R. asks me:

I’ve been reading your blog for years and it remains my favorite. I am an attorney planning to travel for 1-2 months in Eastern/Northern Asia and Europe this fall before starting work at a law firm. Since you are so widely traveled, I would love to read a post listing the most memorable places you’ve traveled or travel experiences you’ve had.

An answer to that could fill many books, but here is a simple rule to start: follow the per capita gdp.  Perhaps my favorite travel experience of all time is Tokyo, but more generally I say master the area lying between London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, and Madrid, give or take.  There are so many high quality sights and experiences to be had there you can chunk it many different ways.

If you wish to visit the United States, specialize in the eastern seaboard, Chicago, but most of all southern Utah down to the northern rim of the Grand Canyon, much better than the southern rim but book in advance.  That latter part of the country has perhaps the world’s most compelling natural beauty, plus a good look at real American culture along the way.  For all its fame, it remains oddly under-visited (thank goodness).  Toss in San Francisco for good measure, and then drive through some godforsaken parts for a few days, the worse the better.

For the emerging economies, I say Beijing and Mumbai are good places to start, how can you not wish to be introduced to a country of a billion people or more?  Mexico City is extremely underrated, especially if you live nearby in North America, just don’t expect English to be spoken.  By the way, it is safer than you might think.  Then spend some serious time in the countryside, almost any safe (or unsafe) emerging economy can serve this function.


For most people, weight is a private issue. That looks like it could be a thing of the past for anyone who gets a WiFi Body Scale that has come to the market. It is set up to auto tweet, or auto post to Facebook each time you step on it. Is this designed to keep people accountable, or just plain stupid?

This scale is retailing for just under $150 by a company called Withings. Previous versions of this scale allowed you to track your weight and other data such as heart rate and body fat percentage from your Apple Iphone. I guess they needed to take it a step further and allow you to auto tweet or facebook your weight for the world to see.

There is more here, via Fred Smalkin.

In 2012 economists at the University of Auckland published research establishing clear correlations between family circumstances and incidents of child abuse or neglect. “No one realized we were sitting on such rich data in terms of its predictive power,” says Rhema Vaithianathan, who led the research. “We can find children who are at considerably elevated risk, and we can find them at birth.”


Using data from welfare, education, employment, and housing agencies and the courts, the government identified the most expensive welfare beneficiaries—kids who have at least one close adult relative who’s previously been reported to child safety authorities, been to prison, and spent substantial time on welfare. “There are million-dollar kids in those families,” English says. “By the time they are 10, their likelihood of incarceration is 70 percent. You’ve got to do something about that.”

Moving closer to home:

Jennie Feria, who oversees risk assessment for L.A.’s Department of Children and Family Services, says one idea is to rate families, giving them a number that could be used to identify who’s most at risk in the way lenders rely on credit scores to determine creditworthiness. “The way we may use it, it’s going to be like it’s a FICO score,” Feria says. The information, she says, could be used both to prioritize cases and to figure out who needs extra services. “It’s at the very early stages, because we don’t know how we’re going to use it yet exactly.”

It will be interesting to see how that one develops.  The article is by Josh Eidelson.

Measuring the expertise of burglars

by on May 11, 2015 at 12:42 am in Education, Games, Law | Permalink

Here is a Schneier on Security post in toto, I won’t indent it once again:

New research paper: “New methods for examining expertise in burglars in natural and simulated environments: “preliminary findings“:

Expertise literature in mainstream cognitive psychology is rarely applied to criminal behaviour. Yet, if closely scrutinised, examples of the characteristics of expertise can be identified in many studies examining the cognitive processes of offenders, especially regarding residential burglary. We evaluated two new methodologies that might improve our understanding of cognitive processing in offenders through empirically observing offending behaviour and decision-making in a free-responding environment. We tested hypotheses regarding expertise in burglars in a small, exploratory study observing the behaviour of ‘expert’ offenders (ex-burglars) and novices (students) in a real and in a simulated environment. Both samples undertook a mock burglary in a real house and in a simulated house on a computer. Both environments elicited notably different behaviours between the experts and the novices with experts demonstrating superior skill. This was seen in: more time spent in high value areas; fewer and more valuable items stolen; and more systematic routes taken around the environments. The findings are encouraging and provide support for the development of these observational methods to examine offender cognitive processing and behaviour.

The lead researcher calls this “dysfunctional expertise,” but I disagree. It’s expertise.

Claire Nee, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., has been studying burglary and other crime for over 20 years. Nee says that the low clearance rate means that burglars often remain active, and some will even gain expertise in the crime. As with any job, practice results in skills. “By interviewing burglars over a number of years we’ve discovered that their thought processes become like experts in any field, that is they learn to automatically pick up cues in the environment that signify a successful burglary without even being aware of it. We call it ‘dysfunctional expertise,'” explains Nee.

See also this paper.”

The pointer is from the estimable Chug.

