February 2010 Archives

An extraterrestrial... might conclude we are teaching children cruelty, credulity, and consumerism

Powerful excerpt from the late, great Carl Sagan’s book The Demon Haunted World:

The values of science and the values of democracy are concordant, in many cases indistinguishable. Science and democracy began in their civilized incarnations in the same time and place, Greece in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. Science confers power on anyone who takes the trouble to learn it (although too many have been systematically prevented from doing so). Science thrives on, indeed requires, the free exchange of ideas, its values are antithetical to secrecy. Science holds to no special vantage points or privileged positions. Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate. Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of evidence and honesty. Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge. It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being. If we’re true to its values, it can tell us when we’re being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes. The more widespread its languages rules, and methods, the better chance we have of preserving what Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues had in mind. But democracy can also be subverted more thoroughly through the products of science than any pre-industrial demagogue ever dreamed.

Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of confusion and bamboozle requires vigilance, dedication, and courage. But if we don’t practice these habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us and we risk becoming a nation of suckers, a world of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan…

An extraterrestrial being, newly arrived on Earth scrutinizing what we mainly present to our children in television, radio, movies, newspapers, magazines, the comics, and many books might easily conclude that we are intent on teaching them murder, rape, cruelty, superstition, credulity, and consumerism. We keep at it, and through constant repetition many of them finally get it. What kind of society could we create if, instead, we drummed into them science and a sense of hope?

China is attempting to build a massive scientific community within an authoritarian political system, while American democracy — which ideally involves active participation in our communities and active study of our national problems and politicians, not merely voting every two or four years — is being hijacked by many Americans' consumer-crazed greed and scientifically illiterate beliefs (which are often mindlessly rooted in religion rather than thoughtfully derived with intellectual rigor from moral principles applied to our modern society). Neither China nor America’s approach is sound because science and democracy do indeed belong together.

Posted by James on Feb 05, 2010

Are Trojan horses hiding in all our computers?

In the 1980s, programmer Ken Thompson admitted he put a Trojan horse inside the Unix C compiler that gave him access to any program compiled with his compiler:

[I installed] a simple modification to the compiler that will deliberately miscompile source whenever a particular pattern is matched. If this were not deliberate, it would be called a compiler “bug.” Since it is deliberate, it should be called a “Trojan horse.”

The actual bug I planted in the compiler would match code in the UNIX “login” command. The replacement code would miscompile the login command so that it would accept either the intended encrypted password or a particular known password. Thus if this code were installed in binary and the binary were used to compile the login command, I could log into that system as any user.

Thompson used a tricky scheme to ensure that the source code itself was bug-free:

First we compile the modified source with the normal C compiler to produce a bugged binary. We install this binary as the official C. We can now remove the bugs from the source of the compiler and the new binary will reinsert the bugs whenever it is compiled. Of course, the login command will remain bugged with no trace in source anywhere.

Consequently, Thompson warns us, we can only hope and trust — never completely verify, even with access to source code — that the hardware and software we rely on every day is what it purports to be:

The moral is obvious. You can’t trust code that you did not totally create yourself. (Especially code from companies that employ people like me.) No amount of source-level verification or scrutiny will protect you from using untrusted code. In demonstrating the possibility of this kind of attack, I picked on the C compiler. I could have picked on any program-handling program such as an assembler, a loader, or even hardware microcode. As the level of program gets lower, these bugs will be harder and harder to detect. A well installed microcode bug will be almost impossible to detect.

Posted by James on Feb 05, 2010

Brazil's richest man: China will soon produce half the world's GDP

In a wonderful interview with Charlie Rose, Brazil’s richest man, Eike Batista, says China will soon produce half the world’s GDP:

I think by the year 800 after Christ [China] had half of the world’s GDP. Charlie, I think in the next 20 or 30 years they’re back to the 50% of the world’s GDP. I really believe so. …They execute so well. They have their farming Ph.D.s, professors to material science. They’re putting patents out in all different sciences. It’s fascinating. I’ve been visiting car manufacturers, steel plants, railway car factories. CNR, China National Rail, in eight days they produce everything that Brazil needs for a whole year. It’s just so gigantic.

Posted by James on Feb 09, 2010

Bush Administration monsters

Dick Cheney just confessed — freely, not under torture — to a war crime punishable under U.S. law and under international law, including the U.S.-signed UN Convention on Torture and the Geneva Conventions. As Andrew Sullivan writes, “the former vice-president has just confessed to a war crime. I repeat: the former vice-president has just confessed to a war crime.”

And now we learn from p. 64 of this Department of Justice report that John Yoo — Bush’s deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel — not only wrote memos justifying torture but even argues there’s nothing wrong with the President “ordering a village of resistants to be massacred”:

A: Because this is an option that the President might use in war.

Q: What about ordering a village of resistants to be massacred? … Is that a power the President could legally —

A: Yeah. Although, let me say this. So, certainly that would fall within the Commander-in-Chief’s power over tactical relations.

Q: To order a village of civilians to be [exterminated]?

A: Sure.

What’s Yoo’s punishment for green-lighting torture? About the same as Cheney: Yoo’s serving a long sentence as Professor of Law at UC Berkeley.

Posted by James on Feb 20, 2010

Canada: "Own the Podium"

I yesterday blamed Canada for denying non-Canadian athletes use of the Olympic venues. Blocking foreign athletes' access may be of little consequence in sports like tennis, swimming, or table tennis, where performance is basically independent of the standardized facility. (An Olympic-sized swimming pool is pretty much the same, no matter what building houses it.) But in sports like luge or bobsled, the course is unstandardized, and performance depends greatly on athletes' knowledge of the course. Shutting out non-Canadian athletes is totally unsporting and even dangerous, esp. if: 1) the courses you’ve created are far faster than other courses in the world; 2) you don’t put up sufficient barriers to prevent people from flying off the track and killing themselves; and, 3) you don’t bar the world’s Jamaican bobsled teams, whose relative lack of experience puts them at greater danger.

Here’s a shocking fact illustrating the degree to which Canada has abused its position as host nation:

Before his [deadly] crash, [Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili] had taken 25 training runs on the Whistler track — but 10 had begun at the novice, junior and women’s starts. By comparison, the average Canadian slider has taken 250 training runs.

Canada granted its own lugers TEN TIMES MORE rides down the luge track!

Canada made a conscious, high-level decision to be so unsporting:

Canada’s decision to give minimal access to the Olympic track to athletes from other nations now seems to have been an unfortunate nationalistic impulse. This was done to give Canadians a home-field advantage in a program called Own the Podium. In the end, safety took a back seat to patriotism.

And I’m even more disgusted by the Vancouver Olympic Committee statement blaming the athlete for the “extremely exceptional accident” caused because “the athlete came late out of curve 15 and did not compensate properly to make correct entrance into curve 16” while absolving the track because “there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track.” As The New York Times reports:

[T]he idea that something terrible might happen here, on the fastest course in the world, was talked about publicly and feared for a year.

Frequent concerns were expressed about excessive speeds. Even Armin Zoeggeler of Italy, the two-time Olympic champion and a favorite here, had crashed on this track. On Thursday, after struggling to maintain control of her sled, Hannah Campbell-Pegg of Australia said, “To what extent are we just little lemmings that they throw down a track and we’re crash-test dummies?”

I may boycott these games in (a certain to be noticed by no one) protest against Canada’s maniacal obsession with winning medals, sportsmanship, fair play and safety be damned.

Posted by James on Feb 14, 2010

China: "[Americans] use the Internet to sow chaos"

Good article on the Chinese government’s Internet fears.

China has reason for concern because it relies heavily on (stolen) Microsoft software. But, far more troubling, few Chinese computers regularly apply patches that fix known security holes:

[China’s] cyberdefenses are almost certainly more porous than those of the United States, American experts say. To cite one glaring example, even Chinese government computers are frequently equipped with pirated software from Microsoft, they say. That means many users miss out on security upgrades, available to paying users, that fix security breaches exploited by hackers…

The risks of dependence on foreign-made software became clear in 2008 after Microsoft deployed a new antipiracy program aimed at detecting and discouraging unauthorized users of its Windows operating system. In China, where an estimated four-fifths of computer software is pirated, the program caused millions of computer screens to go dark every hour and led to a public outcry.

The bigger point of the article is that China believes America is intentionally using the Internet as a weapon to destroy the Chinese Communist Party:

China’s attempts to tighten its grip on Internet use are driven in part by the conviction that the West — and particularly the United States — is wielding communications innovations from malware to Twitter to weaken it militarily and to stir dissent internally.

“The United States has already done it, many times,” said Song Xiaojun, one of the authors of “Unhappy China,” a 2009 book advocating a muscular Chinese foreign policy, which the party’s propaganda department is said to promote. He cited the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia as examples. “It is not really regime change, directly,” he said. “It is more like they use the Internet to sow chaos.”

…[T]he government is beefing up its security apparatus. Officials have justified stronger measures by citing various internal threats that they say escalated online. Among them: the March 2008 riots in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa; reported attempts to disrupt the August 2008 Olympic Games and the amassing of more than 10,000 signatures supporting a petition for human rights and democratic freedoms, an example of how democracy advocates could organize online…

China’s leaders also reviewed how Iranian antigovernment activists used Twitter and other new communication tools to organize large street demonstrations against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the summer. He said Chinese leaders saw the Iranian protests as an example of how the United States could use the new forms of online communication in a fashion that could one day be turned against China.

“How did the unrest after the Iranian elections come about?” People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, asked in a Jan. 24 editorial. “It was because online warfare launched by America, via YouTube video and Twitter micro-blogging, spread rumors, created splits, stirred up and sowed discord.”

Parts of the U.S. military and intelligence community probably are trying to use the Internet to manipulate public opinion in China and other countries. But U.S. meddling is likely 1% of the story, not 100%, as the Chinese government claims. And Youtube, Twitter and Facebook were created for profit, not to undermine foreign nations.

