Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Does TV Cause Autism? Can Variation in Rain in Oregon Tell Us the Answer?

An interesting article on using instrumental variables in today's WSJ.

I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and, Gosh Darn It, People Like Me

Today's college students are really full of themselves:
Today’s college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors, according to a comprehensive new study by five psychologists who worry that the trend could be harmful to personal relationships and American society.


[The authors], in findings to be presented at a workshop Tuesday in San Diego on the generation gap, examined the responses of 16,475 college students nationwide who completed an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006.

The standardized inventory, known as the NPI, asks for responses to such statements as “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place,” “I think I am a special person” and “I can live my life any way I want to.”

The researchers describe their study as the largest ever of its type and say students’ NPI scores have risen steadily since the current test was introduced in 1982. By 2006, they said, two-thirds of the students had above-average scores, 30 percent more than in 1982.

I will avoid commentary drawing on my experiences teaching this group, and simply say that this is an interesting trend.

Some other interesting tidbits from the article:
The study asserts that narcissists “are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors.”

anybody watch "The Hills" last night, or ever?
The new report follows a study released by UCLA last month which found that nearly three-quarters of the freshmen it surveyed thought it was important to be “very well-off financially.” That compared with 62.5 percent who said the same in 1980 and 42 percent in 1966.
I am curious if (a) this is actually an effect of the self-esteem movement (as opposed to a result of the changing composition of the college student population overtime, changes in economic conditions like rising inequality, or changes in society related to technology) and (b) if the self-esteem movement is responsible, has it had similar effects on those who are not enrolling in college. It seems to me that its these people who actually are the most likely to benefit from efforts to boost self-esteem. It would be sad if self-esteem inequality (like income inequality) has simply increased as people who already were likely to have high self-esteem got pushed to even higher levels.

Monday, February 26, 2007

What's Going on with Job Satisfaction?

A recent survey of 5000 people by The Conference Board concludes:

Americans are growing increasingly unhappy with their jobs, The Conference Board reports today. The decline in job satisfaction has occurred over a period of two decades, with little to suggest a significant reversal in attitudes anytime soon.

Today, less than half of all Americans say they are satisfied with their jobs, down from 61 percent twenty years ago.

However, last year, a study by the PEW center found:
Nearly nine-in-ten employed adults in this survey say they are either completely (28%) or mostly (61%) satisfied with their own jobs, a level of satisfaction on par with findings from similar national surveys taken in 1989 and 1997.
While I do not know the exact question asked in the first survey, I can't imagine that differences in questions wording can create differences of this magnitude. For instance, imagine that the first survey asked people to indicate if they were satisfied or dissatisfied (instead of the three choices in the PEW survey). In this case, we have to believe that the majority of people who indicate being mostly satisfied with their jobs would indicate being dissatisfied if only given a binary choice. Does that seem reasonable?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Mmmm ... Twinkies

Food writer Steve Ettlinger has written a book tracing all 39 ingredients of a Hostess Twinkie to their origins. Twinkies say alot about American food culture, and Ettlingers fundamental question in "Twinkies, Deconstructed" is a good one:

At the heart of the book is the fundamental question: why is it you can bake a cake at home with as few as six ingredients, but Twinkies require 39? And why do many of them seem to bear so little resemblance to actual food? The answer: To stay fresh on a grocery-store shelf, Twinkies can't contain anything that might spoil, like milk, cream or butter. Once you remove such real ingredients, something has to take their place—and cellulose gum, lecithin and sodium stearoyl lactylate are a good start. Add the fact that industrial quantities of batter have to pump easily through automated tubes into cake molds, and you begin to get the idea.

Friday, February 23, 2007

I Can't Believe It!

I am actually bummed that the Blazer game isn't on TV tonight.

When I was little, I used to listen to Bill Schonely call Blazer games on the radio as I went to sleep. When the games were exciting, I would play along in the dark in my room -- draining jump shots and acrobatic lay-ups using rolled up socks and an imaginary hoop above my door. The late-80s and early 90s team built around Clyde "the Glide" Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams, and Kevin Duckworth dominated most sports conversation among my friends.

In June of 2000, I was bouncing around my house in Somerville. The Blazers were dominating the Lakers at the end of the third quarter in game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. 15 minutes and a mediocre Indiana team were all that stood in the way of their NBA championship since I was 1. During the fourth quarter the Blazers missed like every shot they took and lost to the hated Kobe-Shaq Lakers.

