February 2005 Archives

Many Diet Studies Lack Key Data

Many of the reports omit key mitigating details about the dieters themselves -- things such as medication use, health status, ethnicity and even age.

And later in the artcile:

Gibson's team looked closely at how the articles reported the physical, background and health characteristics of the study participants. As a guide, they used the Consolidation of the Standard of Reporting Trials Characteristics (CONSORT). This is a list of 21 different elements considered essential for a study to be validated by experts and editors of medical journals.

Gibson's team especially focused on age, gender, general health information, use of medication (other than drugs used to control weight), ethnicity and female participant's menopausal status.

Their findings: 92 percent of the studies did not report medication use, while 34 percent ignored the health status of the persons. Ethnicity was not mentioned in 86 percent of the studies; ages were missing in 11 percent.

Eight percent of studies didn't say whether women were pre- or postmenopausal; 4 percent didn't differentiate men from women when reporting results.

That some scientific studies are less than perfect in their methods is no real surprise. And honestly, I've never been one to call people on the carpet for a lack of perfection. I'd be too afraid of all the stories from my own glass house crashing down on me. But I think it's interesting, since such studies directly inform the creation of national policy such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This, of course, does little to change what I'm having for lunch...but it does affect people who are now subject to the whims of legislators who feel the pressure to "do something about this!". (Or, as Helen Lovejoy likes to ask, "Will someone please think of the children?!")

(NOTE: The headline has changed to satisfy my raging pedantry. The use of "may" is more applicable than "might", which I had before. Why I still sometimes let typos go, I cannot explain.)

Just One Word: Nanotechnology

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Not being a long-time watcher of the energy industry, I'm not sure whether this sort of pronouncement comes along routinely, only to fizzle out, or if it might have some serious implications:

Breakthrough in solar photovoltaics

THE HOLY Grail of researchers in the field of solar photovoltaic (SPV) electricity is to generate it at a lower cost than that of grid electricity. The goal now seems to be within reach.

A Palo Alto (California ) start-up, named Nanosolar Inc., founded in 2002, claims that it has developed a commercial scale technology that can deliver solar electricity at 5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Also, I may be guilty of finding those things that support my pet theories. Namely, that the next real shift in energy isn't going to be finding a single, marvelous source of energy to replace coal or oil, but rather we'll see a hodgepodge of other sources made far more economical by breakthroughs in manufacturing as a result of nanotechnology.

T&B Makes the C List!

According to this post, the C List of bloggers include those that get between 150 and 1000 hits a day. Of course, there is still the discrepancy between "visits" and "hits", but since T&B's traffic has ticked up and is now running between 700-800 visits/1000-1300 page views a day, I think we qualify.

Does this mean we get invited to parties with Stephen Baldwin now? (And, if so, do A-Listers go to even better parties? Cuz, you know, there's someone I'm dying to meet. Incentives matter, my friends. Just don't tell my fiancee.)

UPDATE: Unforgivable, really. I forgot to mention that I found the link via Newmark's Door.

No Such Thing as a Free Reactor

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A kilometer-high Solar Tower lurched a little closer to reality:

The quest for a new form of green energy has taken a significant step with the purchase of a 25,000-acre sheep farm in the Australian outback. The huge alternative energy project isn't driven by manure, but by a 1-kilometer-high thermal power station called the Solar Tower.

I've only read a bit about these things, but it sounds pretty interesting, massive engineering and construction challenge aside. (What might not be possible with Frank Lloyd Wright's Mile High Skyscraper might be possible for, basically, a turbine-factory that produces energy on a level with some reactors.)

Seems to me this suffers from some of the same issues as wind farms. Namely, the amount of space they take up isn't conducive to having a bunch of them in every town. That said, the video by EnviroMission seems to envision new, 25000-acre spreads cropping up over Australia in a fashion not unlike the rabbit population.

Just one howler in the article, though:

Although expensive to build, solar towers "essentially produce energy for free," said Sherif [a University of Florida professor of mechanial and aerospace engineering].

Free, you say? That's setting aside, I'm assuming, the opportunity costs of using 25000 square acres for each one of these things that get built. Maybe that's not much in the Oz outback, but you try finding that much space around NYC or Chicago that developers won't scream bloody murder over losing access to...

According to Lawrence Lessig, it seems that being 13th in the world for broadband penetration constitutes "market failure":

The private market has failed the US so far. At the beginning, we led the world in broadband deployment. But by 2004, we ranked an embarrassing 13th. There are many places, like Philadelphia, where service is lacking. And there are many places, like San Francisco, where competition is lacking.

