Wednesday, October 25, 2006


It's still early, but this may be the most disturbing thing I will read today:
Though poor and minority neighborhoods suffered the brunt of Katrina’s fury, residents living in white neighborhoods have been three times as likely as homeowners in black neighborhoods to seek state help in resolving insurance disputes, according to an Associated Press computer analysis.

Other Interesting Stuff from the October Atlantic Monthly

There were some other interesting articles in (at least the part that I read at the gym this morning) the October Atlantic Monthly.

Also from the primary sources page is this:

What makes a red state red, and a blue state blue? It’s the voting habits of their wealthiest residents, according to a study from Columbia University. Although the GOP has traditionally been considered the party of the wealthy and the Democrats the party of the poor, lately Republicans have tended to win in the poorer states in the interior of the country, while Democratic victories have been concentrated in the wealthier states along the East and West Coasts. This trend has led pundits to argue that the Republicans have developed a common touch, while the Democrats have become elitist and alienated from the masses—but actually, the study’s authors argue, the red-blue gap is best explained by the fact that rich people in poor states are much more likely to vote Republican than rich people in well-off states. In Mississippi, for example, there is a strong relationship between income and voting patterns: the wealthier the Mississippian, the more likely he or she is to pull the lever for a Republican presidential candidate. But as a state’s average income rises, the correlation between being wealthy and voting Republican disappears. In Connecticut, for instance, there is almost no connection between income and voting behavior: both the poor and the rich tend to vote for Democratic candidates.

—“Rich State, Poor State, Red State, Blue State: What’s the Matter With Connecticut?” A. Gelman, B. Shor, J. Bafumi, and D. Park, Columbia University

Also, Richard Florida, also has a longer piece on "Where the Brains Are" ($$) about the increasing concentration of highly educated people in a few "superstar" cities. Here is a key graphic:

Is self confidence harming our students?

I know it is only a short blurb from their "Primary Sources" page, but the October Atlantic Monthly included the following statement:

Motivational speakers may tell you to believe in yourself, but if you want to do well in school, you may be better off taking a more pessimistic attitude toward your own abilities.
accompanied by this graph:

I find this assertion somewhat distressing on a number of levels. First, the idea that there is a causal relationship between low self-confidence and better test scores is certainly not supported by the figure and, I seriously doubt, is supported by any solid evidence anywhere. Second, self-confidence is, by itself, a very good thing. It is an important part of individual's social capital, and many argue that American's high confidence levels promote entrepreneurism and economic growth. While I would much rather that the US looked more like Singapore (high confidence and high test scores), I view the fact that our students believe in themselves as a success for our education system and our society as a whole.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Man, Electronic Voting Machines Really Suck!

Is it really that hard to make sure that a candidate's last name appears on the ballot?:
U.S. Senate candidate James Webb's last name has been cut off on part of the electronic ballot used by voters in Alexandria, Falls Church and Charlottesville because of a computer glitch that also affects other candidates with long names, city officials said yesterday.

Although the problem creates some voter confusion, it will not cause votes to be cast incorrectly, election officials emphasized. The error shows up only on the summary page, where voters are asked to review their selections before hitting the button to cast their votes. Webb's full name appears on the page where voters choose for whom to vote.

Election officials attribute the mistake to an increase in the type size on the ballot. Although the larger type is easier to read, it also unintentionally shortens the longer names on the summary page of the ballot.

Thus, Democratic candidate Webb will appear with his first name and nickname only -- or "James H. 'Jim' "

Didn't the 2000 election teach election officials very clearly that confusion => votes being cast incorrectly?

Monday, October 23, 2006

The "Bryce Girl" Explained?

Back in college, my roomates decided that my preferences for blonde hair, blue-eyed girls was sufficiently consistent that they developed a term for the types of girls I was more attracted to -- the Bryce Girl. For the record, let me state that this does not mean that I only find these traits attractive, but, on average, I tend to notice these traits more than others. Anyhow, this article suggests that my blue-eyes may be responsible:
Blue-eyed men prefer blue-eyed women, apparently because eye color can help reveal whether their partner has been faithful, researchers said on Monday.


Under the laws of genetics, two parents with blue eyes will always have blue-eyed children, it said. So a blue-eyed man can know his blue-eyed wife or partner has cheated on him if their child has brown eyes.

“Blue-eyed men may have unconsciously learned to value a physical trait that can facilitate recognition of own kin,” the scientists said in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

The scientists asked 88 students to rate the attractiveness of models based on pictures manipulated so that half of them had blue eyes and the other half had brown eyes. The blue-eyed men in the group showed a preference for blue-eyed women.