The Internet lets people share information and communicate. China would have little to fear from the free flow of information if China’s ethnic minorities felt fairly treated, if its leaders acted in the people’s interest rather than doing the bidding of the companies bribing them (a problem we obviously have here in America too), if China’s media were free to expose corruption, and if China were a democracy — rather than an unelected, authoritarian regime with a history it feels it must actively repress, lest its citizens rise up against their leaders. U.S. agents could say whatever they wanted online, but few in China would react. Instead, China jails vocal political opponents, heavily censors debate and information, allows and often covers up widespread political corruption, publishes state propaganda that few believe, and represses the local cultures, languages and political autonomy of Xinjiang and Tibet in ways non-Han natives deeply resent. Internet or no Internet, these are legitimate frustrations of the people of China.

Blaming American meddling in China is a convenient scapegoat. But the real problem is the Chinese government’s repressive policies against its own citizens. The longer and harder China represses its people, the fiercer the eventual reaction will be. Shutting off the Internet may prevent people from acting on their anger, but it in no way eliminates the underlying anger.

The wise course to a future in which the Chinese people embrace the Communist Party, rather than tolerate it because they lack any alternative, involves gradually allowing greater criticism of party officials, greater access to information, and greater self-determination (starting with local village elections) while gradually tightening up anti-corruption efforts.

A few years ago, China appeared to be heading toward this brighter future. But the Communist Party recently slammed on the brakes and put the car in reverse. Greater repression may give the Communist Party what it wants in the short term, but it’s a bad long-term strategy.

Posted by James on Feb 12, 2010

China increasingly exploiting its market power to benefit domestic firms and harm foreign firms

Nine years ago, I applied for a grant to study whether China would evolve into a normal global trading partner or seek to exploit its huge market to artificially advantage local firms. I didn’t get the grant, but I never lost interest in the question. Sadly, nine years later, it seems China is increasingly manipulating its domestic economy, government purchasing, and trade and currency policies to benefit domestic firms and unfairly burden foreign firms.

James McGregor, former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China and author of One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China, writes in Time:

In my more than two decades in China, I have seldom seen the foreign business community more angry and disillusioned than it is today. Such sentiment goes beyond the Internet censorship and cyberspying that led to Google’s Jan. 12 threat to bail out of China, or the clash of values (freedom vs. control) implied by the Google case. It is about the perception that antiforeign attitudes and policies in China have been growing and hardening since the global economic crisis pushed the U.S. and Europe into a tailspin and launched China to its very uncomfortable stardom on the world stage.

Visiting CEOs' banquet-table chatter is now dominated by swapping tales of arrogant and insolent Chinese bureaucrats and business partners. The litany includes purposefully inconsistent and nontransparent enforcement of regulations, rampant intellectual-property theft, state penetration of multinationals through union and Communist Party organizations, blatant market impediments through rigged product standards and testing, politicized courts and agencies that almost always favor local companies, creative and selective enforcement of WTO requirements … The list goes on.

The foreign business community in China has deep respect and affection for the Chinese people and their hard-earned success. But more than a few foreign business leaders are asking themselves if they have been bamboozled by the system. Multinationals have been solid citizens in China, handing over heaps of capital, technology, training, source code, best practices and proprietary products to joint-venture partners they were forced into bed with. They have funded schools, orphanages, disaster reconstruction, overseas scholarships and all manner of poverty-alleviation programs. But now that the China market matters more to them, it appears that China couldn’t care less. Increasingly difficult China-market access is the immediate worry. But many are looking ahead and losing sleep over expectations that their onetime partners are morphing into predators — and that their own technology and know-how will be coming back at them globally in the form of cut-price products from subsidized state-owned behemoths.

Posted by James on Feb 04, 2010

China: World's IPO leader

In case you’ve been in a coma the past 20 years, China is booming:

Over the last five years, Chinese companies have raised about $210 billion globally through initial public offerings… American companies, by contrast, have raised $184 billion… In 2009, 11 of the 14 foreign public offerings made on United States exchanges were of mainland Chinese companies…

Just two companies — the Asian arm of American International Group and the Agricultural Bank of China — that could go public this year are expected to raise a total of $30 billion to $40 billion, about what American companies raise in a decent year.

“A fund manager with a global portfolio is being reckless if he doesn’t have exposure to China,” says Mark Machin, co-head of Asian investment banking at Goldman Sachs. “It’s going to be the world’s second-largest economy.”

…According to Forbes, China had 79 billionaires in 2009, up from just one in 2003.

But the potential for Enron-esque, WorldCom-esque, Madoff-esque scandals is very real (though that’s obviously also true here in America):

Critics have long warned about unknowns that already come with investing in Chinese companies: insider trading scandals, the lack of transparency, poor regulatory oversight, volatile prices and a lack of clarity on shareholder rights.

“Are you really getting disclosure?” asked Carl E. Walter, a Beijing-based investment banker and co-author of Privatizing China: Inside China’s Stock Markets.

Posted by James on Feb 12, 2010

Doing math vs. feeling math

At a school open house recently, I struck up a conversation with a man after he asked the exact question I was about to ask: Why do you use Everyday Math instead of Singapore Math?

The man told me his daughter — who learned math using Montessori math materials: beads and other tangible, concrete objects — understands math at more of a gut, intuitive level than he does.

I thought of that concrete/symbolic divide when I read today that Chinese people tend to use a different brain circuit to process basic math:

a 2006 study found that native Chinese speakers use a different region of the brain to do simple arithmetic (3 + 4) or decide which number is larger than native English speakers do, even though both use Arabic numerals. The Chinese use the circuits that process visual and spatial information and plan movements (the latter may be related to the use of the abacus). But English speakers use language circuits. It is as if the West conceives numbers as just words, but the East imbues them with symbolic, spatial freight. (Insert cliché about Asian math geniuses.) “One would think that neural processes involving basic mathematical computations are universal,” says Ambady, but they “seem to be culture-specific.”

I long assumed we all process information and solve problems in similar ways. But brain research has discovered that we may each use very different brain circuits to turn the same input (say, 2+2) into the same output (4). That begs the very interesting question of whether certain circuits (solution processing paths) are better than others. Students may well be able to solve simple math problems equally well using either concrete or symbolic brain processes, but one approach or the other presumably prepares students better for doing advanced math. My intuition suggests symbolic processing is more easily extended to solving more complex math problems. But Chinese students statistically are doing much better at math than their American peers. Perhaps students must first acquire a strong, concrete grasp of math before they can truly grasp more complex, abstract concepts? A further hunch: Perhaps American students learn to solve algebra problems mechanically without really grasping — at a gut level — what the algebra equations represent?

It’s fascinating to discover that different cultures encourage the use of different brain regions to solve identical problems. Given that, educational researchers should determine which approach serves students best in the long run, rather than which approach most easily equips them to pass their next NCLB test.

Posted by James on Feb 22, 2010

Don't teach to tests; foster a love of learning

Bob Herbert has written a nice article on The Harlem Village Academies:

The majority of the youngsters come into the middle schools performing at three to four years behind their grade levels. Within a very short time, they are on the fast track toward college. In 2008, when the math and science test scores came in, Ms. Kenny’s eighth graders had achieved 100 percent proficiency. It was not a fluke.

What’s ironic is that the teachers are doing everything but teaching to the tests. Ms. Kenny’s goals for the youngsters in her schools are the same as those that she had for her own three children, who grew up in a comfortable suburban environment and are now in college. Merely passing a standardized test was hardly something to aspire to.

“I had five core things in mind for my kids, and that’s what I want for our students,” she said. “I wanted them to be wholesome in character. I wanted them to be compassionate and to see life as a responsibility to give something to the world. I wanted them to have a sophisticated intellect. I wanted them to be avid readers, the kind of person who always has trouble putting a book down. And I raised them to be independent thinkers, to lead reflective and meaningful lives.”

Posted by James on Feb 23, 2010

Einstein: "The economic anarchy of capitalist society [is] the real source of the evil"

In May 1949, Albert Einstein argued at length against capitalism and for socialism in Monthly Review:

[T]he essence of the crisis of our time… concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production—that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods—may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.

Continue Reading…

Posted by James on Feb 24, 2010

Financial architects who design sexy death traps should be punished

If you bought a house and then it collapsed on top of you and your family, would you be mad?

What if you then learned that the architect colluded with the construction firm and the land owner to build a house that looked nice superficially but lacked essential features, like structural supports and a solid foundation?

What if you learned the house’s blueprints called for cheap, certain-to-fail materials?

What if you learned that the land owner paid the architect to help her/him market your house as a great house and the architect had praised your house as a “AAA” house?

Would you expect your architect to escape punishment?

Well, in the real world of financial architecture, the architects of toxic collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) — Moody’s and Standard & Poors — are escaping all punishment. They were sued on the accurate argument — made by lawyers David J. Graisand and Kostas D. Katsiris — that “the rating agencies are not journalists gathering information and reporting to the public, but rather participants in the transactions that they rate,” since they were paid by the sellers, negotiated the terms of their ratings with the sellers, and those ratings were essential to the CDOs' marketing to “naive” investors (like governments and pension funds silly enough to believe a “AAA” rating meant those investments were relatively safe).

So, how did the architects/marketers of toxic debt escape punishment? Here’s Judge Lewis Kaplan’s “reasoning”:

[The ratings agencies' role was] no different than those of an architect or a builder in designing and constructing a house…. While it doubtless is true that the architect or builder had a lot to do with the characteristics of the house — no doubt characteristics that made it an attractive and salable product — they cannot properly be said to have participated in any legally relevant sense in its resale down the line.

This is insane!:

Some lawyers were outraged by the decision, saying that Judge Kaplan didn’t follow through with his analogy that ratings agencies were like architects: a homeowner can sue an architect for a design flaw if the house comes crashing down.

Posted by James on Feb 16, 2010

Focus on value, not price

I love this quotation:

The top [NFL] spenders during the last five years are Dallas, Washington and Oakland, who between them have three egomaniacal owners and one playoff win, the Cowboys' 34-14 wild card win over the Eagles in January, to show for it. That makes the point that it’s not just what you spend, but how you spend.

Posted by James on Feb 23, 2010

Follow-up on school laptop scandal

I can’t confirm this report, but I have no reason to doubt it:

the spy-cam story involves my kid’s former school AND she knows many of the principals involved AND we are not at all shocked by this. Surprised, maybe; shocked, no.