Well, according to the OECD figures, the US is apparently 11th in terms of "Subcribers per 100 Inhabitants"here). These were the numbers that got some folks worked up about about a "broadband gap" in the US, but I'm not entirely certain these are the numbers Lessig cites.

But look at the list of the top 10: Korea, Denmark, Canada, Netherlands, Iceland, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, Sweden, and Norway (in that order). Notice anything about these? Hint: Canada is the outlier. That's right, sheer size of a country matters, as does the distribution of population. Why did broadband start in cities first? Because the marginal cost of extending service to the next person is much lower: wiring one building can get you 200 clients, as opposed to rural areas or low-incomes neighborhoods. Canada's landmass is less significant when you consider where the vast majority of people live (land per capita is great, but density within certain borders is high). When compared to the relative size and dispersion of population within the United States, I'd say the slip from 1st to 11th should have been expected, and that we should be impressed that we haven't been overtaken by, say, big leaps in economic status in a small country like Ireland, or Britain, or France, or the historically-technologically-inclined Germany, or a whole host of other countries that face far smaller problems in terms of space but are on par with the US in terms of technical evolution.

This "failure", then, is the reason Lessig wrangles anti-communist crusading into his description of those who propose "anti-municipal broadband" regulation. Of course, the rhetoric is merely to draw people on the other side from himself as mildly nuts. Numerous points ought to be made about his assertions on things like private roads and police departments, but that's not my focus here.

No fan of regultation, I, even if it is under the guise of protecting industry, Lessig's argument is simply a different manifestation of the same beast. He complains that such regulation is the result of lobbying monies, then goes on to suggest that the solution is government expenditures of taxpayer money. At least the lobbying firms spend private money.

Even ignoring the fundamental argument about whether the government should or should not be, in a sense, competing with the private sector by offering broadband service, a government provided service would be a horrendous deal for current taxpayers, and a liability to future ones. These projects continually suffer from prolonged delays and massive cost overruns. Add to that the problem of upkeep. Companies that invest in extending broadband have to invest in maintenance and customer relations. To make a natural parallel, we might investigate how have cities done with keeping their electricity grids up-to-date and responding to customer needs. The reward structures for public service don't focus on reacting to customer needs the way a private company would, which is a serious liability when the level of technical expertise is so high. The only people who would consider a job with a county after being trained as electrical engineers are most likely those that are looking for the buffers against regular hiring and firing practices inherent in the private sector. Should taxpayers pay to make sure there are skilled technicians at the other end of a phone line?

Institutionally, the government is almost uniquely ill-equipped to deal with providing broadband and wireless service. Almost the very nature of government is anathema to an industry that flourishes on speed, dynamic learning, and constant change. With the notable exception of Japanese toilets, what was the last major developement in home water distribution? Indoor plumbing seems to still be the hot news, since it's not that common the world over. How about electricity? The Alternating-vs.-Direct Current in homes debate was hot stuff, but I don't seem to recall what was on the cover of "Electricity Today" magazine. Or phone service? Well, of course, there's some news there. Certainly we can find instances where the government, after marking phone line access as a necessity, has kept pace with the huge changes in the way the world uses phones. (The Do Not Call legislation was debated like the phenomenon of telemarketing didn't appear until late 2003.) Governmental decision-making is slow and ponderous on purpose.

The speed of "broadband" is continually ramping up (remember when ISDN lines were seen as almost impossibly fast? Me either, and that's my point precisely) while its cost is dropping. But there's a good reason for this: the demand for it is strong enough to warrant research and development outlays. If the access is ubiquitous and the cost almost nothing (in terms of making taxpayers take the hit for running lines out to the farthest reaches of Amish Pennsylvania or wherever), then what reason do companies like Verizon have for finding better and cheaper and faster methods of delivery? Who wants to pay twice for broadband access; once out of my paycheck by force, and once by choice to get a cable modem even when the phone company pipes in DSL?

Lessig also fails to consider that current governmental habits contribute to a lack of penetration in some areas. Should a company decide to make the capital investment in extending broadband despite the higher per-client expense, there's no guarantee that it will get to have sole ownership of that line. Time and again governments have decided that companies must share lines with competitors in the hopes that doing so will "enhance competition." Knowing this, a company like Verizon will understandably shy away from making the investment. Were such a sharing plan enforced later, the outlay is essentially a sunk cost, but since the forced sharing is documented and part of the expected future, the consideration is taken into account when planning investments.

FInally, future changes are poised to make such investments almost pointless. While it hasn't been as quick to arrive as they themselves claimed, WiMax is almost certainly coming soon. Wireless that can reach 30 miles (and more in the future) will radically change the cost of extending broadband access. Then there is the possibility of broadband over power lines (an uncertain idea, and one that faces an uncertain future). Government provision would mean years-long planning and building for a system that could well be outdated by the time it is finished. And the benefit (ubiquity of access) is likely to be answered elsewhere, and within the timeframe of numerous municipal projects. This would simply saddle residents with paying for antiquated service that provides no benefit; unless you think that these new workers wouldn't quickly organize to prevent layoffs and enforce pay hikes on par with the rest of municipal government).