But brown-eyed men, who cannot find any clues about paternity from a child’s eye color, had no preferences by eye color. Women showed no preference for brown- or blue-eyed men, irrespective of their own eye color.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Audacity of Hope

The last 7 minutes of this speech still give me chills:

I picked up Sen. Obama's new book in the airport yesterday. And while I am only halfway through, I will say that it is good. It is not particularly profound or anything, but it is a nice to know that someone in Washington thinks about issues in basically the same way I do (at least on the surface). And even just reading the first few chapters I felt inspired to do better and believed that American can do better. I am happy that he is considering running for President in 2008.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Something needs to be done ...

... to reverse the trend towards excessive coddling of children because it is getting pretty ridiculous and it cannot be good to not allow kids to be kids. Kids play tag. It is what they do. I would be willing to bet that if we went in to any society on Earth at any point in human history, we would find kids playing tag. However, at Willett Elementary School in Atteboro, MA (and apparently at schools Cheyenne and Spokane), you will not find kids playing tag. It (and all other contact games) have been banned.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


When we elect someone to Congress, essentially we are hiring them to make decisions on our behalf. There are more issues that each of us have time to consider in sufficient detail. As such, we hire people to investigate and contemplate various topics and then cast votes based on what they find out. Clearly, some members of Congress don't seem to understand their job:
Take Representative Terry Everett, a seven-term Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.

“Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” I asked him a few weeks ago.

Mr. Everett responded with a low chuckle. He thought for a moment: “One’s in one location, another’s in another location. No, to be honest with you, I don’t know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something.”

To his credit, he asked me to explain the differences. I told him briefly about the schism that developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and how Iraq and Iran are majority Shiite nations while the rest of the Muslim world is mostly Sunni. “Now that you’ve explained it to me,” he replied, “what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but that whole area.”

Representative Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican who heads a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.’s performance in recruiting Islamic spies and analyzing information, was similarly dumbfounded when I asked her if she knew the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.

“Do I?” she asked me. A look of concentration came over her face. “You know, I should.” She took a stab at it: “It’s a difference in their fundamental religious beliefs. The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa. But I think it’s the Sunnis who’re more radical than the Shia.”

Did she know which branch Al Qaeda’s leaders follow?

“Al Qaeda is the one that’s most radical, so I think they’re Sunni,” she replied. “I may be wrong, but I think that’s right.”

Did she think that it was important, I asked, for members of Congress charged with oversight of the intelligence agencies, to know the answer to such questions, so they can cut through officials’ puffery when they came up to the Hill?

“Oh, I think it’s very important,” said Ms. Davis, “because Al Qaeda’s whole reason for being is based on their beliefs. And you’ve got to understand, and to know your enemy.”
I think we may need to require Congresspeople to attend classes and pass tests before they can sit on committees because this is ridiculous.

Synthetic vs. Natural Happiness

Harvard psychologist, Dan Gilbert's (who I blogged about previously here) interesting talk about happiness. A teaser quote:

Freedom -- the ability to make up your mind and change your mind -- is the friend of natural happiness ..., but freedom to choose, to change and make up your mind, is the enemy of synthetic happiness.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Nice Ad

The Power of Incentives -- Political Polemic Edition

The standard Republican response to various scandals the past few weeks has been to "question the timing" of the revelations. E.g.,

Conservative religious leaders described themselves as shocked yesterday by a new book's charge that Bush administration staffers privately dismissed evangelical Christian political activists as "nuts" and "goofy." James Dobson, Charles W. Colson and other stalwarts of the conservative Christian movement defended the Bush administration and questioned the timing of the book's publication, a month before the midterm elections.
I don't really understand this defense. The logic for this argument seems to be that the revelation of any new information near an election is politically motivated and therefore not credible. I think this is wrong. The timing of such revelations are far more likely to be economically motivated than politically motivated. If you were a supplier of new politically relevant information (particularly a book publisher) wouldn't you wait and enter the market when demand for your product was high?

Regardless of whether or not revelations are politically or economically motivated, the fact that information suppliers respond to incentives does not tell us anything about the quality of the information. Certainly, people face political and economic incentives to lie near elections; however, suppliers of good information also face strong incentives near elections. So, while the quantity of low quality information increases near elections, the quality of high quality information also increases. The fact that the this information was revealed near an election tells us very little about its expected quality.

What's up with NJ?

Readers of this blog are well aware that OR and NJ are the only to states that don't have self-service gas station. Political advertising (here in MA) just informed me that NJ is also one of three states that prohibits the sale of wine in grocery stores (MA and ND are the others). I wonder what else is prohibited in NJ. I'd like to see a list of rare, but easily noticed regulations in order to see where NJ stacks up.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Free Hugs!