The loss alone was awful (I think only game 7 of the 2003 ALCS was worse for me personally); however, the 6+ years since absolutely devastated Blazer fans. The Blazers missed the playoffs for the first time since I was like 7, become an embarrassment to the community and a laughing-stock of the sports world known as the Jail Blazers, and finally finished with the worst record in the NBA last season.

This year, though, the Blazers are actually interesting again. They are still not a great team, but they have almost completely rid themselves of the Jail Blazer head cases -- replacing them with several interesting young players (like future rookie of the year Brandon Roy) and several players with ties to the local area (Portland native, the surprising Ime Udoka, Vancouver (WA) native Dan Dickau, Washingtonians Roy and Martell Webster, and, now, Gresham-native, UO alum, and 2004 Slam-Dunk Champion Freddie Jones). Most importantly, with Roy, they actually play something that resembles basketball.

So, even though they playing Memphis, I am bummed that the game isn't on (leading me to watch a lame Wizards-Bulls game while I revise an article I am writing).

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The thermometer says it 34 degrees, but I disagree

Last month, the PEW Research Center published the findings of a recent survey of attitudes toward global warming. I thought a couple of their findings were, um, interesting (maybe disturbing is a better term).

First, there's this:
The survey finds deep differences between Republicans and Democrats -- and within both political parties -- over virtually every issue related to global warming. These disagreements extend even to the question of whether the earth is getting warmer. Just 54% of conservative Republicans say there is solid evidence that average temperatures have been getting warmer over the past few decades; by contrast, more than three-quarters of both moderate and liberal Republicans and independents (78% each), and even higher percentages of Democrats, believe the earth has been getting warmer.
This indicates that 46% of conservative Republicans and non-trivial fractions of other groups can look at this:

or this:

and dismiss them as somehow not representative of reality.

I do not see how this is really that open to debate. It is simply a matter of description. To deny the charts above -- particularly the first -- requires arguing that we don't know how to measure temperature.

Here's something I find even more disturbing:
There also are striking educational differences in partisans' views of global warming. Among Republicans, higher education is linked to greater skepticism about global warming -- fully 43% of Republicans with a college degree say that there is no evidence of global warming, compared with 24% of Republicans with less education.

But among Democrats, the pattern is the reverse. Fully 75% of Democrats with college degrees say that there is solid evidence of global warming and that it is caused by human activities. This is far higher than among Democrats with less education among whom 52% say the same. Independents, regardless of education levels, fall in between these partisan extremes.

While I am not completely certain (the wording is a little unclear), I think this indicates that 43% of college educated republicans dismiss the charts above. I find this unbelievable. I guess it is quasi-reasonable to debate that human activity is causing the temperature rise, and it is certainly reasonable to debate what policies to pursue, but describing temperature change is simply a matter of measurement and description. While there are many things that we measure poorly, I do not see how temperature can be included in this set.

Monday, February 19, 2007

More from Grants Pass

More brilliance on display by GP residents. Some locals stole a car on Thursday, got pulled over for a traffic violation, and then tried to elude police using back country roads. Eventually, the trio came to the river and thought, "hey, we can get away by swimming across the river; the police won't get into the water and they certainly wouldn't be able to drive around to the other side." so:

Two men and a woman ran from the car and jumped into the Rogue River, which had a water temperature of around 40 degrees, police said.

The man and woman who were passengers were quickly pulled from the river, but the car's driver got caught in the river current and was swept into the middle of the river, police said.

He was screaming for help and a water rescue team from the Rural Metro Fire Department was called.

However, he drifted into an area of the river where the water was chest deep and he was able to reach the opposite bank, where he collapsed and stayed until troopers could get to him, police said.

All three people were taken by American Medical Response ambulance to Three Rivers Community Hospital, where they were treated for hypothermia

Oh well, there may be some stupid people around, but GP has plenty of advantages. E.g., while at home this weekend, my brother-in-law and I took advantage of the 65 degree temperatures to hike along the wild and scenic section of the Rogue -- given it is still February lots of water is still flowing from higher elevations down to the river creating lots of waterfalls (probably 10-15 just in the 2 mile section of the trail we hiked).