For a more eloquent discussion (with a fair bit more detail, as well), try this article, which I've linked to before.

More on Savings at the WSJ

Over at the WSJ's Econoblog, it's Alex Tabarrok and Dave Altig.

This is easily my favorite of all the recent Econoblog pieces. It is simultaneously more nuanced and compelling as well as considerably more appealing in tone. I'll leave it to others to analyze why, though I would venture it has something to do with the pairing of participants.

Unfortunate for whom?

Google's Toolbar feature apparently has a few people in a huff.

The AutoLink feature comes with Google's latest toolbar and provides links in a webpage to Amazon.com if it finds a book's ISBN number on the site.

It also links to Google's map service, if there is an address, or to car firm Carfax, if there is a licence plate.

Google said the feature, available only in the US, "adds useful links".

But some users are concerned that Google's dominant position in the search engine market place could mean it would be giving a competitive edge to firms like Amazon.

Since the Toolbar isn't yet available for Firefox (at least, not that I've seen, though I tend to be a good bit behind in browser modifications), I've not used the AutoLink feature. Sounds like a pretty cool feature to me, though. I use Amazon for 95% of my book purchases anyway.

My favorite bit from the piece is this snarky comment:

Dan Gillmor, founder of Grassroots Media, which supports citizen-based media, said the tool was a "bad idea, and an unfortunate move by a company that is looking to continue its hypergrowth".

I'm sorry, but what's so wrong about a company looking for "hypergrowth", again? As a citizen myself, I support well-built media, and find that Google does one hell of a job with the products it releases. That it also happens to offer its primary service to anyone who can get online for free and still manages to reap profit enough to have hypergrowth leads me to suggest that we concern ourselves with the company in order to learn, rather than sneer and snipe. Methinks a "bad idea" here is one Dan's "citizens" didn't think of first.

If there's one thing we ought to have learned from Google, it's that the spectre of "monopoly" is frequently without substance, and serves only as a sop to competitors looking for government to tie the hands of a market giant. Not so long ago "we" were worried about the prospect of a Microsoft-branded online world where Bill Gates' latest project was the sole gatekeeper of the internet.

Now, if you don't mind, I've got to go pick up my new Linux-based phone.

I'm four-sqaure behind Kevin's policy prescription. (And I'll here note that a similar notion was advanced over at Division of Labour some days later. Advantage, Kevin!) I also, unfortunately, agree that the idea simply has no political legs. Seems to me there's going to be some tiny marginal change coming, one side claiming it a resounding victory for the ages, the other side calling it the onset of national collapse. And the world will go on.

That said, I did want to toss out one notion that I think is pertinant. Whenever the idea of SocSec comes up, someone invariably jumps to point out that the real problem is, of course, US national savings rates for individuals. Here's an example from Steven Landsburg:

In other words: If you want to address the Social Security crisis of the future, you must adopt laws that encourage saving in the present. There's nothing else you can do.

Well put, Steven. And a fair point. But how do we address the fact that SocSec itself seems to be a considerable contributing factor to the reduction in private savings? Might I suggest, it this case, that a reduction in government control, rather than a reliance on ever-accreting legal regulation might be a sound policy choice?

LATER... Just to clarify, this is an example of the "history provides no counterfactuals" kind of argument. It seems odd to me to argue that the low savings rate of people in the US is of primary concern, knowing that the very presence of guaranteed retirement income almost certainly reduces people's incentives to put additional money aside on their own. If we are interested in having a system that provides a measure of safety for those who were unable to save adequately, or face a circumstance that forces expenditures at a rate faster than they -- or anyone -- had anticipated (catastrophic health care issues, for instance), then perhaps the fact that this system drive people towards under-savings should be addressed at the source, rather than looking elsewhere for ways to correct the problem.

More on Pyramid Schemes

My earlier post on Pyramid Schemes seems to have upset some people. Please let me clarify my position on the �Biznas.com�.

I�ve also seen a presentation of the �Biznas.com� products and to me it seems too good to be true. All the people I know who bought this did so in order make some money out of selling it to other people, not for the utility derived from the range of products offered. I invite anyone who bought it for the sake of the products it offered to please comment.

Carnivals on the Blogosphere


First there was the Carnival of the Capitalists. Then there was the Carnival of the Recipes. Now there is even a Carnival of the Godless.