Any walk through Harvard Square almost certainly produces at least one solicitation for spare change, for the Spare Change newspaper, to sign something, to give money to the DNC (funny how you don't see the RNC out there), or something. This evening, though, the solicitors were replaced by a girl (probably a freshman) seemingly giving something away ... hugs. She was just standing there near the Pit with a bright orange sign stating simply, "FREE HUGS." As people walked by, if they didn't respond to the sign, she would ask, "would you like a hug?" I'd never seen something like this before, so I stopped and observed for 5 minutes. During the 5 minutes I watched, the girl managed to give away 12 hugs (it seemed like she was trying to give them away, but I guess one could argue that she was actually soliciting the hugs). Most people just ignored her or shied away, but the 12 people who engaged her seemed quite happy to give/receive the hugs (and it was roughly 50-50 men-women huggers). So it seemed like she was successful at boosting the collective mood of those passing through the Square.

The Evolution Of Beauty

While, I am well aware that such manipulations take place. It is still surprising to see how much one can do to change one's appearance.

I am curious, though, what the real effects of this stuff are. Does the fact that magazines, television, etc. are populated with people who are "artificially" pretty encourage lots of people to invest more than they would otherwise trying to "keep up"? If so, does the economy gain as a result of these efforts or is this all part of an massively inefficient system? That is, what benefits offset these potentially growing costs?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What are the benefits ...

... that justifed these costs?
A team of American and Iraqi epidemiologists estimates that 655,000 more people have died in Iraq since coalition forces arrived in March 2003 than would have died if the invasion had not occurred.

I am not an expert in these types of studies, but the methodology seems sound (assuming that they actually got a representative random sample, people correctly remember when family members died, and that we assume that Iraq would have stayed on the pre-war trend in the absense of the invasion -- all of which seem reasonable to me). Here's the discussion of what they did:

The survey was conducted between May 20 and July 10 by eight Iraqi physicians organized through Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. They visited 1,849 randomly selected households that had an average of seven members each. One person in each household was asked about deaths in the 14 months before the invasion and in the period after.

The interviewers asked for death certificates 87 percent of the time; when they did, more than 90 percent of households produced certificates.

According to the survey results, Iraq's mortality rate in the year before the invasion was 5.5 deaths per 1,000 people; in the post-invasion period it was 13.3 deaths per 1,000 people per year. The difference between these rates was used to calculate "excess deaths."

Of the 629 deaths reported, 87 percent occurred after the invasion. A little more than 75 percent of the dead were men, with a greater male preponderance after the
invasion. For violent post-invasion deaths, the male-to-female ratio was 10-to-1, with most victims between 15 and 44 years old.

Gunshot wounds caused 56 percent of violent deaths, with car bombs and other explosions causing 14 percent, according to the survey results. Of the violent deaths that occurred after the invasion, 31 percent were caused by coalition forces or airstrikes, the respondents said.

Burnham said that the estimate of Iraq's pre-invasion death rate -- 5.5 deaths per 1,000 people -- found in both of the Hopkins surveys was roughly the same estimate used by the CIA and the U.S. Census Bureau. He said he believes that attests to the accuracy of his team's results.

He thinks further evidence of the survey's robustness is that the steepness of the upward trend it found in excess deaths in the last two years is roughly the same tendency found by other groups -- even though the actual numbers differ greatly.

An independent group of researchers and biostatisticians based in England produces the Iraq Body Count. It estimates that there have been 44,000 to 49,000 civilian deaths since the invasion. An Iraqi nongovernmental organization estimated 128,000 deaths between the invasion and July 2005.

The survey cost about $50,000 and was paid for by Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for International Studies.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Inner Life of The Cell

This is pretty sweet:

In case you are interested, Brad Delong has assembled various comments on what is happening in the video.

A Classic

A classic Daily Show clip.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Decline in Teacher Quality

Back in May, I posted about the hypothesized decline in teacher quality resulting from improved labor market opportunities for women. The Freakonomics blog points me to new research on this topic by Marigee Bacolod. Her conclusions:
This paper brought together several data sources to document a clear change in the composition of women who chose to teach between 1960 and 1990. Teacher performance on standardized exams declined, markedly so among women, relative to previous cohorts of teachers and to professionals in their own cohort. Female prospective teachers were also increasingly being drawn from less selective institutions. Measures of quality using positive assortative mating traits further illustrate the decline in teacher quality. While declining proportions of high quality women did not choose teaching, increasing proportions joined the professions.

Changes in alternative labor market opportunities for females and blacks are linked to the marked decline in teacher quality. Results show that the lower teachers were paid relative to professionals, the less likely high-quality educated women were to choose to teach. High-quality teachers are particularly more sensitive to changes in relative teacher wages. These findings suggest that as alternative opportunities improved for women and blacks over this period, fewer chose to teach, and fewer among those who taught were of high quality.

