Wake Forest freshman outfielder Kevin Jordan needed a kidney transplant. None of his family members was a suitable match for a donation.
That's when his baseball coach, Tom Walter, stepped in.
Both men are recovering at Emory Hospital in Atlanta after Walter donated a kidney to Jordan on Monday. One of the surgeons in the procedures, Dr. Kenneth Newell, said the operations went well and that both men are expected to make full recoveries.
"When we recruit our guys, we talk about family and making sacrifices for one another," Walter said before the operation. "It is something we take very seriously. I had the support of my family, Wake Forest and my team. To me it was a no-brainer."
Quite simply, this is the kind of story that I just can't begin to imagine reading with regards to a big-time college football coach (unless, of course, Cam Newton was the player in question).

But Kevin Jordan is far from Cam Newton. While he is indeed a solid player, he won't be playing for Wake Forest any time soon, as this article notes. Coach Walter notes that baseball concerns are secondary to Jordan's health.
"I think everybody's first goal is that Kevin can just have a normal life," Walter said. "I mean, forget the baseball part of it for now. If he gets back on the field, that's going to be the best story of all."
Just a great story from an impressive coach. I only wish that Wake Forest played Virginia this year, so that I could offer my applause to Coach Walter in person.

[Baseball America]

Update on an old theme

If you've been reading me for a while, you might remember my long-running diatribe against the various calls from Washington to brand China as a currency manipulator and to impose trade sanctions as punishment. That line of news went quiet for a while, in large part because the Treasury Department delayed its expected announcement on the matter indefinitely.

This past Friday, quietly, the Treasury finally made its long-awaited (long-forgotten?) statement, as Bloomberg notes.
The U.S. declined to brand China a currency manipulator while saying its No. 2 trading partner has made “insufficient” progress on allowing the yuan to rise.
China should follow through on President Hu Jintao’s commitments to allow more exchange-rate flexibility and boost domestic demand, the Treasury Department said in a report to Congress yesterday on foreign-exchange markets.
The yuan “remains substantially undervalued,” according to the report, which was originally due in October and says no major trading partner meets the legal standard of improperly manipulating its currency. “It is in China’s interest to allow the nominal exchange rate to appreciate more rapidly.”
Not surprisingly, some of the windbags in Washington still weren't convinced or satisfied.
Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat from New York, said Congress needs to take bolder action. “It’s as plain as the nose on your face that China manipulates its currency,” he said after the report was released. “It’s just as plain that the only way to address this problem is for Congress to act....
Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who has been among the lawmakers pushing for a tougher U.S. stance on the yuan, said the currency’s progress is “inadequate.” Senator Max Baucus criticized the “failure” of Treasury to label China a manipulator. Both senators called for Congress to act this year.
Of course, someone should probably remind Sen. Schumer that it's also as plain as the nose on his face that the House and the Senate are not, in fact, their own branches of the federal government--but I digress.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has certainly had his failings--on this issue and others--and I don't typically approve of much that he has done since taking his current position in January 2009. But on this topic, he certainly understands the dynamics at play much better than our cantankerous friends in the Senate, and he therefore recognizes the need to tread lightly. He has taken a measured approach with regard to China and its currency, which is the only rational course. Acting brashly and pounding our chest will only end in economic pain for our country one way or another, something that our Senators are still devastatingly slow to realize. Hopefully they will come around.


Monday, February 7, 2011

Is everything a remix?

This material isn't exactly new, but I just came across it and found it interesting and worth sharing. A few months back, self-described "writer, director, and producer" Kirby Ferguson started a web video series called "Everything is a Remix". The project has its basis in the concept that nearly all pop culture relies on a few simple themes and refrains, repackaged and repurposed and remixed to look like something different--"West Side Story" has the same basic plot as "Romeo & Juliet", "Clueless" is based on "Emma", the Blue Man Group is a total ripoff of the Smurfs... et cetera, ad nauseam.

At any rate, Part 1 of the series (posted below) was very well done, as is the recently-released Part 2.

As individuals and as a society, we always like to think of ourselves as unique, new, and important--hence the proliferation of "best (fill-in-the-blank) ever" (or "worst (fill-in-the-blank) ever") conversations and debates and lists. It can be humbling and somewhat depressing to admit that we are simply ordinary, or that we live in ordinary times--it is a perfectly human desire to at least want to be extraordinary.