Below is my contribution to the Carnival of the Recipes; How to make Katta Sambol, a popular Sri-Lankan dish in this part of the world.

  • 2 tablespoons Maldives fish flakes or small dried shrimp, soaked in water for 10 minutes and drained
  • 10 small fresh red chilies, or as needed
  • 1 shallot, finely sliced
  • Sea salt.

With a mortar and pestle, pound together the fish, chilies, shallot and a pinch of salt. Taste and adjust chilies and salt as needed; mixture should be hot, fishy and slightly salty. Serve as a condiment.

Yield: About 1/3 cup.

K. Brancato adds -- this recipe is not guaranteed to help you understand economics, or to help you earn money, but it may very well impress a ladyfriend..

T.V. Downloads

In a previous post I refered to an Inquirer article concerning why it was a smart move to have a worldwide release date for video games. The gist was that by staggering release times, an incentive is created for people to pirate the desired material, in that case it Half-Life 2 avoided creating one. A story on the BBC website makes the same point about T.V. shows and how Great Britain has become the leading downloader:

New episodes of 24, Desperate Housewives and Six Feet Under, appear on the web hours after they are shown in the US, said a report.

Web tracking company Envisional said 18% of downloaders were from within the UK and that downloads of TV programmes had increased by 150% in the last year.

About 70% were using file-sharing program BitTorrent, the firm said.

"It's now as easy to download a pirate TV show as it is to programme a VCR," said Ben Coppin from Envisional.

A typical episode of 24 was downloaded by about 100,000 people globally, said the report, and an estimated 20,000 of those were from within the UK.


According to Jupiter Research 40% of homes with broadband say it helps them pick and choose the programmes they want to see or that friends have recommended.

This should come as no surprise and just shows that technology is a ahead of yet another segment of the entertainment world. The article does note that this could potentially decrease revenue from syndicating the program overseas. We have seen movies and video games move to a single worldwide release date, T.V. probably isn't far behind

Google never fails to amuse me.

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Kevin's mention of the Iraqi Dinar shot the Google Ad reel into Iraqi overdrive. Note the last one - it's my personal favourite. One things for sure - it'll surely be a genuinely candle-lit dinner out in electricity devoid Baghdad!

T&B is Now a Business

Sorry for the lack of posting from me (although Ian's been doing a bang-up job in my stead). My schedule has been turned upside-down, as I am now a full-time, house-cleaning, dinner-cooking, grocery-shopping, stay-at-home father of a 1.5 year old. My wife now goes to the university library and Panera Bread to write her dissertation. We libertarians don't just believe in freedom, you know; we believe in responsibility.

Anyway, as my son napped yesterday, I used Turbotax to easily and quickly polish off my 2004 income tax returns. The software asked me if I am running a business, and it occured to me that I am -- in 2004 T&B and ALP became businesses. They have assets (a notebook computer that I use 50% of the time for blogging), expenses (web address & hosting), revenue (Google Ads), unpaid employees (Ian and the rest), and most of all, profit. This last is considerably more than others have earned from Google ads, and it is mostly due to the folks who use T&B as a forum to discuss Iraqi Dinar, though I have had a few posts that have brought in some money. (More on the revenue later).

My logic: if I'm earning ad revenue, I am running a business. I should be able to deduct expenses from running that business.

I already had T&B's and ALP's records in print and summed in Excel, and so I decided to file a schedule C for my blogs. It seems a justifiable and reasonable course of action to take, and I can fully justify all aspects of my business for an audit, the risks of which increase when filing a schedule C. However, my blogs have a positive cash flow, and I do not have a home office.

I haven't yet filed my taxes, since it's best to review these things with a clear head, but I thought I'd throw it out there.

More On Randomness

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Ehhh...I would say "Deep in the basement..." is about as good a starting line for an article about science as "It was a dark and stormy night..." is for horror.

Nonetheless, this was at least an entertaining article about a number of black boxes generating random numbers that some claim to predict some not-so-random events:

The machine apparently sensed the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre four hours before they happened - but in the fevered mood of conspiracy theories of the time, the claims were swiftly knocked back by sceptics. But last December, it also appeared to forewarn of the Asian tsunami just before the deep sea earthquake that precipitated the epic tragedy.

Now, even the doubters are acknowledging that here is a small box with apparently inexplicable powers.

'It's Earth-shattering stuff,' says Dr Roger Nelson, emeritus researcher at Princeton University in the United States, who is heading the research project behind the 'black box' phenomenon.

And, for balance, here's something from a dissenting opinion:

September 11th: A study in wishful thinking.

It was obvious that the terror attacks of that day should make a pretty good case for Global Consciousness (GC). On the surface, it did. There seemed to be a very pronounced effect on that day and in the time right after.

