Month: February 2004

Markets in everything, part II

You can now buy a personalized romance novel, featuring you and your sweetheart:

To get their names in print, customers decide on a book – most companies offer several stories to choose from – then fill out a questionnaire with details such as their love’s hair color and nickname. The information is inserted into the context of pre-fab story and presto, a personalized romance.

Don Fox of Port Saint Lucie, Fla., bought the novel “Treasure Seekers” for his wife last Valentine’s Day and included details such as the type of car he drives and his wife Josephine’s favorite radio station in the text.

“It’s something my wife and I will have forever. It’s unique,” said Fox, 43. “If you get a box of chocolates, it looks just like the box you got before that one. Then you eat it and it’s gone.”

The novels come in “mild” and “wild” versions and the plots take place in various standard romance novel locales such as a dude ranch and the white sand beaches of Tahiti (search). While their text won’t win any Pulitzer Prizes, they offer a quick read and, at $55.95, the books won’t break the bank.

Some people actually like this idea:

“It was an addictive read because it makes you the star,” said Pete Hart, 34, who received a pre-fan novel called “Vampire Kisses” from his girlfriend. “I was referred to as Pedro in the book, which is my nickname. I found that quite charming.”

Another fellow noted:

“It read more like a novel or novelette and less like a typical romance novel,” he said. “I enjoyed reading it. Besides, I was in it.”

So what is next? How about DVD movies with your face superimposed upon that of Tom Cruise?

But our world is not always taking steps forward. Ebay has been moving to take down sales of imaginary girlfriends.

If you are curious, here is part one of “Markets in everything.”

What is the world’s longest direct commercial flight?

The new Los Angeles to Singapore route, eighteen hours, forty minutes, courtesy of Singapore airlines.

Next, not surprisingly, is Singapore to Los Angeles, although it is a full two hours, forty minutes shorter, because of air currents. Then comes New York to Hong Kong, sixteen hours.

Here is an article on how people stand it. Some sleep, some drink, and some argue politics with their seatmates. Airlines are now taking a hand in shaping on-board community. Virgin will be installing in-flight instant messaging on some of its longer flights, to encourage the formation of small discussion groups on the plane.

How about me?: I view any flight (that’s the flight, not the waiting) under six hours as a benefit, not a cost. It is a chance to do sustained reading and thinking without interruption. A ten hour flight remains tolerable if I have enough leg room. I need a stack of good books, some chocolate, and an assortment of cheeses. After ten hours my reading starts to veg out. But even then I would prefer in-flight institutions that tax people who try to communicate with me.

Addendum: Air genius Gary Leff informs me that a forthcoming NY-Singapore route, Singapore Air, will soon become the world’s longest direct flight.

Is “mindsight” a sixth sense?

Some people may be aware that a scene they are looking at has changed without being able to identify what that change is. This could be a newly discovered mode of conscious visual perception, according to the psychologist who discovered it. He has dubbed the phenomenon “mindsight”.

Ronald Rensink, based at the University of British Columbia in Canada, showed 40 people a series of photographic images flickering on a computer screen. Each image was shown for around a quarter of a second and followed by a brief blank grey screen. Sometimes the image would remain the same throughout the trial; in other trials, after a time the initial image would be alternated with a subtly different one.

n trials where the researchers manipulated the image, around a third of the people tested reported feeling that the image had changed before they could identify what the change was. In control trials, the same people were confident that no change had occurred. The response to a change in image and control trials was reliably different.

Our visual system can produce a strong gut feeling that something has changed, Rensink says, even if we cannot visualise that change in our minds and cannot say what was altered or where the alteration occurred.

Here is the full story. The bottom line? Maybe somebody really is following you, and subtly changing small items in your environment.

Is the breast offense a good defense?

A Tennesse woman has sued Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, CBS, MTV and Viacom because viewers of the Superbowl half-time show suffered “outrage, anger, embarrassment and serious injury” when they saw Janet Jackson’s right breast. Naturally, this is a class action suit on “behalf of all Americans.” I dunno, I kinda enjoyed it.