I like to think of myself and my own life--my athletic accomplishments, my academic degrees, my job history--as unique, but all of my achievements are almost by definition derivative. At best, I am unique only in the specific ordering and packaging of those achievements--very little I have done is original, in fact (I'm certainly not the first hedge fund manager in history) or at least in theme (this blog, while "unique", is not realistically any different from anything that anyone has ever written before--the letters and words are just ordered differently and read by different people).

That recognition can be a very humbling thought, and it's not something that anyone seriously likes to think about. Thinking about it makes us feel small and insignificant in a world, universe, and history that is larger than we can possibly fathom. Since I've been sufficiently existential now for one day, I'll leave you to watch and ponder the video. Good talk.

[Everything is a Remix]

Am I the only one who missed this?

Like anything in politics, the latest maneuver out of Arizona is probably more posturing and smoke-and-mirrors than actual governance--style over substance as usual--but it nevertheless surprises me that it hasn't received more attention. From the Arizona Republic,
Members of the state Legislature, including Arizona's de facto governor, Senate President Russell Pearce, have introduced a bill that essentially would have Arizona secede from the union without having to do so officially.
It's called SB1433, (See it here.) It creates a 12-member committee within the legislature that could "vote by simple majority to nullify in its entirety a specific federal law or regulation that is outside the scope of the powers delegated by the people to the federal government…"
Committee members themselves would decide this, then pass along their recommendation to the full Legislature. If, in turn, a majority of state lawmakers go along with the committee then, according to the bill, "this state and its citizens shall not recognize or be obligated to live under the statute, mandate or executive order."
The nullification committee also would be permitted to review all existing federal laws to see if our legislative geniuses want to toss them out as well.
Basically, our friends in Arizona are trying to take it upon themselves to perform the duties that are Constitutionally delegated to our Supreme Court.

I am one of the first people to agree that our federal government has grown far beyond its original mandate, using the fine print of the Commerce Clause to legislate in areas that should probably be left to the states. However, our Constitution also enumerates a process for reviewing these laws, and that process certainly does not include a 12-member committee in Arizona. To subvert that process is to ignore the Constitution, and, as the Arizona Republic writer notes, to effectively secede.

In a different time, the proposal of a bill like this would have been scandalous enough to have generated a significant response across the country, possibly meaningful enough to have sparked a small-scale (if not outright) civil war. That it can fly so quietly below the radar, without much mention at all in the national media, shows just how far the level of discourse--not to mention political leadership--has fallen in our country. It may be apathy on the part of the citizens, or simply bad government across the board. But given recent events in Arizona, it surprises me greatly to see this kind of event escape notice.


Friday, February 4, 2011

More on Super Bowl ads

I posted yesterday about my favorite Super Bowl ads from the past couple of decades, and with Fox set to rake in about $300 million in ad sale revenues this Sunday, it was an appropriate time for the folks over at Slate to discuss banned Super Bowl commercials, and whether they might be a better business decision for the companies in question than actually running an ad during the game itself (spoiler alert: yup).

This dynamic adds another interesting angle to the way that social media and the internet is challenging the traditional advertising world, and more fundamentally reshaping the way that consumers relate with the brands whose products they buy.

Large, expensive, mass-media advertisements that generate massive amounts of impressions and raise general brand awareness are not the slam-dunk they were once perceived to be. In the age of Google AdSense and AdWords, targeted advertisements with high conversion rates are gaining a significant amount of traction. Super Bowl ads are still a lucrative business for the networks involved, but the higher the price tag, the more companies will start to look for other ways to get their customers' attention.

(h/t Deadspin)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Clip of the Week

Since it's Super Bowl week, and we all miss the days when Super Bowl commercials really were better than the game (which probably said more about the games back then than the commercials, but so be it), I thought I'd use this week's Clip of the Week to honor some of the best Super Bowl ads of all time.

I'm not old enough to remember Mean Joe Greene, so his commercial doesn't count, and neither does Troy Polamalu's remake. And there were a lot of good ones that didn't quite make the cut here--like this one, this one, this one, this one, and of course these ones.

But for me, there are two that clearly stand out above the pack.

First, there's this one, for its sheer stupidity and awesomeness. Also, its subtle poking fun at the insanity of the tech bubble and the massive amounts of wasted money earn it bonus points. Thirdly, monkeys.

Second, there's this one. Terry Tate needs no introduction.

Enjoy the game.