There were, however, several problems. The most obvious was that the changes began at 6:40am ET, when the attacks hadn't started yet. It can of course be argued when the attacks "started", but if the theory is based on a lot of people "focusing" on the same thing, the theory falls flat - at 6:40am, only the attackers knew about the upcoming event. Not even the CIA knew. Hardly enough to justify a "global" consciousness.

Perhaps this is an uneducation question, but wouldn't 30 years of continually generating random numbers result in plenty of oddly large/sustained deviations away from the expected 50/50 distribution of 1s and 0s?

Libertarian whaaAAA?!?

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Catallarchy outs the Libertarian Mail Order Bride.

Clearly, another example of the power of decentralized organization and information sharing.

Travelocity's Wishful Thinking

While booking a trip from DC to NY, Travelocity, which btw I can't get to work with Firefox, suggested the following deal:

Now, I'm not one to be unthankful when offered cross-marketed products, but to add $3600 14 day hotel stay to a $167 flight seems like either really wishful thinking or the absence of clear thinking. This is especially so considering I had not indicated I wanted a hotel...

The Simulated Economy

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I must admit to having a great deal of fascination with online gaming communities. Not so much for the games themselves (though I do recommend City of Heroes to any kid who grew up reading comics) but for the extent of interaction they elicit and the depth of commitment they inspire in so many players.

Indeed, the depth of the interactions go so far as to create real-time markets for things that only exist in the games (real estate, "experience", and more). Meanwhile, within the game everything from armed combat to dog-walking to intimate encounters are being made possible. That the screen is the medium doesn't erase the fact that real people are behind the keyboard. While some might lament this as a sign of social degradation and the rotting of kid's minds, I tend to wonder if this development might be a huge new tool for social science.

During my time at the University of Chicago, I saw any number of professors get physically...well, there's no other word....excited about potential natural experiments, or at the very least legal/policy changes that -- no matter their intrinsic value -- would provide a rough approximation of the same. With the growing popularity of the Sims games, and ever more clever gaming models that allow for deeper and more nuanced interactions, could it be possible to develop economic experiments that could be carried out in these virtual worlds where real people are still making decisions?

Certainly, the people won't be as vested in their avatars as they are in themselves, but don't experiments run in computer science/econ labs with students deciding to reward/punish, pay/not pay, contribute/not-contribute etc. run afoul of the same problem? Since the subjects are able to simply walk away with the 15-30 bucks they were paid to participate, what keeps some of them from deciding to act in a certain way "just to see what happens"? Of course, those who run experiments are adept at controlling for this, and it often happens that people who volunteer for such things are basically honest people. But I would think the incentives at least more closely approximate a "real-life" situation when they deal involve a character that a person has invested a good deal of time and energy in developing. What's more, the rewards for some behavior (say, having a job to earn income vs. being on welfare) can be rewarded in "real-time" by trading on sites such as Gaming Open Market where in-game commodities (like SecondLife's "Linden Dollars") are bought and sold with actual dollars.

In a more advanced extention of this, some doctors are attempting their own version of simulacra-level testing. In terms of social experiments, we need not require the computer to be able to exactly model human responses, since himans would be controlling the actions. But randomization could indeed occur (into such things as drug trials or rehab programs) without worry about the potential effects on those who were left out.

Perhaps this is already being done and it's just my lack of knowledge of experimental econ that has kept me from seeing it. If it's not, I know if I were a researcher I'd be on the phone with one of these MMORPG companies while filling out research grant proposals.

That, and my character could have a cape. I mean, how cool is that?

Middle Seat Madness


By far one of my favorite columns in the WSJ, The Middle Seat ($?), hits the nail on the head once again.

Scott McCartney asks, "Why do airlines work so hard at displeasing their customers?"

The state of airline travel is poor. Non-refundable, non-transferable, non-comfortable seats. Fear mongering security policies and massive restrictions on personal freedom beyond the magical metal detectors.

Few other businesses are able to demand such restrictions on their products.

When will this change? These businesses are not thriving. Travel on most airlines is not enjoyable.

File Under: "Government, Proactiveness of"

More Gmail Invites


Gmail has just given me 50 invites. If anyone is still left without Gmail leave a comment with your e-mail address.

Nuclear Power Coming Back Online?

Not for a while, if it does. But the recent report from a DOE Advisory Board is encouraging it. The recommendations include supports for starting new plants; despite falling price-per-kilowatt hour for nuclear energy, the startup costs remain the biggest stumbling block.

Here's the executive summary.