Since she was in school there last year, I never posted my concerns about this stuff b/c she was entitled to her privacy vis-a-vis her father’s ramblings on liberal websites.

When she and every other student was issued a computer, there was a story floating around that the district could find out if anyone had stolen it or was using it for nefarious purposes. The IT folks said that they could take a screenshot from the internal cam and ID the thief or other miscreant. When I first heard about this, I was concerned…when she told me that she had the green light, signifying the webcam’s activation, go on at weird hours including when she was home, often lasting for 2 WEEKS at a time, I told her to be careful.

She had gone to the IT folks and told them that something wasn’t working properly and they told her that there was nothing that they could do about it. (BTW, the entire IT Dept. was male).

Posted by James on Feb 19, 2010

For better understanding, expose your beliefs for others to criticize

A few nights ago, I was about to make a right turn through a green light in icy conditions at a dark intersection when I suddenly noticed a woman with a baby carriage running across the intersection, right in front of my path. I slammed on my brakes, and my car slid slightly on the ice, but I avoided hitting her. I honked, rolled down my window and shouted at the woman that I could have killed her and that she shouldn’t be crossing an icy street in the dark with a “Don’t Walk” signal. To my great surprise, a few seconds later, a voice from across the street started swearing at me. After picking up my wife at the train station, I returned to the store from which someone had shouted and told them I was that guy and wanted to hear their perspective. One of the guys wasn’t interested in having a discussion and just started cussing me out. But another guy was very reasonable and engaged me in a good discussion. He said pedestrians in an intersection always have the right-of-way (which I knew, which is why I slammed on my brakes and didn’t enter the intersection) and said that if I had hit the woman, it would have been her fault (because she didn’t have a walk signal and was very hard to see) but that I shouldn’t have honked and shouted because she barely spoke English and because I probably scared her baby. He said I had “scared her half to death.” I explained that I had very intentionally tried to scare her because what she did was so incredibly dangerous that, if she did that ten or twenty times, some car would eventually hit and kill her and/or her baby. After politely exchanging views, we shook hands, each the wiser after seeing the incident from another’s perspective. If a similar situation ever arises again, I will still try to make my point forcefully, but with less honking and shouting.

I mention this in light of new research demonstrating the power of exposing your beliefs to criticism from others.

It has long been clear that people (especially older people and people with greater experience/expertise in a field) tend to suppress — by ignoring or rationalizing away — facts that don’t fit our beliefs. Effectively, we filter our observations of the world through our theories of how the world works. We often fail to detect that our theories/beliefs are incorrect because we systematically suppress information that might undermine those theories/beliefs.

This fabulous article describes the location in our brain responsible for our intellectual blindness… a location that matures only in early adulthood. Scientists showed real and fake videos of balls falling to physics majors (who know balls should fall at equal speeds, regardless of their sizes) and non-physics majors (who generally believe larger balls fall faster):

when Dunbar monitored the subjects in an fMRI machine, he found that showing non-physics majors the correct video triggered a particular pattern of brain activation: There was a squirt of blood to the anterior cingulate cortex, a collar of tissue located in the center of the brain. The ACC is typically associated with the perception of errors and contradictions — neuroscientists often refer to it as part of the “Oh shit!” circuit — so it makes sense that it would be turned on when we watch a video of something that seems wrong… [Physics majors'] education enabled them to see the error, and for them it was the inaccurate video that triggered the ACC.

But there’s another region of the brain that can be activated as we go about editing reality. It’s called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC. It’s located just behind the forehead and is one of the last brain areas to develop in young adults. It plays a crucial role in suppressing so-called unwanted representations, getting rid of those thoughts that don’t square with our preconceptions. For scientists, it’s a problem.

When physics students saw the Aristotelian video with the aberrant balls, their DLPFCs kicked into gear and they quickly deleted the image from their consciousness. In most contexts, this act of editing is an essential cognitive skill. (When the DLPFC is damaged, people often struggle to pay attention, since they can’t filter out irrelevant stimuli.) However, when it comes to noticing anomalies, an efficient prefrontal cortex can actually be a serious liability. The DLPFC is constantly censoring the world, erasing facts from our experience. If the ACC is the “Oh shit!” circuit, the DLPFC is the Delete key. When the ACC and DLPFC “turn on together, people aren’t just noticing that something doesn’t look right,” Dunbar says. “They’re also inhibiting that information.”

The lesson is that not all data is created equal in our mind’s eye: When it comes to interpreting our experiments, we see what we want to see and disregard the rest. The physics students, for instance, didn’t watch the video and wonder whether Galileo might be wrong. Instead, they put their trust in theory, tuning out whatever it couldn’t explain. Belief, in other words, is a kind of blindness.

As the article hints, blinding ourselves to facts at odds with our existing beliefs isn’t necessarily “bad”; it helps us cope with life. If we constantly reconsidered every established belief, we wouldn’t be able to deal with day-to-day life (“Can I trust my spouse?” “What if the sun doesn’t come up tomorrow?” “Am I really allergic to peanuts?” “Why can’t I drive on the left side of the road?”) But the stickiness of our beliefs means we had better hope we have wise parents and teachers early in life because false beliefs planted early in life can be hard to overcome.

The article also highlights the findings of a professor who studied how real scientists make breakthroughs and found that success comes from exposing your opinions to others' comment and criticism, especially others who possess knowledge and backgrounds you lack:

While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit — researchers solve problems by themselves — Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings, those weekly sessions in which people publicly present their data. Interestingly, the most important element of the lab meeting wasn’t the presentation — it was the debate that followed. Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they’d previously ignored. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude; a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work…

This is why other people are so helpful: They shock us out of our cognitive box. “I saw this happen all the time,” Dunbar says. “A scientist would be trying to describe their approach, and they’d be getting a little defensive, and then they’d get this quizzical look on their face. It was like they’d finally understood what was important.”

Posted by James on Feb 18, 2010

Force politicians and media to wear sponsor logos on their clothes

Months ago, someone on DemocraticUnderground.com suggested members of Congress should be required to wear their major campaign contributors' corporate logos on their jackets, just as NASCAR drivers do. A brilliant idea.

But while reading this horrifying expose of corporate mouthpieces pontificating on major media outlets while posing as independent experts, rather than corporate public relations agents, I realized that our media’s longstanding refusal to disclose who’s paying for the speech coming from their purported “experts'” mouths forces us to demand logo jackets for anyone appearing on network or cable news broadcasts too.

Consider this, which occurred December 4, 2009:

Tom Ridge, was on MSNBC’s Hardball With Chris Matthews… The first step, Ridge explained, was to “create nuclear power plants.” Combined with some waste coal and natural gas extraction, you would have an “innovation setter” that would “create jobs, create exports.”

As Ridge counseled the administration to “put that package together,” he sure seemed like an objective commentator. But what viewers weren’t told was that since 2005, Ridge has pocketed $530,659 in executive compensation for serving on the board of Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear power company. As of March 2009, he also held an estimated $248,299 in Exelon stock, according to SEC filings.

Moments earlier, retired general and “NBC Military Analyst” Barry McCaffrey told viewers that the war in Afghanistan would require an additional “three- to ten-year effort” and “a lot of money.” Unmentioned was the fact that DynCorp paid McCaffrey $182,309 in 2009 alone. The government had just granted DynCorp a five-year deal worth an estimated $5.9 billion to aid American forces in Afghanistan. The first year is locked in at $644 million, but the additional four options are subject to renewal, contingent on military needs and political realities.

In a single hour, two men with blatant, undisclosed conflicts of interest had appeared on MSNBC.

The Nation has found that:

Since 2007 at least seventy-five registered lobbyists, public relations representatives and corporate officials—people paid by companies and trade groups to manage their public image and promote their financial and political interests—have appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, CNBC and Fox Business Network with no disclosure of the corporate interests that had paid them. Many have been regulars on more than one of the cable networks, turning in dozens—and in some cases hundreds—of appearances.

The article closes by noting that this issue has been exposed repeatedly in recent years, yet nothing much has changed:

[P]ressure applied on the networks so far has not resulted in systemic change. Even in the aftermath of increasing scrutiny—particularly after David Barstow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning exposés in the Times—General McCaffrey continues to appear on television without any caveats about his work for military contractors. As Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald has observed, none of the networks involved in the scandal have ever bothered to address Barstow’s findings on air, and they noticeably omitted Barstow’s name from coverage of the 2009 Pulitzers. “It’s almost like a mysterious black hole that this issue, which is enormous, is getting no attention from the offenders themselves,” the Society for Professional Journalists' ethics committee chair Andy Schotz told me recently.

Jay Rosen, a media critic and journalism professor at New York University, has a different take. “More disclosure is good—I’m certainly in favor of that—but why are these people on at all?” asks Rosen. “They have views and can manufacture opinions around any event at any time.”

Rosen echoes something Brown mentioned to me. Watching cable news cover the 2008 election with more analysts crammed at one table than ever before—as if to ask, “How many people can we put on the set at one time?”—Brown said he was “amazed how little they had to offer.” He went on, “We live in a time where there are no shortages of opinions and an incredible deficit of facts.”

Posted by James on Feb 14, 2010

Godless liberals measurably smarter than god-fearing conservatives

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — author of The God Delusion — is an outspoken advocate for atheism. He not only rejects religion but argues the non-religious must forcefully protest against religion because it is so damaging. (Actually, comedian Bill Maher — who made the movie Religulous — fits this definition too.) Dawkins says atheists could market themselves better with a sexier name, and he recommends “brights.” Well, there’s now some statistical evidence suggesting the term “brights” — although an arrogant, elitist name to choose for oneself — is statistically accurate:

Young adults who identify themselves as “not at all religious” have an average IQ of 103 during adolescence, while those who identify themselves as “very religious” have an average IQ of 97 during adolescence.

The same is even more true of liberals:

Young adults who subjectively identify themselves as “very liberal” have an average IQ of 106 during adolescence while those who identify themselves as “very conservative” have an average IQ of 95 during adolescence.

So, when conservative talk show hosts rail against “godless liberals,” they’re trying to shout down some pretty intelligent people. As faux-conservative TV host Stephen Colbert says, “Facts have a liberal bias.”