The University of Toronto’s commercialization office states that it is “in a class with the likes of MIT and Stanford.” But Stanford has generated $1.3-billion (U.S.) in royalties for itself and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology issued 288 U.S. patents last year alone; U of T generates annual licensed IP income of less than $3-million (Canadian) and averages eight U.S. patents a year. Statistics Canada reports that in 2009, just $10-million was netted by all Canadian universities for their licences and IP. Even when accounting for universities that have open IP policies, this is a trivial amount by global standards.

That is from Jim Balsillie, and is interesting more generally, most of all on Canada and innovation.  For the pointer I thank Scott Barlow.  My previous post on this topic is here.

I am late to covering this excellent piece by David Leonhardt, but it is worth your attention.  The core result is this:

Low-income children who grow up in Manhattan make less money as adults than similar low-income children who grow up elsewhere…It’s just that affluent Manhattan children don’t grow up to be quite as affluent as affluent children elsewhere.

To make the case of the affluent child concrete, if the Manhattan parents earn 400k a year, the child at age 26 averages 50k a year, compared to an average of 55k for comparable non-Manhattan kids at that same age.  David considers a few hypotheses:

1. That effect is possibly diminishing as Manhattan improves, but the changes doesn’t yet show up in the data.

2. Perhaps Manhattan parents, or Manhattan itself, teach that money is not so important.  For one thing, you get interested in culture there.  Or maybe you want to become famous more than you want to become wealthy.

3. People who grew up in Manhattan are less likely to be married at a particular age.

4. Manhattan schools are less than perfect.

I would add a few hypotheses (not claims) of my own:

5. Manhattan is a selection of the most ambitious, highest-achieving individuals from elsewhere, and thus if you grow up there ambition and achievement seem to be especially forbidding prospects.  Better not to try too hard.  Recall David Hume on the “posts of honour” appearing to be filled?

6. Manhattan is a bad place, and bad things happen in bad places.

7. Manhattan families are more likely to spoil their children, create problems of moral hazard by promising or implying future support, and have less of an internal aspirational culture.

8. If you grow up there, Manhattan appears to be the center of the known universe and you are less likely to leave it in pursuit of higher earnings.  Fewer people from New Jersey feel this same way, and so they end up in the region with the highest potential earnings for them; that is sometimes but not always New York City.  (This mechanism also means Manhattan children are more likely to remain near their parents, see #7.)

9. A lot of Manhattan wealth is linked to finance and entertainment, and other superstar markets, which are maybe “less heritable” in terms of income than that small Midwestern furniture factory.

What else?

Fans of Game of Thrones know that “a Lannister always pays his debts.” So too do nearly all alumni from Notre Dame, Vassar, Harvey Mudd, and Brigham Young, at least when it comes to federal student loans.

There is more here, from Brookings, via Matthew C. Klein.  Ahem…and for whatever reason, students from St. Johns do well too…

“If we are spending a trillion dollars to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools, we can’t, you know, put a little taste Baltimore’s way. It’s crazy.”

–Jon Stewart, “The Daily Show,” April 28, 2015

The Fact Checker column at the Washington Post rightly awards Jon Stewart four Pinocchios for this howler. It’s not close to being true and even as hyperbole it lends support to the common misperception that foreign aid is a large percentage of the Federal budget.

Let’s forget the off-the-cuff comparison to Afghanistan, however, and focus on a more relevant comparison. Is it true, as Stewart suggests, that Baltimore schools are underfunded relative to other American schools? The National Center for Education Statistics reports the following data on Baltimore City Public Schools and Fairfax County Public Schools, the latter considered among the best school districts in the entire country:

school data2

Baltimore schools spend 27% more than Fairfax County schools per student and a majority of the money comes not from the city but from the state and federal government. Thus, when it comes to education spending, Baltimore has not been ignored but is a recipient of significant federal and state aid.

Roberto Ferdman reports:

Ratner has a new study titled ‘Inhibited from Bowling Alone,’ a nod to Robert Putnam’s book about Americans’ waning participation in group activities, that’s set to publish in the Journal of Consumer Research in August. In it, she and co-writer Rebecca Hamilton, a professor marketing at the McDonough School of Business, describe their findings: that people consistently underestimate how much they will enjoy seeing a show, going to a museum, visiting a theater, or eating at a restaurant alone. That miscalculation, she argues, is only becoming more problematic, because people are working more, marrying later, and, ultimately, finding themselves with smaller chunks of free time.

Might part of the problem be narcissism?:

“The reason is we think we won’t have fun because we’re worried about what other people will think,” said Ratner. “We end up staying at home instead of going out to do stuff because we’re afraid others will think they’re a loser.”

But other people, as it turns out, actually aren’t thinking about us quite as judgmentally or intensely as we tend to anticipate. Not nearly, in fact. There’s a long line of research that shows how consistently and regularly we overestimate others’ interest in our affairs.

There is more here.  For the pointer I thank Claire Morgan.


Some economic sectors are distributed everywhere, like every city has its dentist[s], and other sectors are quite clustered. Banking is pretty clustered — New York, London, Hong Kong. Tech has been evolving in a pretty clustered way; I don’t mean simple software support, which is more like dentistry, but big, grand projects — the next Google, the next Facebook, Uber. We see those come out of quite a small number of places, so Skype coming from Estonia is quite the exception. Even then, it was improved by people in the clusters.