While changes in female labor markets appear to be the major source of the decline in teacher quality, additional explanations are also likely. Other potential explanations not explored here include women’s admittance to professional programs, their increased access to credit markets for loans to pursue skill acquisition and even access to the pill, as well as unionization in teaching and deunionization in non-teaching, and the general rise in skill returns. It is more likely that an interaction of overall economic, demographic, and institutional factors account for the decline in teacher quality.
Here are a couple of interesting tables from the paper that show the decline in the fraction of women with high test scores (and the rise of teachers with low test scores) who became teachers:

And the fact that women who are teachers are less likely to be married to high wage men:

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Harvard Stereotypes

Much of the time, Harvard students fail to resemble the Harvard stereotype. Occasionally, though, they really do go above and beyond. Here is an email exchange from one of the house lists.

First, something from the Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisor:
?What will cure my hangover??

Sorry, we don?t have a silver bullet. But there IS a bad bullet: Tylenol. Don?t take it after drinking. Tylenol(acetaminophen) can react with the alcohol and seriously damage your liver.

It's also dangerous to drink alcohol if you're taking any medication that makes you sleepy (i.e. cough medicine, antihistamines, sleeping pills). The depressant qualities of the medication and alcohol can severely impair your motor skills and even suppress respiration.

A chemist's response:

I think just for fun I'll weigh in. While consuming alcohol and tylenol sequentially in either order is a horrible idea, acetaminophen does not react with ethanol (but it is soluble in ethanol for those that care).

Acetaminophen is metabolized via three different routes, and a small amount (ca. 5%) is metabolized by one of the cytochromes (can't remember which one *cough* premed tutors, which one?). The product of this initial oxidation is N-acetylbenzoquinonimine, and our chem17/chem30 veterans can attest to the electrophilicity of this fun compound (or can't you....). Living tissue + strong electrophile = dead tissue. Buildup of the benzoquionimine in the liver tissueis, as far as this humble chemist is aware, the origin of acetaminophen hepatotoxicity. Of course, the benzoquinonimineis rapidly dealt with by conjugation with glutathione. Ethanol competes with acetaminophen for interaction with thecytochrome, resulting in benzoquinonimine buildup, glutathione depletion, and therefore, increased toxicity of acetaminophen at low dosage, and increased incidence of liver damage.

Bottom line, don't drink and then take tylenol thinking you'll avoid a headache. But acetaminophen does not react with ethanol.

I shall put my soapbox away for now.


Please tell me there is something else going on that's not being reported in this story:

FRISCO, Texas -- An award-winning Texas art teacher who was reprimanded after one of her fifth-grade students saw a nude sculpture during a trip to a museum has lost her job.

The school board in Frisco has voted not to renew Sydney McGee's contract after 28 years. She has been on administrative leave.

The teacher took her students on an approved field trip to a Dallas museum, and now some parents are upset.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Will this work?

George Clooney continues to try and attack the tabloid market. His latest plan is to saturate the market with gossip. He wants to:
spend every single night for three months going out with a different famous actress. You know, Halle Berry one night, Salma Hayek the next, and then walk on the beach holding hands with Leonardo DiCaprio.

People would still buy the magazines, they'd still buy the pictures, but they would always go, `I don't know if these guys were putting us on or not.'
This strategy is similar to his plan to foil Gawker Stalker's posting celeb sightings. There he just wanted to post a bunch of fake sightings. I thought this approach seemed good. I wrote back in April:
This seems like a winning strategy. Celebrities get their names out (which is their goal) and/or render the information provided by these sites essentially useless.

Can a similar approach work with tabloids?

In economics terms, Clooney's basic approach is to increase the supply of gossip and photos, but in a way that doesn't lend itself to a believable narrative (essentially lowering the quality of the gossip). As I discussed in the previous post, I like the idea of increasing supply; however, I am not sure if trying to confuse people will help Clooney achieve his objective of more privacy. It is possible that deliberate attempts to confuse gossip consumers might lead them to reduce their demand (people demand less of low quality goods). This strategy could backfire, though, because editors and paparazzi now face strong incentives to get the "real" story and devote more resources to prying into Mr. Clooney's life.

While I am interested in knowing which of these effects is larger, I think celebrities can increase their privacy more reliably by simply increasing the supply of photos and gossip from their real lives (or by leading a boring life so that there is little demand for gossip about you).

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Refresher Course

As Sen. Clinton said last week, "We are not bound together as a nation by bloodlines. We are not bound by ancient history; our nation is a new nation. Above all, we are bound by our values." Many of our values are clearly stated in the Bill of Rights, so in case you've forgotten what those are -- here's a reminder:

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III
No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Amendment VI
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
Amendment VII
In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

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