The scientist behind these studies, London School of Economics evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa, claims (in a forthcoming issue of Social Psychology Quarterly) the statistical findings fit a pattern of more intelligent people using their intelligence to choose to believe and do things evolution does not select for. Evolution nudges us in certain directions, perhaps acting through emotions, built-in morality codes or subconscious patterns of thought. Evolutionary pressures would lead us — Kanazawa argues — to care about ourselves and our friends and family but ignore the suffering of people we don’t know. Liberals — he argues — use their brains to reason morally past their selfish instincts to care for the welfare of even distant strangers. Similarly, believing (or at least outwardly embracing) the religion of our parents and our friends and our community is the safe, easy, evolutionarily evolved religious strategy. Those who reject their local, parent-approved, community-approved religion are, therefore, using their (on average superior) intellect to make a decision antithetical to our evolutionarily evolved tendency.

Posted by James on Feb 27, 2010

Great suffering ahead for millions of Americans

Very sad article: “Millions of Unemployed Face Years Without Jobs”:

Labor experts say the economy needs 100,000 new jobs a month just to absorb entrants to the labor force. With more than 15 million people officially jobless, even a vigorous recovery is likely to leave an enormous number out of work for years…

Some labor experts say the basic functioning of the American economy has changed in ways that make jobs scarce — particularly for older, less-educated people…

Traditionally, three sectors have led the way out of recession: automobiles, home building and banking. But auto companies have been shrinking because strapped households have less buying power. Home building is limited by fears about a glut of foreclosed properties. Banking is expanding, but this seems largely a function of government support that is being withdrawn.

At the same time, the continued bite of the financial crisis has crimped the flow of money to small businesses and new ventures, which tend to be major sources of new jobs…

Some poverty experts say the broader social safety net is not up to cushioning the impact of the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Social services are less extensive than during the last period of double-digit unemployment, in the early 1980s…

She sends out dozens of résumés a week and rarely hears back. She responds to online ads, only to learn they are seeking operators for telephone sex lines or people willing to send mysterious packages from their homes… Last week, she made up fliers advertising her eagerness to clean houses — the same activity that provided her with spending money in high school, and now the only way she sees fit to provide for her kids.

Posted by James on Feb 21, 2010

Harvard's China scholars on Chinese nationalism

I recommend this long, informative roundtable discussion on China by seven China scholars in the current issue of Harvard Magazine.

The article covers broad ground. I’ve excerpted only segments on Chinese nationalism, a very significant issue.

Chinese literature professor Xiaofei Tian:

It will be very hard to achieve reform—especially when the Chinese government is rather successful in instilling a lot of nationalism and nationalistic patriotism in its citizens, from primary and secondary education all the way through the test-oriented higher-education system. There has been a lot of aiguozhuyi jiaoyu [“education in patriotism”], coupled with this anxiety about Chinese identity that we were discussing. So I think the one thing the Chinese government wants to try to get across is this idea of being a Zhongguo ren, literally, “a person of China”—that is, not being a Han Chinese in terms of ethnicity, but rather being a Chinese person in terms of national identity.

The government controls a huge amount of money and resources. As long as the ministry of education and the state planning committee control the educational system, it’s very hard for other opinions and ideas to get into the younger generation. They have become increasingly nationalistic, buying into all this stuff they’ve been getting from their teachers and from radio, TV, and the Internet—everywhere. It’s very different from the 1980s, which was much more liberal, open-minded, and tolerant of foreign things. Now I feel China is becoming more closed up, in the sense that it becomes more self-absorbed. It’s kind of a regression, compared with the huge economic leap forward…

I was in Shanghai, talking to a friend who is a professor at East China Normal University, whose child is in high school. The child came home and told him the teacher was criticizing the government in class, as a digression. And the next day, the teacher discovered that he had been informed on to the local police by a student in that class. …[T]his kind of incident is something to be worried about. It’s different from institutionalized control in the form of the local committee supervising the citizens on the street. I find that a student from a very good Shanghai high school informing on the teacher for criticizing the government — and feeling very righteous and very patriotic because they think that any criticism of the government compromises the great enterprise which is China — illustrates the ideological influence that’s seeping into people’s consciousness and the discourse.

If China keeps closing in — and government is spending so much effort and money and energy on promoting “national learning” and Confucianism—basically, no diversity there — I’m very concerned about the attempt to make it monolithic, despite all the diversity among the populace and on the local and regional levels…

Continue Reading…

Posted by James on Feb 23, 2010

If anything, big snowstorms confirm -- not disprove -- global warming

For those who believe snowstorms disprove global warming global climate change, increased snowfall is actually a prediction of climate models and the logical outcome of warmer oceans.

National Public Radio reports:

Most [climatologists] don’t see a contradiction between a warming world and lots of snow. That includes Kevin Trenberth, a prominent climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado.

“The fact that the oceans are warmer now than they were, say, 30 years ago means there’s about on average 4 percent more water vapor lurking around over the oceans than there was, say, in the 1970s,” he says.

Warmer water means more water vapor rises up into the air, and what goes up must come down.

“So one of the consequences of a warming ocean near a coastline like the East Coast and Washington, D.C., for instance, is that you can get dumped on with more snow partly as a consequence of global warming,” he says.

And Trenberth notes that you don’t need very cold temperatures to get big snow. In fact, when the mercury drops too low, it may be too cold to snow.

Increased snowfall is actually a prediction of climate models:

Increased snowfall fits a pattern suggested by many climate models, in which rising temperatures warm the world’s bodies of water, leading to more evaporation.

Climate scientists say the amount of atmospheric moisture has increased, which they predict will bring more rain in warmer conditions and more snow in freezing temperatures.

“All you need is cold air and moisture to meet each other” to make snow, said Jay Gulledge, senior scientist for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “And with global warming, the opportunities to do that should be more frequent.”

Besides, The Los Angeles Times notes:

The amount of recorded warming over the last century, about 1 degree Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels, is nowhere near enough to eradicate winter in the mid-Atlantic.

Also, weather is variable: The planet would have extreme highs and lows with or without an overall warming trend.

And for all the recent snow in Washington, it hasn’t been that cold — mostly in the 20s or low 30s. The average temperature in Washington in January, according to the National Climatic Data Center, was about a degree warmer than the average for the last 40 years.

But the reverse is also true: The fact that Vancouver, Canada, is experiencing record-high temperatures and importing snow for the Winter Olympics doesn’t prove a warming trend.

The articles also point out this is an El Nino year. And that means lots of precipitation.

Posted by James on Feb 17, 2010

I lust after Apple but love Linux!

Tax season’s nearly here, dealing me a triple dose of woe: 1) Calculating my taxes; 2) Paying my taxes; and, 3) Powering on my very dusty Windows laptop (once I find it).

For the past few years, I’ve done all my work on Linux machines. I practically live on my Linux laptop and love using all the free applications the open source community has written for Linux.

But there’s ONE thing I can’t find for Linux: TurboTax or something roughly equivalent. As soon as I find a moderately acceptable replacement that runs on Linux, I’ll never touch my old Windows laptop again. Correction: I’ll reformat the hard drive with Ubuntu (my favorite Linux distribution), and it will run all my favorite apps twice as fast as their proprietary, commercial equivalents running on that bloated proprietary OS known as Windows 95, NT, 2000, XP, Vista 7. Just typing that reminds me how much I hate Windows.

Last tax season, I wasn’t even able to install TurboTax till I patched all the security holes by installing service pack 2 (SP2), a grueling process that involves lots of waiting and praying that everything succeeds and wondering what the heck is going on under the covers of “my” machine. With Linux, I either KNOW what it’s doing, or I know I can find out.

Anyhow, I started this post after reading this delicious comment on a Slashdot thread discussing how “locked down” Apple’s operating systems have become, so drastically different from early Apple machines that let “hackers” hack on them:

Ironic that this company once ran an ad based on Orwell’s 1984 where Apple decries totalitarian control.

I fixed the problem on my Mac-mini: I installed Linux on it.

Another poster notes “The sadly amusing thing about the ‘1984’ commercial is how much the setting resembles a Steve Jobs presentation.”

As sexy as Apple’s hardware and software is, and as much as I drool over it every time I walk through an Apple store, I’m immensely happy with my boring, open Linux machine and will never get locked into another proprietary operating system after being abused by Microsoft for so many years.

Posted by James on Feb 05, 2010

Is China the next 1930s U.S. or 1990s Japan?

Very thought-provoking blog post by Professor Michael Pettis slamming Thomas Friedman’s article.

Legendary short seller Jim Chanos argued recently that there’s a great opportunity to profit from selling China short because China’s economy is experiencing a giant bubble. Friedman argued that China’s leaders will successfully defuse any incipient bubbles and possess tremendous financial resources and economic strengths that will enable them to avoid a big bursting bubble.

Professor Pettis says China’s economy is far frothier and its macroeconomic management far more exuberant than Friedman claims:

[Y]ou have to be a tad credulous to believe that the RMB 7.5 trillion lending target for 2010 and the slightly higher interest rates represents taking air out of the asset bubble. I would argue that they simply mean that the astonishing rate at which they were pumping air into the bubble has moderated slightly, to merely excessive.

Friedman also specifically argued that it’s wise “Never short a country with $2 trillion in foreign currency reserves.” Professor Pettis destroys this argument by noting two deeply disturbing examples:

Twice before in history a country has, under similar circumstances, run up foreign reserves of the same magnitude.

The first time occurred in the late 1920s when, after a decade of record-beating trade and capital account surpluses, the United States had accumulated what John Maynard Keynes worriedly described as “all the bullion in the world”. At the time, total reserves accumulated by the US were more than 5-6% of global GDP. My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that this was probably the greatest hoard of central bank reserves ever accumulated as a share of global GDP, but please check before you accept this claim.

The second time occurred in the late 1980s, when it was Japan’s turn to combine huge trade surpluses, along with more moderate surpluses on the capital account, to accumulate a stockpile of foreign reserves only a little less than the equivalent of 5-6% of global GDP. By the late 1980s, Japan’s accumulation of reserves drew the sort of same breathless description – much of it incorrect, of course – that China’s does today.