The bad news is that the report suggest cost-sharing and/or loan guarantees for companies looking to build the newest plant designs. From my reading of this brief summary, it appears that the costs of conforming to construction and safety regulation is between $400-$500 million dollars. And that's just the plans. Of course nuclear power requires stringent security measures, especially given their attractiveness as terrorism targets, but perhaps the committee could have suggested some sort of review of the regulatory process to see if that might not be a driving factor in the prohibatory cost of startup?

Looks like the superiority of GPS systems is resulting a bit of creative destruction along the German coast:

The popularity of the satellite-based global positioning system has led to the closure of lighthouses along the German coast. Many more may soon be extinguished. But critics question whether the new system is reliable and safe enough to warrant the closure of these historical beacons of safety.

One of the traditional pedagogical tools for telling econ students about public goods is to use the example of a lighthouse. As a fast example, it seems like a good one: you can't exclude one ship from seeing it while allowing others, and the use by one ship of a lighthouse as guidepost doesn't restrict others ships from using it. Of course, when anything seems too "just-so", there's usually something you're not being told. Read down through this description of public goods for some of the real story behind lighthouses.

The side opposing the shuttering of the lighthouses makes, in my opinion, an bad argument:

Bauermeister fears hobby captains are losing more and more of their skills as a result of modern technologies. If their GPS systems were to malfunction, they could face serious danger. "The sense of orientation is one that must be constantly trained," he cautions. "Those who now only rely on GPS are losing this important ability, which can save lives in dangerous situations."

Even civil engineer Eusterbarkey concedes there will be "disadvantages" for small ship operators if the lighthouses close. Though the 15 lighthouses on the North Sea cost German taxpayers about €400,000 a year to operate, money alone should not be a reason for shutting them down. "The overriding principle has to be safety on the high seas," he says.

Individuals that decide to ply the Germans seas without proper training and without the appropriate tools are choosing to take risks. The public receives no benefit from it, and isn't really in danger of being hurt the way drunk drivers end up hurting others. The larger companies, on the other hand, have invested time and money into preparing for the eventuality of a GPS failure. Seems to me that Germans (and others) are being taxed to protect someone's sense of nostalgia.

Google Axes a Blogger?

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Looks like Google may be taking on the habits of more traditional companies. A blogger -- whose site is NinetyNineZeros (a nifty nod towards his employer, as a 10 followed by ninety nine zeros is a "googol") -- named Mark Jen is "no longer an employee at Google", thanks, it seems , in large part due to his blog. This from the company that just acquired Blogger.

Google continues apace in its apparent attempt to improve on just about every aspect of the web.

New-to-me are Google Maps. While I find the initial search page a bit clunky (I'd prefer to have the Local Search fields open on the first page rather than be a tab choice and the example searches are more confusing than clarifying to me, but this is still Beta Testing), the functionality more than makes up for the roughness around the edges.

Perhaps my favorite feature is the combination of web search results with location searches. That is, type in a place and street number, and choose from the "pins" on the displayed map to see the name of the destination, search results with the "N more" option, and the choice to quickly move to a driving directions interface that is nicely intergated right into the "popups" that appear. Plus, the draggable map is a dramatic improvement over the "click the sides of the map to scroll" interface of MapQuest.


Genetic Modification Justification?

When looking back over trends of the past, the media tends (in my opinion) to either ignore or drastically discount the role it plays in shaping cultural opinion and outlook. As an example, see this page at the BBC.

On the chance that it changes, the large headline for the page's article is:

Baby Size Linked to Cancer Risk

Larger babies have higher risk of developing certain cancers in adulthood, research suggests.

While, to the right we see the "SEE ALSO" section that points readers to articles with the following titles:

Thin babies 'face diabetes risk

Tiny babies go on to flunk exams

Both small and large children appear to have a number of hurdles ahead of them. How big are the risks?

The researchers found that each increase in birth weight of 450g was associated with a 17% increase in lympathic cancers, and a 13% increase in digestive cancers, including stomach, colorectal and pancreatic cancer.

Of course, what they fail to relate is that this is, most likely, a percentage increase in a child's Relative Risk Ratio. As such, it must be remembered that this increase is in a likelihood for contracting certain cancers as compared to the likelihood in a group of average sized babies. That is to say, a normal child isn't free from the risk while a larger child now appears to be closing in on 50/50 chances for cancer. This reports a percentage increase over an original value (say, from .1%, or 1 in 1000 originally to .117%, or 1.17 in 1000).

Beyond the glossy reporting meant, I'm sure, to "make people aware of the risks", this is the kind of thing that could send parents towards the "yes" column when considering genetic engineering of children. I mean to take no public position on this; rather, I just want to point out that since people aren't that hot at comprehending the extremes of values or percentages and thus tend to inflate or discount the information when evaluating, reporting such as this will only contribue to a fearful population looking to confront such issues with means that could be too aggressive for the problem.