So that explains it

For all 5 years that I taught my sophomore tutorial, we discussed a JEP paper on the economics of convention. While the paper discusses various models for how conventions form and change, it is centered around which side of the road we drive on. If I recall correctly (and I'll look this up tomorrow when I can access the article), the author argues that you need need to have a driving convention because you don't want to have to stop and negotiate who is going to pass whom on which side everytime you come across someone going in the opposite direction. However, in his description, it was arbitrary which side was chosen. As long as enough people got the message to pass on the left (or right), that equilibrium would persist -- until either enough people in a row deviated convincing everyone else that the equilibrium had changed or until groups with different conventions started interacting with each other and forced convergence to a new equilibrium.

In almost every class, the "its arbitrary" explanation was unsatisfying. Students thought there should be a reason one side was preferred to the other. I never had an answer, so I just encouraged us to move forward. Now, however, I have discovered there may, in fact, be a reason for different driving convention. According to this website (which also includes a spiffy color-coded map of different driving regimes):

As one might gather from the map, the story of left or right hand side driving is more than just a derivative of British Imperialism. Right-handedness, a trait shared by 85 to 90% of people, is the reason for the initial preference for left and for the switch to right side driving.

Throughout the ages, horsemen preferred passing each other on the left side, because this allowed them to hold on to the reins with their left hand while with their right they shook hands with or swords at passers-by (as the situation warranted).

In the late 1700s, teamsters in many countries switched to bigger freight waggons drawn by multiple pairs of horses. They would sit on the left rear horse, thus able to whip with their right hand. This allowed them better vision on their left-hand side, so they preferred the opposing traffic to cross them on the left – meaning they switched to driving on the right-hand side of the road. So nowadays, an estimated 66% of people worldwide live in right-hand side countries, and 72% of all distances are completed while driving on the right side of the road.

Britain was the main exception: smaller waggons meant the driver was able to sit on top of them, not needing to ride one of the horses. British drivers remained seated on the right-hand side, and thus kept driving on the left-hand side of the road. This British custom would be adopted in most if not all British colonies, at least initially.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Small Houses, Social Relationships, and Happiness

In the first few months of this blog, I wrote alot about happiness and how to make choices that will make you happy. I also wrote about my preference for small houses. Today, in a Washington Post interview, Chicago economist Luis Rayo combines the two while discussing joint research with Gary Becker:

The choices that make people happy are all over the map, but when you examine the data carefully, similar patterns emerge, Rayo said. In that respect, buying a new house is not so different from buying a car or choosing a restaurant.

When you start to think about buying a new and bigger house, your initial comparison and reference point is size, Rayo said. When you start to look at the big, new houses that are for sale, however, you discover that size is only one of many comparisons. Size, price, location and floor plans soon loom large and become new reference points. Rayo characterized them as "moving targets, which constantly change."

Eventually, you pick a builder and a model, build and move in. The change is dramatic. Nonetheless, you quickly become accustomed to your new surroundings. These become your new benchmark against which you now make new comparisons, such as how your house stacks up against the others in your neighborhood or what you could have done with the money instead.


Meanwhile, you discover several unpleasant aspects to your new place. A house that's twice as big requires twice as long to clean, and the commuting time to your office is now two hours a day instead of 30 minutes. Though it's easy to become accustomed to a positive change and move on, you never get used to activities that are painful and irritating such as a long commute, Rayo said.


How does this square with choosing a house that will make us happy? Rayo suggests a house with enough space to meet your needs while accommodating a practical, relaxing lifestyle. Everyone's situation is different, but as you make the decision, he said, be honest about your motivation.

Will the added square feet in the big, new house make you more comfortable?

If the goal is to impress your peers and friends, "You'll lose the race of winning and you'll be stressed," he said. Is your kitchen a place to hang out and be comfortable or will it be, as Rayo put it, a "slick intimidation statement about my wealth?" Will the $50,000 array of solar panels on your new roof that will generate all your household electricity needs "bring a sense of personal satisfaction or give you bragging rights?"

The latter are "not a sustainable source of happiness," Rayo said. "When consumption extends beyond your needs and the goal is to impress others, you should be suspicious; it will not lead to happiness."

And in another large theme of this blog, Reyo suggests that investments in social relationships produce large happiness returns:

More important, he went on to say, the psychology literature and surveys clearly show that not all happiness is ephemeral and geared to endlessly moving targets. With nonmaterial things, the target does not move.

"Exercise will absolutely make you feel better. Your social network, family and friends can bring permanent happiness. Longtime relationships can bring long-term satisfaction."

Grossman for MVP

During the Super Bowl, the assembled group discussed who should win the MVP award. I argued that, should the Colts win, Rex Grossman deserved to win. No one contributed more to the Colts victory than Rex.