Needless to say, and in sharp rebuttal to Friedman, both previous cases turned out badly for long investors and brilliantly for anyone dumb enough to have gone short. During the early years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, US stock markets lost more than 80 per cent of their value, real estate prices collapsed, and the US economy contracted in real terms by an astonishing 30-40 per cent before recovering in the 1940s.

Japan’s subsequent experience was economically less violent in the short term, but even costlier over the long term. During the period following its astonishing accumulation of central bank reserves, its stock market also lost more than 80 per cent of its value, real estate prices collapsed, and economic growth was virtually non-existent for two decades….

The risks that China faces today (and the US in the late 1920s and Japan in the late 1980s) is of excessive domestic liquidity having fueled asset and capacity bubbles, the latter requiring the uninterrupted ability of foreign countries to absorb via large and growing trade deficits. These risks include an explosion in domestic government debt directly and contingently through the banking system…. [For this,] reserves are almost totally useless.

Posted by James on Feb 03, 2010

Keeping people healthy far less profitable than charging sick people outrageous fees

Princeton economics professor Uwe Reinhardt asks us to imagine colleges working like our health care system:

[S]uppose universities operated… on a piece-rate compensation basis, like the current health system. They would then be merely a pastiche of different pedagogic profit centers, each with its own fee schedules and ownership patterns.

Professors would rent office space from the university and then each function as their own profit centers. They would equip their offices with computers to present graphic illustrations to students during office hours or surf the internet with them, charging not only a professional office-visit fee, but also a PC usage fee…

The for-profit University Library Inc. would be owned by jointly by the entire faculty, perhaps in a joint venture with Barnes & Noble. Each time a student used the reserve library to read the voluminous material assigned by the professors, there would be a separate charge — perhaps even a facility charge if a student read the book in the library, as many like to do…

Students would be charged a professional lecture fee for every class they attended along, of course, with another facilities fee, like an operating-room charge in a hospital. Every time a student sought out a teaching assistant during office hours a charge would be incurred…

[Parents] would be stunned not only by the sheer length of the invoice and the total amount billed, but also because so many line items would be expressed in either Latin or Greek and thus be completely incomprehensible to most parents. Upon requesting a fee schedule from the dean of the college, the latter would patiently explain that different prices had been negotiated with different parents and that all of those fees are proprietary information.

The analogy partially illustrates the insanity of our piece-rate healthcare system. But the analogy misses a key argument for government-paid “single payer” healthcare: An HMO receiving a flat fee per customer has strong incentives to pursue preventive medicine (and advocate for healthy patient behaviors) that keeps customers healthy. Keeping patients healthy lowers the HMO’s costs, thus raising their profits. Conversely, our current system leads profit-maximizing hospitals and doctors and drug companies to over-treat patients, conduct unnecessary tests and procedures, and prescribe medicines of dubious value.

Currently, colleges have reasonable incentives to provide quality education at low cost. If a college’s perceived quality does not match its sticker price, students will go elsewhere. And colleges that turn out poorly educated graduates won’t raise much from alumni for their endowments. But, if colleges were instead paid piece-rates, students would have far greater difficulty comparing colleges based on price-adjusted quality because: 1) The total price tag to attend each college would be hard to determine ex ante; and, 2) It would be hard to determine how well students attending any particular college fared because even students attending the same college might purchase very different educational experiences. Many colleges would likely exploit this greater uncertainty — and the greater market power it gives them — by charging higher fees. As high as college costs already are, costs would probably rise substantially. Even worse, educational quality would fall because: 1) Many students would reduce their educational experience to avoid paying fees; and, 2) As fees rose, students would be even more inclined to reduce their consumption of education.

That’s exactly the situation we face in healthcare today. Walk into a hospital, and you have no idea what you’ll be charged. You often can’t even find out until after the procedure has been carried out. Given that hospitals can charge whatever they want (unless you have a big insurance company that has the power to negotiate rates) and don’t have to tell you their fees until it’s too late to say “no,” hospitals charge uninsured patients exorbitant amounts. Fearing these giant bills, many Americans avoid treatment. People having emergencies are often so scared of the ambulance charge, for example, that they drive to the hospital… or tough it out, hoping they’ll feel better. And then there are the tens of millions of Americans who can’t even afford hospital treatment because it’s so expensive.

A single-payer system would be infinitely superior to and cheaper than our current situation. But there’s much less profit in keeping people healthy than in charging outrageous fees when people get sick.

Posted by James on Feb 05, 2010

Large banks: OK. Cheap money: OK. Let banks do whatever they want: Disaster

To figure out what really caused the Great Recession, Paul Krugman compares America’s crisis-causing banks with Canada’s crisis-resistant banks. Krugman absolves two commonly cited villains: 1) The Fed’s loose monetary policy is off the hook because “Canadian interest rates have tracked U.S. rates quite closely”; and, 2) Krugman crosses off mega-bank consolidation as the culprit because “in Canada essentially all the banks are too big to fail: just five banking groups dominate.” What’s left?

Canada’s experience does seem to support the views of people like Elizabeth Warren, the head of the Congressional panel overseeing the bank bailout, who place much of the blame for the crisis on failure to protect consumers from deceptive lending. Canada has an independent Financial Consumer Agency, and it has sharply restricted subprime-type lending.

Above all, Canada’s experience seems to support those who say that the way to keep banking safe is to keep it boring — that is, to limit the extent to which banks can take on risk. The United States used to have a boring banking system, but Reagan-era deregulation made things dangerously interesting. Canada, by contrast, has maintained a happy tedium.

More specifically, Canada has been much stricter about limiting banks’ leverage, the extent to which they can rely on borrowed funds. It has also limited the process of securitization, in which banks package and resell claims on their loans outstanding — a process that was supposed to help banks reduce their risk by spreading it, but has turned out in practice to be a way for banks to make ever-bigger wagers with other people’s money.

It’s deregulation’s fault. You can have large banks. And you can have cheap money. You just can’t let banks do whatever the heck they want.

Banks aren’t ordinary companies. Banks hold and invest depositors' deposits. Bank deposits are federally insured. And politicians consider large banks too important — or, more accurately, too politically powerful — to fail, so large banks possess implicit bankruptcy protection.

Profit maximization leads banks to bamboozle — even defraud — customers. One trick is to overwhelm customers with piles of documents full of legal mumbo jumbo. (Does anyone really understand the mortgage documents they sign? Our attorney didn’t even give me time to read them when we bought our house in 2004. Just shoved a pile of paper in front of me and told me to sign them all quickly.)

But, in recent years, bank grifters' main marks weren’t mortgage borrowers but institutional investors (pension funds, cities and towns, university endowments, etc.). Banks — with help from complicit ratings agencies — tricked these “sophisticated investors” into buying their likely-to-fail CDOs (collections of likely-to-default mortgages gorgeously packaged up to hide all the crap inside).

Even worse, banks with little or no net worth have strong incentives to gamble with federally insured deposits. And even healthy banks took on trillions of dollars of risk to make highly leveraged “heads we win, tails taxpayers lose” gambles, (correctly) anticipating taxpayer bailouts if their bets became losers.

Posted by James on Feb 01, 2010

Let kids play!

Parents and teachers should read — a lot — with children. And they should talk about numbers and math whenever children express interest in counting, adding or subtracting things. But some parents and schools are so over-emphasizing reading and math that they’re not only deadening what should be enjoyable learning experiences but also cutting out many other important activities children should be engaged in, unbalancing these children’s growth, leaving them stunted in other important ways.

Here’s an example:

Anthony DiCarlo, the longtime principal of the William E. Cottle Elementary School in Tuckahoe, N.Y., a suburb north of Manhattan, said that many children are experiencing delays in their fine and gross motor skills.

“Almost all our kids come into kindergarten able to recite their letters and their numbers,” Mr. DiCarlo said. “Some can even read. But in the last five years, I’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of kids who don’t have the strength in their hands to wield a scissors or do arts and crafts projects, which in turn prepares them for writing.”

Many kindergartners in his community, he said, have taken music appreciation classes or participated in adult-led sports teams or yoga. And most have also logged serious time in front of a television or a computer screen. But very few have had unlimited opportunities to run, jump and skip, or make mud pies and break twigs. “I’m all for academic rigor,” he said, “but these days I tell parents that letting their child mold clay, play in the sand or build with Play-Doh builds important school-readiness skills, too.”

Posted by James on Feb 25, 2010

Manufacturing cost: 8%; Retail markup: 92%

Roger Cohen writes about Chinese factory owner Eddie Leung, whose company manufactures watches for many famous brands:

Leung was wearing a great hulk of a watch called a Bonja. It’s big in Gulf states, where it retails for about $4,000. Leung told me he’s paid $200 for this model and that leaves him a comfortable margin. For Juicy Couture watches that retail in New York for $95, he gets eight dollars. He’s still making money on that. In general he receives about 8 percent of the retail price, or about 40 bucks for a $495 Lacoste watch…

Develop a cool brand and you can charge a crazy mark-up. Even for a product like a watch that nobody needs any more…

The average worker at [the watch factory] earns about $150 to $200 a month, before overtime, ranging higher for supervisors. About 70 percent of the more than 400 workers are women, many from inland provinces, living six to a room in on-premise dormitories and sending their earnings home.

No wonder there are so many cheap, high-quality knock-offs of famous Western luxury goods. Since manufacturers receive just 5% to 10% of the retail price, manufacturers still increase profit selling identical products on the black market at 90% to 95% discounts.

Posted by James on Feb 09, 2010

Oh, (selfish) Canada!

A few months ago, Stephen Colbert — whose Colbert Nation stepped up and contributed over $300,000 to the U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Team after it lost its big sponsor — berated Canada for refusing to allow U.S. speed skaters to test out the Olympic facilities. Actually, he initially begged and cajoled Canada. When that failed, he bad-mouthed them for their poor sportsmanship:

Colbert used his show to aim some pointed barbs north of the border, while picking up on complaints that Vancouver Olympic officials have been limiting international athletes' access to facilities for the 2010 Winter Games.

“Those syrup-suckers won’t let us practice at their Olympic venues,” Colbert said. “At the Salt Lake Games, we let the Canadian luge team take 100 practice runs.”