I think any location, not just Canada, has to ask itself, ‘are we going to be one of those clusters or not’? And the correct answer may be ‘no’. It may also be the sector evolves so it’s less clustered and more like dentistry, and then everywhere including Canada would partake. But maybe the future is Canada will have a knowledge sector doing small-scale things like software design for local projects but not anything like its own Silicon Valley. I guess at this point that seems likely — that Canada will not be a huge innovative part of the knowledge economy.

That is from my interview with the excellent Eva Salinas, mostly about other topics, such as what a great egalitarian age we live in and also where the World Bank and IMF stand, among other issues.  A few of the comments make more sense if you know that the interviewer is Chilean and we were discussing Chile before the formal interview started.

And not just if you are drunk:

When consumers taste cheap wine and rate it highly because they believe it is expensive, is it because prejudice has blinded them to the actual taste, or has prejudice actually changed their brain function, causing them to experience the cheap wine in the same physical way as the expensive wine? Research in the Journal of Marketing Research has shown that preconceived beliefs may create a placebo effect so strong that the actual chemistry of the brain changes.

Related experiments were run with milkshakes, by Hilke Plassmann and Bernd Weber.  There is more here, of considerable interest, hat tip goes to Samir Varma.  Do any of you know of an ungated copy?

This new article asks how much placebos are affected by your DNA.

A new Brookings study by Rothwell and Kulkarni attempts to do just that.  The list of ratings for two-year institutions puts NHTI’s-Concord Community College at the top, followed by a large number of institutions you mostly haven’t heard of.  For four-year institutions the list starts with:

1. Caltech

2. Colgate

3. MIT

4. Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology,

with other surprises to follow.  The Colorado School of Mines does better than Princeton, for instance.  Here is the report itself, here is a story on the report.  I am finding the web site for the rankings is still a little glitchy, let’s hope they fix that soon, or maybe it is just the current volume of traffic.

That is the subtitle, the title proper is Pedigree, by Lauren A. Rivera.  This is a very good book on the microdynamics of inequality and the important role played by social networks, how you present yourself, and…pedigree.  Not all of it is a revelation, because by now many of these mechanisms are well-known.  Still, it is unfailingly intelligent, well-written, and it documents these matters better than any other book I know.  Here is one excerpt:

…individual sponsors did not need to be high up in the organization.  HR professionals and school teams typically trusted the recommendations of even the most junior firm employees.  Insider-outsider status was more salient than vertical position within a firm.  First-year analysts or associates could successfully push through an individual they knew from class, athletics, extracurricular activities, their hometowns, or word-of-mouth to the interview phase, provided that they could successfully get the application on the “right desk,” in person or via email…In addition, the tie to an individual sponsor did not have to be strong.

More generally, it is often better to have a contact “within” an institution rather than at the very top.  Recommended, for all those who have an interest in such topics.

Via Chug, here is what happens when you plate junk food as if it were high-end food, a good link.

Dan Klein (from Abigail D.) directs my attention to an interesting paper by Fisher, Goddu, and Keil (pdf):

As the Internet has become a nearly ubiquitous resource for acquiring knowledge about the world, questions have arisen about its potential effects on cognition. Here we show that searching the Internet for explanatory knowledge creates an illusion whereby people mistake access to information for their own personal understanding of the information. Evidence from 9 experiments shows that searching for information online leads to an increase in self-assessed knowledge as people mistakenly think they have more knowledge “in the head,” even seeing their own brains as more active as depicted by functional MRI (fMRI) images.

Having done some further search on this topic, using Google, I can assure you that I now have a much better grasp on whether this hypothesis is true or not…

Jonathan Chait writes:

At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach “trigger warnings” to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate “microaggressions,” or small social slights that might cause searing trauma. These newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first p.c. movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses.

Read his whole discussion, but he more or less disapproves.  I’ve long wanted to disagree with Chait “from the left,” and it seems this is my chance, I had better grab it while I can.

While teaching Law and Literature this year, I attached very gentle, low key “trigger warnings” to a number of items on the syllabus, namely those dealing with extreme violence, rape, and some other very unpleasant situations.  I am glad I did this.  I told students that if they preferred to do a substitute assignment, I could arrange that.  Is that so unreasonable?  There were no takers, but I don’t see it did anyone harm or limited free speech in the classroom (or outside of it) to make this offer.  If anything, it may have eased speech a slight amount by noting it is OK to feel uncomfortable with some topics, or at least serving up that possibility into the realm of common knowledge.  That struck me as better and wiser than simply pretending we were studying the successful operation of the Coase theorem the whole time.

I don’t doubt that trigger warnings may be misused in some situations by some professors, but overall they seem to me like another small step to a better world.  I do agree we need to liberate trigger warnings from the strictures of the PC movement, no argument there.

Addendum: I am pleased to see that GMU was moved into the highest category for university free speech, according to FIRE.