More Economic Sanity From the White House?

Big cuts coming in farm subsidies?

Horse-trading and lobby pressure will scale back the cuts, but anything is a move in the right direction after previously sprinting in the wrong one.

Building in NYC Without Unions

Well, it is almost unbelievable that a developer has managed to do this in NYC:

Much of the work at River Lofts and virtually all of it at 60 Spring Street and several other projects has been done without union labor, and this has put Mr. Boymelgreen on a collision course with the city's construction unions.

Union members have held almost daily rallies outside 15 Broad Street -sometimes setting up a large inflatable rat - and during a recent interview they could be heard chanting outside. Mr. Boymelgreen said he decided to handle the conversion of 15 Broad Street without union labor for the simple reason that it was cheaper that way and it allowed him to bring his condos to market at a more competitive price.

But pressure from the unions has clearly taken a toll. Mr. Boymelgreen says union protestors have threatened his workers. He accuses them of putting sugar in gas tanks and pouring cement down sewers. He says a bulldozer was stolen from the River Lofts site, and another disappeared from a construction site in Brooklyn. But he has done business with union contractors on some of his projects. Most notable is the building at 88 Leonard Street, an all-union job where work has begun on the foundation.

Edward J. Malloy, the president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said he was unaware of any interference by union workers with Mr. Boymelgreen's projects. He said he hopes the two sides can work out their differences. "He is a major new player in real estate in New York City," Mr. Malloy said. "We would like to just hopefully convince him that building union has more positives than doing the work the way it's being done today."

While it's easy enough to read between his lines, how can the reporter, William Neuman, print Mr. Malloy's words without remarking about Malloy's flagrant dishonesty?

iPod Shuffle Not Random Enough?

Via Craig Newmark I read this article on MSNBC.

The crux of the piece seems to be one writer's attemt to figure out if there's something odd going on behind the function of his iPod Shuffles randomization process. It seems he's not the only one who's questioning the results of randomness.

There is an unintended consequence of the allure of Shuffle: it is causing iPod users to question whether their devices ''prefer'' certain types of music.

I'll second Craig's comment that people seem not to understand randomness. While the MSNBC writer should personally be ashamed that, given a chance to speak with Steve Jobs he actually brought up the possibility that the Shuffle function wasn't truly random since it seemed to hit some songs more than others, he does by the end of the article find someone to explain that true randomness doesn't mean a complete lack of groupings or "odd" patterns. Even the NYT piece touches on it briefly.which is too bad, really, since the iPod and iPod Shuffle could be great hooks to actually inform people about randomization and randomized processes.

The same issue arose in the show Numb3rs. (Newmark the Younger was positive on the show; I found it to be tedious in plotting and overly mystical about the actualy numbers, which seemed counter to the point of the show.) The "math genius" brother asked people to scatter themselves "randomly" around a room. When their spacing proved relatively even through the space, the ah-ha! moment came when he mentioned that true randomness exhibits groupings by sheer chance. Thus, clearly, the pattern of murders on map could be said to be "too perfect" in its attempt at randomness. Not well written, I think, but at least someone had the nerve to try bringing the issue up in prime-time.

For more information I would recommend the book Fooled by Randomness. Well written and free from the level of technical detail that a statistics text might have.

Castle Megastore

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Sometimes, when you're researching Wal-Mart, the oddest things pop up, like the apparently well-lit Castle Megastore:

Keeping the customers from embarrassment is key here at Castle Megastore, on East Fifth Avenue across from Merrill Field. It's just after 9 on a recent Wednesday morning, and Arthur is restocking shelves at Anchorage's new adults-only shop, with pornography, lingerie, sex manuals and naughty toys.

For years the same handful of porn stores have served customers in town, but now there's something for them that's bigger, brighter and quite different. Also, it's quite busy.

The kicker...
Everybody wants a brighter, safer porn store...
It seems so. Stephanie Simon wrote up a different chain last December:
ABILENE, Kan. � Outside, the prairie lies dark and still. In the windowless gray building by the Interstate 70 offramp, a clerk with a tired face rings up sex toys. "Need batteries for that?" she asks politely, again and again.

Two women in prim business suits gawk at a shelf of raunchy gag gifts, giggling. A truck driver searches thousands of DVDs for a pornographic movie. Near the Love Sling of Ecstasy, a wife confers with her husband by cellphone as she studies a tidy display of vibrators, hundreds of them, in every size and color.

Adult "superstores" like this are popping up all over rural America � brightly lighted, clean, as well-organized and well-stocked as a Wal-Mart.

However, according to Luke Ford, the Castle chain has had some serious financial trouble in the past, and has been accused of stiffing vendors.