The issue of access to the Richmond Olympic Oval is one that resonates with the U.S. skaters, although they’re more diplomatic about it than Colbert.

“It’s the Olympics, the point of the Olympics is to bring the whole world together and by doing that they’re kind of separating themselves off from the world,” said rising U.S. star Trevor Marsicano…

Veteran Chad Hedrick feels the same way.

“I think everybody should have equal rights to train on the ice as much as they can,” the Olympic champion said.

Well, I now learn that Canada — desperate to win medals at its Olympics — has severely restricted access to “its” Olympics facilities for teams from other countries and other sports. Horrifyingly, Canada’s selfishness may not only have tilted the playing field unfairly in Canada’s favor but already claimed Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s life.

The course is ridiculously fast (and, hence, ridiculously dangerous):

Bobsled, luge and skeleton athletes who have tested the course at Whistler in the last two years have widened their eyes when talking about the speeds generated on the track. Luge sleds generally peak in the mid-80s at other tracks but have hit the high 90s at Whistler. After a luger went a record 95.65 mph at a test event on the course last year, Josef Fendt, president of the International Luge Federation, expressed concerns that the track was too fast. “It makes me worry.”

But, even worse, Canada granted non-Canadian Olympians minimal access:

One U.S. slider says that some blame should be placed with Canadian Olympic organizers for not granting international athletes more access to the course before the Games. The Vancouver Organizing Committee did add extra training time for the sliding course because of its difficulty, but U.S. athletes told SI that they had had only around 40 practice runs, while the Canadians had hundreds. “The selfishness of the Canadian sliding federations just killed somebody,” the athlete says. “We all know about keeping countries off the track [strategically], but at the world championships in Lake Placid [last year] they knew the course was difficult, so the track manager left the course open. We didn’t always like that, but no one got hurt.”

Even before Friday’s tragedy, course access was a bone of contention. U.S. bobsled driver Steve Holcomb, reigning world champion in the four-man event, said last week that the unequal practice time motivated him all the more to beat the Canadians. In November, Holcomb was training at Whistler in a two-man sled when he crashed for the first time in two years. It came on curve 13, which he and teammates have christened the “50/50 curve” because only half of bobsled teams made it through right side up during a training day in early 2009.

Beyond being unsportingly, Canada’s selfishness has proven lethal.

Posted by James on Feb 13, 2010

Privacy a Google "blind spot"

A few years ago, I applied for an opening at Google and wound up interviewing for three or four different positions because I wasn’t the right person for any of the open positions, but they apparently kept thinking I was intriguing enough to pass along to interview for different positions.

I wound up not getting hired, almost certainly because they had many superior candidates. But I’ve always wondered whether my continual pressing on two issues put me on their blacklist. With several years' hindsight, it’s interesting Google has come around to my position on one of these but has not budged on the other.

Unprompted — and probably inappropriately for the positions I was interviewing for — I presented my interviewers with detailed ideas for integrating many Google tools (plus many GPS location-based extensions I envisioned) into a handheld device I called “Google Muse.” One interviewer objected on the grounds that Google is a software company, not a hardware company. Well, fast forward a few years, and Google has released the Nexus One. So I feel vindicated on that.

But my other issue — privacy, which I raised in every interview — remains a huge Google problem. Interviewers asked me about Google tools I use, and I confessed I avoided (and continue avoiding) things like Google Toolbar for privacy reasons. I don’t want Google (or any other corporation) inside my operating system. Well, several years later, “Privacy, complexity seen as Google blind spots”:

many Google products have raised red flags among privacy groups, because they often provide new ways for the company to collect information about users and customize advertising based on their behavior. Before Buzz, advocates had voiced concerns about Google’s search engine, Gmail, pending Google Books settlement and move into mobile advertising.

“The bottom line is, users should have meaningful control over their information,” said Kimberly Nguyen, consumer privacy counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

If Google doesn’t convince people it’s protecting their privacy, people like me won’t trust Google. That won’t matter to many, who will use Google’s services anyhow. Heck, most people still use Microsoft’s proprietary operating system. But Google may well find its ambitions thwarted if the tech vanguard, the Linux desktop community, shuns it. Many in this small but influential and growing community despise Microsoft and are inclined toward Google, but I doubt I’m alone in my distrust.

Posted by James on Feb 21, 2010

"Raise children, rather than test scores"

Nice op-ed piece today by the director of Williams College’s teaching program calling for the replacement of America’s test-centric curriculum with “a curriculum designed to raise children, rather than test scores”:

[D]evelopmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading. For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read. But having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood does…

[C]hildren [sh]ould spend two hours each day hearing stories read aloud, reading aloud themselves, telling stories to one another and reading on their own. After all, the first step to literacy is simply being immersed, through conversation and storytelling, in a reading environment; the second is to read a lot and often…. Children [sh]ould also spend an hour a day writing things that have actual meaning to them — stories, newspaper articles, captions for cartoons, letters to one another. People write best when they use writing to think and to communicate, rather than to get a good grade…

[T]eachers should spend time each day having sustained conversations with small groups of children. Such conversations give children a chance to support their views with evidence, change their minds and use questions as a way to learn more…

[C]hildren learn best when they are interested in the material or activity they are learning. Play — from building contraptions to enacting stories to inventing games — can allow children to satisfy their curiosity about the things that interest them in their own way. It can also help them acquire higher-order thinking skills, like generating testable hypotheses, imagining situations from someone else’s perspective and thinking of alternate solutions.

A classroom like this would provide lots of time for children to learn to collaborate with one another, a skill easily as important as math or reading. It takes time and guidance to learn how to get along, to listen to one another and to cooperate.

No Child Left Behind conflicts violently with what educational researchers find to be optimal for child development. NCLB tests, tests, and tests a shockingly narrow set of knowledge and skills. The tests are not designed to help children learn from their mistakes. And they cover such a narrow range of knowledge that teaching to the tests sucks the fun out of learning. And school districts' obsession with high scores has led to the elimination of music, art, and history/social studies at tens of thousands of schools.

Posted by James on Feb 02, 2010

School-issued laptop used to secretly record student at home

Astonishing news from Harriton High School in Rosemont, PA:

  1. School issues all students laptops with the secret ability to capture photos, videos and audio of students and send them back to school administrators
  2. School doesn’t tell students the laptops it gave them for “engaged and active learning and enhanced student achievement” have the ability to secretly take and send photos, videos and audio of them (and their families)
  3. School uses this “feature” to secretly record at least one student, on the grounds it suspected the student of being “engaged in improper behavior in his home”
  4. School punishes the student for “improper behavior,” using a photo secretly captured at the student’s home as evidence

Each of these is shocking. That one school would do all four is beyond comprehension. These people are running a high school?!?!?!

Posted by James on Feb 19, 2010

Soda is evil

I haven’t drunk a soda in fifteen years, and our kids haven’t (and won’t) drink soda. We let them drink diluted fruit juice and — as special treats — homemade smoothies made with real berries.

Soda is basically a bowl of sugar dissolved in acid. It’s absolutely horrible for your teeth, digestive track and nutrition.

I haven’t read “Soda: A Sin We Sip Instead of Smoke?”, but I expect it offers pretty convincing reasons to eliminate soda from your diet and keep it out of your kids' bodies.

Posted by James on Feb 15, 2010

Strategic restraint: Sometimes, losing is winning

Appropriate restraint is a great virtue, and those with deep experience are best equipped to exercise appropriate restraint, as “After Lying Low in Boom, No Bust for New York’s Real Estate Royalty” illustrates:

At the height of the boom, the Dursts, the Rudins, the Roses, the LeFraks and other members of New York’s royal real estate families were treated like slow-moving dinosaurs on the verge of extinction.

Although they had spent more than five decades carving their names into the New York skyline, the families were outbid and sometimes outmaneuvered by the newer, flashier speculators and investors who swaggered down Manhattan streets buying one skyscraper after another at record-setting prices.

But now that some of the record-breakers are desperately trying to fend off lenders or teetering at the edge of bankruptcy, these families are looking like wise veterans. They are in relatively healthy financial shape and eager to do deals. They do not necessarily take pleasure in the downfall of the upstarts, but they do relish the fact that, as one scion said with a bit of exaggeration, “Now, we’re the only ones breathing.”

Appropriate self-restraint is obviously valuable in bidding and purchasing situations but also provides benefits in many other fields. A soccer player can’t run at top speed for an entire match but must judiciously expend his/her energy reserves. A pianist or jazz trumpeter can’t hit every note with wild fury but must modulate intensity as the music’s mood demands. When dating, some people act too excited too early, scaring off their prospective partner. And wise parents discipline their children in ways thoughtfully chosen to help the children improve, rather than impulsively disciplining out of anger (by spanking, screaming or other counterproductive approaches).

In all these situations, restraint is strategic and produces superior long-term outcomes. The soccer player may not get to every ball early in the game but they’ll be fresher later in the game and play an overall superior match. The musician optimizes the overall listening experience by varying pitch, dynamics, and timbre. And children whose parents discipline them appropriately learn and internalize good behaviors and come to trust their parents' judgment, without developing resentment toward them that causes many children to rebel against their parents.

Posted by James on Feb 09, 2010

Superhuman intelligence by the 2040s?

Many experts in Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) believe computers will become smarter than people within decades. Nearly half of respondents in one expert poll believe computers will be performing Nobel Prize-level research in the 2020s and “going beyond the human level to superhuman intelligence” by the 2040s:

The majority of the experts who participated in our study were optimistic about AGI coming fairly quickly, although a few were more pessimistic about the timing…

All three studies suggest that significant numbers of interested, informed individuals believe it is likely that AGI at the human level or beyond will occur around the middle of this century, and plausibly even sooner. Of course, this doesn’t prove anything about what the future actually holds — but it does show that, these days, the possibility of “human-level AGI just around the corner” is not a fringe belief. It’s something we all must take seriously.

We can’t even begin to fathom the implications. I’m sure our new superintelligent overlords will figure it out for us. I hope they’re benevolent.