Here is another class action that I was dragged into.

An economist in Baghdad

Chris Foote an economist at the Boston Fed worked in Baghdad last year. His report makes for interesting reading. This was not your usual job for an economist.

Early on, I visit Iraq’s Central Bank, which was also destroyed by looters. Our mission is to check on the Treasure of Nimrud, a collection of ancient Assyrian jewelry that was stored in the bank’s vault for safekeeping in the early 1990s. The bank’s basement was flooded with sewage water during the looting and has only recently been drained. Our group trudges down the unlit, still slimy stairs, careful not to slip. When we reach the bottom, I see that the corner of one of the vault doors has been peeled away, as if by a giant can opener. I am told that during the postwar chaos, someone tried to open this door with a rocket- propelled grenade, incinerating himself in the process. (The lock in the door held.) The deputy head of the Central Bank jiggles a number of keys and opens another door nearby. We are happy to learn that the treasures are intact.

Most of the time, however, he is working 8 am to 11 pm trying to solve economic problems. As economic theory would predict, but many economists would deny, it’s the basic economics that has the most value added.

In many ways, the job is similar to the one I held at the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) before coming to Iraq. There the economic questions changed from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour. Baghdad is the same. What is the best way to fix Iraq’s currency? How could foreign investment help Iraq? What tariff regime should we recommend? The questions are all over the map, so I draw more from my experience teaching macroeconomics to undergraduates, and less from my own specialized research.

If you could only learn five things…

Yana, who is fourteen, was complaining last night about her math homework, and about calculus in particular. Without much thinking, I responded that if you could only learn five things from schooling, calculus should be one of them. First came an “Ugh.” Then came a question:

“What are the other four?”

Without much thinking, here was my list, in no particular order:

1. Calculus
2. Statistics
3. Programming
4. Shakespeare
5. The Bible

Another Ugh, directed mostly at the first three items. Writing would have been a natural sixth pick, and would not have drawn an ugh either.

Addendum: I’ve already received several emails asking why I chose the Bible rather than microeconomics. I didn’t mean anything sectarian in my choice of the Bible, rather it is a critical foundation of Western civilization and of Western literature. Plato would be next in line. As for microeconomics, knowing it brings huge social benefits but the private benefits are less clear. I love life as an economist, but it is not for everyone.

Protectionism hurts fine dining

My biggest personal complaint with U.S. trade policy concerns non-pasteurized cheese. Read Fred Foldvary:

Few Americans know what really good cheese tastes like, because the U.S. government bans tasty handmade cheese made from untreated milk. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibits the sale of cheese made with raw milk, which has not been aged for 60 days. If the raw-milk cheese is from France, voila, its sale is prohibited in the USA no matter how long it has been aged.

The danger of eating raw-milk cheese is similar to that of eating raw oysters, yet the latter is legal in the US. Those with higher risk of infection, such as pregnant women, should not eat raw-milk cheese, raw oysters and steak, and other foods that can harbor microbes that cause diseases. But Europeans have been eating raw-milk cheeses since ancient times, evidently with little ill effect. European cheese makers are generally careful to keep the milk uncontaminated, which minimizes the risk.

Now I have a new grudge: the ban on Szechuan peppercorns.

Since 1968, the federal government has banned the import of Sichuan peppercorns, which are the dried berries of the prickly ash shrub. The Agriculture Department did not really enforce the ban until two years ago, and its effort is expected to dry up supplies soon. Some chefs and retailers say that they are unable to find the peppercorns, which are often an ingredient of five-spice powder, a common Chinese seasoning. Others say they are selling what was stockpiled before the enforcement effort began.

The details are a bit complicated, but if you can believe the NYT, there is no good reason for the ban other than excessively broad bureaucratic classifications (a related item endangers citrus crops).

You can’t cook Sichuan food without huajiao,” said Wang Dinggeng, the chef at Grand Sichuan International on Second Avenue. “You can’t get that special ma la flavor,” he said of the peppercorns’ numbing (ma) and burning (la) effects.