My advice for these stores is to just be like every other store; most small-store owners know that placing giant condom balloons on store roofs will attract both wanted and unwanted attention.

I'm not good at chemistry. And biology bores me, so I don't really do well at the memorization. But if I try -- you know, do the homework all the time and go to class -- can I still be brain surgeon? No? Then what's the use of the grading policy at Benedict?

That policy, known as Success Equals Effort, or SEE, requires faculty to take into account the efforts of freshman and sophomores in calculating grades.

So, I'm guessing this isn't the same thing as having "class participation" as part of the grade? Merely trying hard is enough?

But Stacey Jones, dean of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics departments, said it is imperative that faculty and students get on board to make the SEE effort work.

“It’s a transition; it’s a paradigm shift,” Jones said. “They (the students) are coming from high school, and it’s a whole different way of thinking. We’re hoping that the connection between excellence and effort correlate with the connection between excellence and knowledge.”

I'm all for the notion that effort is correlated with excellence (as measured by being competent in a subject). But if it were working for some students, wouldn't we see their grades going up anyway? Effort that doesn't result in higher grades means that the marginal return on, say, an hour of studying is relatively low compared to seeing grades go up for an hour of studying in another class. It's essentially wasted effort since it produces little to no return. Why should wasted effort be rewarded as a meritorious thing in its own right? If the returns to studying are low in one subject, the student should find another subject where the returns are higher. If no such subject can be found, perhaps the student isn't ready for college.

Rewarding effort as useful absent an improvement in grades might be a nice sounding idea, but it essentially masks the problem by reducing the amount of information transmitted by low grades. This information is useful to both students and those who need to objectively evaluate grades. A potential result: Your B+, achieved through little work since you happen to be an ace physicist, is to an outside observer the same as my B+ achieved through hard work though I scored far lower on practical tests. Taken further: your physics degree will appear the same as mine, despite your being far more adept and appropriately trained. Which person would you rather have continuing on to take more physics classes, or to have work at your lab? The student isn't able to fairly judge their progress, and evaluators aren't able to discern differences of ability.

The love of a subject is not reason to excuse low abilities. If effort is so closely correlated with "excellence", and if a student is truly interested in a subject then the improved performance should be enough of a reward to motivate the effort. I'm sitting through math classes I avoided earlier in life not because I think the professor will say "Hey, that guy's worked hard, so lets give him an A for effort and weight that in with his test scores", but because I think this time my effort will result in a facility with tools that I can then apply to something I'd love to do. Getting higher grades without a commensurate growth in functional ability would be a disservice to me, as I think it is to the Benedict students.

Last Handout to Clarksville?

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I try to keep politics out of my posts for this site. In this one case, I'll just mention that I've been less than enamoured with Bush's budgetary policies. Which is a way of saying that I found this bit of news all the more refreshing:

Bush Budget to Scrap Subsidy for Amtrak-Sources

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration will for the first time propose eliminating operating subsidies for passenger train operator Amtrak as part of a push to cut budget deficits, people close to the budget process said on Tuesday.

I recently took a trip to Savannah, GA, from DC on Amtrak. Aside from being thrilled and grateful that it didn't derail, I spent most of the time simply stunned that it had been allowed to function for so long. At the height of holiday travel, the train was maybe 60% full coming out of DC, and got worse as it got further south. In general, the train system is tedious, slow, and most importantly, priced very similarly to air travel for the distance that I wanted to go.

I won't be sorry to see this thing shut down. Since Amtrak only owns the Northeast corridor tracks (the rest being owned primarily by private companies like CSX), I'm guessing that area (which also has the nicest trains, best times, and most convenient stations) won't be shuttered entirely. If there's no demand to cover the cost that it takes to run the railway, I can see no reason to continue paying to keep the system in place.

One of the arguments for the handouts I traditionally see is that it brings the rail to almost on par with road and air travel, since those systems get a good deal of government support through paying to build and re-pave roads or improving the national airspace system. Of course, the government consumes far more of these services than it does the rail way. In terms of the airspace system, as I've noted before, there is a serious coordination issue at stake that make it (to some extent) worth spending the money to avoid the potential downside of coordination failure. Additionally, the airspace system is running at near capacity, which means that dollars spent go towards expanding capacity, throughput and performance of a heavily taxed system. While I do think there is plenty of room for the private sector to function here, if we're going to ignore debating first-best solutions, and some form of handout is going to be made, it seems a far better use of money to push the limits of air travel than to pour money down the black hole of rail travel.

In any event, I appreciate the cut in subsidies. Now, on to farms, airlines, textiles, anti-dumping legislation and...what, too hopeful?


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