Posted by James on Feb 11, 2010

Teachers say students lack not "the three Rs" but the many Cs

School has long been associated with “the three Rs” (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic). But, according to a survey of more than 8,000 teachers, children most need to learn to:

  • Listen to others
  • Follow the steps
  • Follow the rules
  • Ignore distractions
  • Ask for help
  • Take turns when you talk
  • Get along with others
  • Stay calm with others
  • Be responsible for your behavior
  • Do nice things for others

Let’s call these “the many Cs”: compliance, concentration, considerateness, cooperation, cordiality, calm, conscientiousness, caring, etc.

Economists call these “soft skills.” Are our schools overemphasizing hard skills and failing to teach critical soft skills? If so, is our failure to teach soft skills undermining our efforts to teach hard skills?

Would students learn hard skills faster if they first learned soft skills? Judging from countless horror stories I’ve read about unruly students and teachers who quit the profession because they can’t handle a class of 25 students half of whom are more focused on disrupting their classmates than learning, I suspect focusing more on soft skills would improve the classroom environment and lead to greater student achievement on “hard” skills too.

Posted by James on Feb 05, 2010

Teach for America identifies what makes good teachers. (Why hasn't U.S. public education?)

Companies expend great effort studying how customers use their products and identifying ways to improve. Further, companies reward employees who improve products and satisfy customers. Shockingly, the American educational system does virtually nothing of the sort. Very little is known about what makes a good teacher. And, in many states, it’s even illegal to tie teacher compensation to student (customer) performance.

So I was thrilled to read this excellent article in The Atlantic asks “What Makes a Great Teacher?” that provides some answers, based on Teach for America research. Teach for America has a tiny fraction of the teachers in the U.S. educational system, yet they constantly mine their database to improve their teacher selection and training process:

[G]reat teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, when Farr called up teachers who were making remarkable gains and asked to visit their classrooms, he noticed he’d get a similar response from all of them: “They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’ When you hear that over and over, and you don’t hear that from other teachers, you start to form a hypothesis.” Great teachers, he concluded, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.

Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls…

Mr. Taylor follows a very basic lesson plan often referred to by educators as “I do, we do, you do.” He does a problem on the board. Then the whole class does another one the same way. Then all the kids do a problem on their own…

Those who initially scored high for “grit”—defined as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals, and measured using a short multiple-choice test—were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer…

Teachers who scored high in “life satisfaction”—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues. These teachers “may be more adept at engaging their pupils, and their zest and enthusiasm may spread to their students,” the study suggested.

…[A] master’s degree in education seems to have no impact on classroom effectiveness.

Posted by James on Feb 07, 2010

The $177 bagel

Stalled in traffic in 2004, our real estate agent commented they had been “repairing” this stretch of I-95 for years and that he had no idea what they were trying to accomplish. That was my first personal exposure to Corrupticut. But, as bad as things can be here, our neighbors in New York and New Jersey face worse:

Our question for today is, who has the most awful political culture, Illinois or New York?

Already, I have offended many, many readers who believe their state is being unfairly overlooked. I see you waving your hands, New Jersey.

Excuse me. I was just distracted by the new 66-page federal indictment of Larry Seabrook, a New York City councilman who, along with multitudinous other charges, is accused of altering a receipt from a deli so he could get a $177 reimbursement for a bagel and diet soda.

Posted by James on Feb 11, 2010

The awesome power of awe

An analysis of the most frequently emailed New York Times articles reveals a surprising reason for article popularity: “of all the variables studied, Dr. Berger said, awe had the strongest relationship with an article making the most-e-mailed list”:

Perhaps most of all, readers wanted to share articles that inspired awe, an emotion that the researchers investigated after noticing how many science articles made the list. In general, they found, 20 percent of articles that appeared on the Times home page made the list, but the rate rose to 30 percent for science articles, including ones with headlines like “The Promise and Power of RNA.”

…They used two criteria for an awe-inspiring story: Its scale is large, and it requires “mental accommodation” by forcing the reader to view the world in a different way.

“It involves the opening and broadening of the mind… Seeing the Grand Canyon, standing in front of a beautiful piece of art, hearing a grand theory or listening to a beautiful symphony may all inspire awe. So may the revelation of something profound and important in something you may have once seen as ordinary or routine, or seeing a causal connection between important things and seemingly remote causes.”

Posted by James on Feb 09, 2010

The power of high expectations (and avoiding American high school culture)

A huge roadblock to academic success in America is high school culture. American high school life seems to center around dating, proms, parties, football, and cheerleading, not academics. By providing such a knowledge-poor educational experience — an environment in which students idolize “jocks” and bully “nerds” — we’re failing millions of our children.

Am I overreacting? I personally skipped the entire high school social scene. I had my first beer in college, for example. And many of my high school classmates who attended top colleges weren’t necessarily the most brilliant kids I knew but, like me, weren’t big on the partying and gossip scene. We had our heads in our books and didn’t care who ridiculed us for studying.

America is “exceptional” in this way. In many other countries, good students are admired, not mocked and beaten up, by their peers. Peer pressure is an incredibly powerful force, especially among teenagers. But it’s not an inherently anti-intellectual force, as it is here. Peer pressure (in better schools around the world, at least) helps promote a positive pro-learning environment.

But staying focused in school has become even harder because many American schools have eliminated art, music, drama, history, extracurriculars, and foreign languages. We’ve largely sucked the joy out of learning by teaching to some pretty dumb tests. (Testing per se is not evil. Well-designed tests, like the International Baccalaureate, are powerful educational tools.)

So I’m quite intrigued by the emergence of highly successful “early-college high school” programs, discussed in this New York Times article. Eliminating the social aspects of high school and ratcheting up expectations — by sending high schoolers to community colleges — produces incredible results, even for ordinary students:

Until recently, most programs like this were aimed at affluent, overachieving students — a way to keep them challenged and give them a head start on college work. But the goal is quite different at SandHoke, which enrolls only students whose parents do not have college degrees.

Here, and at North Carolina’s other 70 early-college schools, the goal is to keep at-risk students in school by eliminating the divide between high school and college…

Results have been impressive. Not all students at North Carolina’s early-college high schools earn two full years of college credit before they graduate — but few drop out.

“Last year, half our early-college high schools had zero dropouts, and that’s just unprecedented for North Carolina, where only 62 percent of our high school students graduate after four years,” said Tony Habit, president of the North Carolina New Schools Project, the nonprofit group spearheading the state’s high school reform.

In addition, North Carolina’s early-college high school students are getting slightly better grades in their college courses than their older classmates.

Economic development statistics in poor nations prove that the most cost-effective way to raise a country’s living standards is to educate girls. Educating girls produces an incredibly wide range of societal benefits. The same is true right here in America. Consider how removing this young woman from her high school’s social environment promises to pay huge dividends:

“I didn’t want to [go to Sandhills Community College while in high school], because my middle school friends weren’t applying,” [12th-grader Precious] Holt said. “I cried, but my mother made me do it.”

“The first year, I didn’t like it, because my friends at the regular high school were having pep rallies and actual fun, while I had all this homework. But when I look back at my middle school friends, I see how many of them got pregnant or do drugs or dropped out. And now I’m excited, because I’m a year ahead.”

…Ms. Holt [now] is aiming for medical school. She was disappointed last semester to get three B’s and two A’s.

“That’s not what I was hoping for,” she said, “and I’m going to work harder this semester.”

Posted by James on Feb 08, 2010

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so"

In Hamlet Act II, Scene II, Hamlet offers the brilliant advice that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Ironically, rather than use this insight to achieve the peace and happiness that eludes him, Hamlet uses it to explain why he is so miserable (“Denmark’s a prison… one o' the worst”).

Many who survived Nazi concentration camps (and many who were murdered there with their dignity intact) understood this profound truth, as the brilliant 1997 movie “Life Is Beautiful” (La vita è bella) illustrates so poetically.

We could all live happier lives if we regularly paused to reflect on how negatively our negative reactions to external events affect us. Sometimes, our negative reactions serve no positive purpose yet harm ourselves, as Russell Bishop notes:

I sometimes find myself reacting to other people (in this case, drivers) who cut me off, make sudden changes, or otherwise behave in ways that I don’t appreciate. Some part of me rises up in righteous indignation and I often say something unpleasant to them in my mind, or even more embarrassingly, right out loud as I’m driving along.

My wife is fond of pointing out to me that it is equally unpleasant to hear me commenting negatively about the other person. Even more to the point, it is pretty ineffective on my part given that the other person can’t even hear me!

…what I am most trying to teach myself is that my experience of well being, peace, harmony, balance, etc. is not a function of what someone else does, but more about my response to it…

I am “attracting” the reaction inside of myself by staying focused on their behavior, more than my response… Instead, both of us may be overly sensitive to the behavior of others, or what we deem their lack of consideration toward us, and wind up in a state of overreaction.

Someone else may experience the same set of behaviors and simply remain calm, adjusting their own behavior, in this case driving, to match the circumstances that are present.

So, here I am, noticing what someone else says or does, and then (over)reacting as though the other person actually has control over my state of well-being…

[I]f you would like to gain greater control over your own life, to move down the path of creating more of what you truly want out of life, it might not be so bad to simply start with your own reactions to situations and circumstances in life.

Posted by James on Feb 23, 2010

The United States of Surveillance

I remember when the law was simple: The U.S. government could not spy on American citizens, period. Oh, how things have changed (in violation of the U.S. Constitution)

How many of the owners of the country’s 277 million cell phones even know that companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint can track their devices in real time? Most “don’t have a clue,” says privacy advocate James X. Dempsey. The tracking is possible because either the phones have tiny GPS units inside or each phone call is routed through towers that can be used to pinpoint a phone’s location to areas as small as a city block. This capability to trace ever more precise cell-phone locations has been spurred by a Federal Communications Commission rule designed to help police and other emergency officers during 911 calls. But the FBI and other law-enforcement outfits have been obtaining more and more records of cell-phone locations—without notifying the targets or getting judicial warrants establishing “probable cause,” according to law-enforcement officials, court records, and telecommunication executives. (The Justice Department draws a distinction between cell-tower data and GPS information, according to a spokeswoman, and will often get warrants for the latter.)