Tragic, I say, tragic. By the way, if you ever visit my university, make sure you eat at the Szechuan restaurant China Star, in Fairfax, on Rt.236. Get the house specials, before it is too late.

Are classical recordings disappearing?

Norman Lebrecht recently predicted that the year 2004 would be the last for the classical recording industry. To be sure, the number of new releases is declining and major orchestras are losing their recording contracts, read this New York Times story.

David Hurwitz offers some good points in response. Naxos of course is thriving. Classical music is cheaper than ever before and many of the recordings are excellent. Try my favorite version of the Scriabin piano sonatas, by Bernd Glemser.

Furthermore classical indepedent labels continue to bring innovative new releases to the market:

Over the past decade, and thanks to labels like Naxos, BIS, Hyperion, Ondine, CPO, Harmonia Mundi, Chandos and others, music lovers have learned that the quality of music making today is generally so high that excellence may be found well beyond the cloistered catalogs of the major labels. Their classical divisions are dying because they are no longer necessary: the myth of their uniqueness and monopoly on great performances has been exploded forever. That’s the reality of the classical music recording industry at present. It’s also reason for optimism, not despair, because while the majors may or may not survive depending on their adaptability, excellent music making will continue to thrive and reach the public via the classical recording industry, whatever its actual form.

I’ve found the last year to be wonderful for new releases of Elliott Carter, Helmut Lachenmann, Pierre Boulez, and John Cage. Minority tastes, to be sure, but the slow sellers are usually the first to go if the sector is truly dying.

Here are some off the cuff predictions for the future of the music industry:

1. The lines between classical and other genres, most of all world music, will blur increasingly.

2. The next generation of classical composers will come from Asia, where classical music remains a living art.

3. World music will continue to grow in importance. These artists learned how to live without copyright protection long ago.

4. Given the commercial prominence of the DVD, we can expect soundtrack music to grow in importance and quality.

5. Classical CDs will be custom-made to order, rather than “released,” see the NYT article for more detail.

In sum: The new musical world won’t look much like the old, but I have yet to see convincing reasons for pessimism. I don’t buy so many classical CDs any more, in part because I already have a dozen or more copies of each Beethoven piano sonata, and three copies of Messiaen’s major works for organ. Let’s not confuse “good for the suits” with “good for the consumer.”

Did sexual selection make humans brainy and artistic?

Birds sing to attract mates, so what about humans? Are our jokes, stories, guitar strumming just part of an elaborately programmed mating strategy? We all know how much young girls fall for rock stars. Here are three reviews of Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind. Click here for a good summary and short critique, here for an outright critique, and here for an account of why Miller’s views are not always so popular. Thanks to for the links.

The economics of Netflix

Lately I’ve signed up for You pay $20 a month and you get mail order DVDs, free shipping, and you can keep them as long as you want. The limit is three to a customer. Once you return what you have, you can order some more. This is a big business and Wal-Mart is entering the market.

I am finding that Netflix changes what I watch. Service is prompt but there is a lag between ordering and viewing. The only late fee is the rather abstract opportunity cost of not being able to order more films. So I can order a DVD and not watch it for a week or even a month. I can engage in a kind of artistic deficit spending. I find myself ordering more movies that I feel I “ought to watch,” but won’t necessarily enjoy. After all, the consequences of my decision lie further in the future. I find myself especially altruistic toward my wife, and what she wants to watch. I am more willing to order long movies. I could never bring myself to rent The Shawshank Redemption, which is compelling yet sappy and well over two hours long, but now I have seen it.

Netflix reminds me just the tiniest bit of democratic voting. I order films to feel good now about my ordering, and not necessarily to watch them. Overall Netflix has improved my movie viewing and induced me to experiment more. Fortunately it is a supplement to other ways of choosing movies. When it comes to what I really want to see, nothing beats getting in the car and driving there, pushing through the yellow light to make sure I don’t miss the previews.