In yesterday's blog post, ESPN.com's Bill Simmons agreed, stating, "couldn't you have made a legitimate case for Rex Grossman winning the MVP? What single player did more to affect that game for the Colts? Think about the definition of that award -- it goes to the most valuable player on the field, right? Who was more valuable to that final score than Rex?"

Now, I find evidence that the betting markets agree. Real time analysis of the change in probability of a Colts victory shows, "Rex Grossman’s poor play contributed 36.5% to the Colts’ chance of winning, more than twice as much as the top performing Colt."

Monday, February 05, 2007

Worst Person in the World?

During my freshman year of college, a white supremacist group wanted to build some sort of white-supremacist training camp in the rural parts of my home county. When the community heard about this, there was an uproar against the development -- including large protests. The white supremacists decided they didn't like the attention and decided to try their luck elsewhere. The successful protests received attention from national news outlets. One headline (I believe in USA Today) read "Hate Free Town" (one of my high school friends had this article displayed prominently on his dorm room door at Stanford, although I could never figure out if he posted it out of pride or because he thought it ironic having been subject to a fair amount of racism as one of the handful of minorities in the area).

After Friday night's broadcast of FOX's reality program "Trading Spouses", Grants Pass is going to have to work on its "hate free" reputation. Josephine County resident Julie Chase (from the clips on the show, I think it is pretty clear that she doesn't actually live in GP, but out in the unincorporated parts of the county) severely embarrassed herself on national TV (and unfortunately damaged my hometown's reputation in the process). A commenter at the Trading Spouses forum at Television Without Pity nicely summarizes her performance stating, "Y'know, every single time I think 'ugh, s/he is the single nastiest, most obnoxious, most horrid person I've ever seen on reality TV', someone comes along and proves that there's someone worse. Hate!Mom [Mrs. Chase] is now on the top of my list."

So what did she do to earn such scorn? Here's a small taste (and not even close to the worst):

For a more detailed account, here's a full recap from PhoneGrrrl. For those who don't click through, here's a quick overview of some of the lowlights:
On the next day of the swap, Pepper has allowed the cleaning lady to come, as per usual. The vacuuming wakes Julie up and she’s not happy. She’s even less happy when she finds out that the cleaning lady is *gasp* Hispanic! She says she cannot be physically close to “them” because of her issues with illegals. She tells Pepper that she hates illegal immigrants because they are terrible people who come to American and do terrible things. She simply cannot allow for the possibility that the illegal immigrants could be good people. She also seems not able to allow for legal immigration either. Pepper is astounded that Julie is so intolerant.

Pepper should not have set the bar so low for Julie’s prejudice. Later in the day, while preparing dinner, Pepper tries to steer the conversation in what she could only assume was neutral territory—she was expressing compassion at the conjoined twins who were in the news. Julie, who by now we all know is about as emotional as a deflated tire, doesn’t feel compassion or empathy toward them because she isn’t the one making fun of them, so why should she care. Somehow or another the conversation gets to the point where Julie said that she had the Down’s Syndrome test on her girls when she was pregnant and would have aborted them had they turned up with that genetic marker. This is a sensitive subject for Pepper because she has a developmentally disabled sister. Pepper says that having a birth defect is no reason why the person can’t be a good person and worthy of love. Julie then likes being gay to having a birth defect, and that really sets Pepper off, and she leaves the room to try to regain some composure. Julie comments that Pepper just needs to toughen up, and there’s nothing but the truth coming from her.

Sad because you missed this nightmare? Don't worry. This was only part 1. Part 2 will be broadcast this Friday at 9PM.

Update -- Julie was pretty awful on part 2, although the ep was a bit anti-climactic. However, at one point Julie asks herself, "Am I a monster?" There is a simple answer to this. Yes. Yes, you are.

Update 2 -- Congratulations to Julie! You were so inflammatory and over the top that you earned ridicule on both VH1's Best Week Ever and E!'s The Soup.

Update 3 -- You can read how GP locals are responding to this embarassment here.

An interesting way ...

... to pass time during a flight.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Get rich quick

Pretty much all of the economics blogs are pointing to Austan Goolsbee's NYTimes commentary supporting revaluing pennies at 5 cents. Consider me a fan, if only because I have lots of pennies lying around and I would love to see them increase in value by 500%. Score one for lazy, packrats. This might actually provide sufficient incentive for us to find all the different jars, drawers, boxes, etc. overflowing with pennies and take them to the bank.

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