The Justice Department doesn’t keep statistics on requests for cell-phone data, according to the spokeswoman. So it’s hard to gauge just how often these records are retrieved. But Al Gidari, a telecommunications lawyer who represents several wireless providers, tells NEWSWEEK that the companies are now getting “thousands of these requests per month,” and the amount has grown “exponentially” over the past few years. Sprint Nextel has even set up a dedicated Web site so that law-enforcement agents can access the records from their desks—a fact divulged by the company’s “manager of electronic surveillance” at a private Washington security conference last October. “The tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement,” said the Sprint executive, according to a tape made by a privacy activist who sneaked into the event. (A Sprint spokesman acknowledged the company has created the Web “portal” but says that law-enforcement agents must be “authenticated” before they are given passwords to log on, and even then still must provide valid court orders for all nonemergency requests.)

And the government believes it has a right to use cell phone data even to identify political protesters:

The issue came to a head this month in a federal courtroom in Philadelphia. A Justice Department lawyer, Mark Eckenwiler, asked a panel of appeals-court judges to overturn Lenihan’s ruling, arguing that the Feds were only asking for what amounted to “routine business records.” But he faced stiff questioning from one of the judges, Dolores Sloviter, who noted that there are some governments, like Iran’s, that would like to use such records to identify political protesters. “Now, can the government assure us,” she pressed Eckenwiler, that Justice would never use the provisions in the communications law to collect cell-phone data for such a purpose in the United States? Eckenwiler tried to deflect the question, saying he couldn’t speak to “future hypotheticals,” but finally acknowledged, “Yes, your honor. It can be used constitutionally for that purpose.” For those concerned about what the government might do with the data in your pocket, that was not a comforting answer.

Posted by James on Feb 23, 2010

Touch and teamwork

Successful teams touch a lot, though it’s unclear whether touching improves teamwork or teamwork encourages touching:

Michael W. Kraus led a research team that coded every bump, hug and high five in a single game played by each team in the National Basketball Association early last season.

In a paper due out this year in the journal Emotion, Mr. Kraus and his co-authors, Cassy Huang and Dr. Keltner, report that with a few exceptions, good teams tended to be touchier than bad ones. The most touch-bonded teams were the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, currently two of the league’s top teams; at the bottom were the mediocre Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Bobcats.

The same was true, more or less, for players. The touchiest player was Kevin Garnett, the Celtics’ star big man, followed by star forwards Chris Bosh of the Toronto Raptors and Carlos Boozer of the Utah Jazz. “Within 600 milliseconds of shooting a free throw, Garnett has reached out and touched four guys,” Dr. Keltner said.

…[E]ven after the high expectations surrounding the more talented teams were taken into account, the correlation persisted. Players who made contact with teammates most consistently and longest tended to rate highest on measures of performance, and the teams with those players seemed to get the most out of their talent.

This also applies to the most important team you’ll ever belong to, your marriage:

Christopher Oveis of Harvard conducted five-minute interviews with 69 couples, prompting each pair to discuss difficult periods in their relationship.

The investigators scored the frequency and length of touching that each couple, seated side by side, engaged in…. “[I]t looks so far like the couples who touch more are reporting more satisfaction in the relationship,” he said.

Posted by James on Feb 24, 2010

U.S. government murdered 10,000+ during Prohibition

Rather than catch and punish drinkers with jail time, the U.S. government issued at least 10,000 death sentences during Prohibition:

Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.

Although mostly forgotten today, the “chemist’s war of Prohibition” remains one of the strangest and most deadly decisions in American law-enforcement history. As one of its most outspoken opponents, Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner of New York City during the 1920s, liked to say, it was “our national experiment in extermination.”

Posted by James on Feb 24, 2010

We need a theory of bank "regulatability"

In my previous post, I related Paul Krugman’s argument that deregulation — not “too big to fail” or easy money — caused The Great Recession.

But an interview response by Krugman’s fellow economics Nobel laureate Joe Stiglitz suggests a flaw in Krugman’s logic:

[Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker] said that if banks are too big to fail, then they’re too big to be managed, they’re too complex, there is no person who can really manage anything of that complexity.

Krugman argued that Canadian banks were also “too big to fail” because five banks control most financial business in Canada. But size relative to the marketplace is only one measure of size. Absolute size matters also.

Imagine that fifty banks each control, say, 2% of the world’s financial markets. Fifty rival banks is certainly enough to create strong market competition. And the failure of 2% or 4% of the world’s banks might well be manageable. But, Volcker might well argue, each of those fifty banks is still so large and complex that regulating them would be nearly impossible.

A Canadian bank with 15% of the Canadian market may be small enough (in absolute terms) to be regulatable whereas an American bank with just 5% or 10% of the U.S. market (plus sizeable overseas business) may be vastly larger and more complex and, therefore, unregulatable.

Before we can effectively regulate modern banks, we need a theory of “regulatability.” Factors affecting “regulatability” include: * Absolute size * Degree of transnational dispersion of activities and regulatory authority * Amount of leverage (borrowing) * The variety, complexity and volatility of the financial instruments a bank trades * The correlation structure of financial instruments held by the bank (i.e., is the bank heavily exposed to certain possible world events, or will the effect on the bank’s asset portfolio of events likely cancel out) * Exposure to other large institutions (e.g., if Bank B fails, might that trigger a domino effect on other banks?) * Ability to “capture” the SEC and Congress, thus escaping regulation through non-enforcement or legal loopholes

Posted by James on Feb 01, 2010

Worse than 1937?

Paul Krugman suggests we’re not only repeating President Roosevelt’s 1937 mistake — by cutting off stimulus before the economy is strong enough to stand up on its own — but doing so in an even worse economic situation:

the stimulus fades out fast starting in fiscal 2011, which starts in October 2010. Yet the consensus view is that unemployment will be around as high as it is now.

The point is that we’re doing a 1937 — or actually worse, since unemployment had in fact fallen dramatically before FDR made his big mistake. Fiscal support for the economy will be pulled away with the economy having barely begun to recover.

A year ago, Krugman insisted, repeatedly, that the proposed stimulus package was too small and that 6 or 12 months later — when it would be obvious we needed more — it would be politically infeasible. Why is this man not in charge of something, President Obama!?!?!

Posted by James on Feb 19, 2010

Your brain on a cell phone

Long ago, anti-drug campaigners ran an ad showing an egg (“This is your brain…”) splattering onto a frying pan (“…on drugs”). Well, the same can apparently be said about your brain after years of cellphone use.

The article says evidence of dangerous non-thermal effects from microwaves and cell phones has been suspected since the 1960s. It further charges that national agencies and even the World Health Organisation willfully refused to consider that evidence:

Among the EPA’s most talented bioelectromagnetics experts at the time was Carl Blackman, who has worked at the agency since its inception in 1970. Blackman’s research at the EPA would advance much of what Allan Frey and others had discovered: The effects from EM fields were many and troubling, though far from fully understood. In 1986 the EPA killed Blackman’s research entirely. Carl Blackman believes “a decision was made to stop the civilian agencies from looking too deeply into the nonthermal health effects from exposure to EM fields. Scientists who have shown such effects over the years have been silenced, had funding taken away, been laughed at, been called charlatans and con men. The goal was to only let in scientists who would say, ‘We know that microwave ovens can cook meat, and that’s all we need to know.’ ” One veteran EPA physicist, speaking anonymously, told me, “The Department of Defense didn’t like our research because the exposure limits that we might recommend would curtail their activities.”

Industry influence appears to have permeated even the purest international watchdogs, such as the World Health Organization. Slesin unearthed a hoard of documents showing that hundreds of thousands of dollars from the cell-phone industry was doled out to WHO personnel working on wireless health effects. Some of the heaviest pressure falls on the Federal Communications Commission, for obvious reasons. In 2005 the specially appointed thirty-member Technological Advisory Council to the FCC sought to look into EM effects on human beings. According to one member of the TAC who spoke anonymously, officials at the FCC “told us we couldn’t talk about that. They would not give us any reason. The FCC people were embarrassed and terrified.”

Corporations are also involved in the cover-up:

Industry-funded studies seem to reflect the result of corporate strong-arming. Lai reviewed 350 studies and found that about half showed bioeffects from EM radiation emitted by cell phones. But when he took into consideration the funding sources for those 350 studies, the results changed dramatically. Only 25 percent of the studies paid for by the industry showed effects, compared with 75 percent of those studies that were independently funded.

The consequence? Many brain tumors:

Earlier this winter, I met an investment banker who was diagnosed with a brain tumor five years ago. He’s a managing director at a top Wall Street firm, and I was put in touch with him through a colleague who knew I was writing a story about the potential dangers of cell-phone radiation. He agreed to talk with me only if his name wasn’t used, so I’ll call him Jim. He explained that the tumor was located just behind his right ear and was not immediately fatal—the five-year survival rate is about 70 percent. He was 35 years old at the time of his diagnosis and immediately suspected it was the result of his intense cell-phone usage. “Not for nothing,” he said, “but in investment banking we’ve been using cell phones since 1992, back when they were the Gordon-Gekko-on-the-beach kind of phone.” When Jim asked his neurosurgeon, who was on the staff of a major medical center in Manhattan, about the possibility of a cell-phone-induced tumor, the doctor responded that in fact he was seeing more and more of such cases—young, relatively healthy businessmen who had long used their phones obsessively. He said he believed the industry had discredited studies showing there is a risk from cell phones. “I got a sense that he was pissed off,” Jim told me. A handful of Jim’s colleagues had already died from brain cancer; the more reports he encountered of young finance guys developing tumors, the more certain he felt that it wasn’t a coincidence. “I knew four or five people just at my firm who got tumors,” Jim says. “Each time, people ask the question. I hear it in the hallways.”


Interphone researchers reported in 2008 that after a decade of cell-phone use, the chance of getting a brain tumor—specifically on the side of the head where you use the phone—goes up as much as 40 percent for adults. Interphone researchers in Israel have found that cell phones can cause tumors of the parotid gland (the salivary gland in the cheek), and an independent study in Sweden last year concluded that people who started using a cell phone before the age of 20 were five times as likely to develop a brain tumor. Another Interphone study reported a nearly 300 percent increased risk of acoustic neuroma, a tumor of the acoustic nerve.

Posted by James on Feb 08, 2010