Month: October 2004

More India observations

1. Matters the Indian media have not forgotten: John Kerry’s negative remarks on outsourcing and “Benedict Arnold” CEOs.

2. Biggest surprise about food in India: How much it draws on Chinese influences, even at the regional level. There is even a uniquely Indian version of Chinese food, which is derived from adding Indian spices and peppers to basically Cantonese dishes.

3. Delight for the eyes: Senegal (Brazil?) may have the most beautiful women in the world, but the Indian state of Rajasthan arguably has the most beautifully dressed women; here is one photo.

4. Best opening line: An Indian gentleman approached me in the hotel lobby – “You are reading all those newspapers so furiously, one, two, three, four of them…you must be one of these so-called globalization theorists!”

5. Favorite Indian joke about the Chinese: How do we know that Adam and Eve were not Chinese? Because they ate the apple, not the snake.

Are the economic girlie men in the hard sciences?

Levels of hormone exposure in the womb helps determine which academic discipline researchers work in, a new study suggests. Perhaps surprisingly, a “female” pattern of exposure was common in scientists, while a “male” pattern dominated in the social sciences.

The survey compared the length of people’s index (first) fingers with their ring (third) fingers. This comparison is thought to indicate prenatal sex hormone exposure, probably because some developmental genes control the formation of both the reproductive system and the digits.

In the general population, men have a “digit ratio” of 0.98 on average – the index finger being slightly shorter than the ring finger. Women have a digit ratio of 1.0 on average, meaning the two fingers are the same length.

However the 107 male and female academics surveyed at Bath University, UK, had very similar ratios – 0.987 for men and 0.984 for women. This suggests the two groups were exposed to the same levels of oestrogen and testosterone in the womb.

Hormone levels also appear to predict which discipline researchers work in. Staff in the departments of chemistry, computer science, mathematics and physics all had average ratios of over 0.995 – close to the female average – despite 81% of those subjects being male.

In contrast, the staff of the social science departments of economics, education, management, social and policy sciences had an average ratio below 0.98, the male average, despite only 66% of this sample being male.

“It’s unnerving to think the profession I’m in was determined by the hormones I was exposed to in the womb,” says Mark Brosnan, the lead author from the University of Bath, UK, whose work has been submitted to the British Journal of Psychology.

John Manning, an expert on digit ratios from the University of Central Lancashire, is not surprised that hormone levels in the womb can have such an influence. “The effect of testosterone on the developing brain is organisational and permanent,” he says.

Here is the full story. In case you are wondering, one of my hands fits this story and the other does not.

Protectionism, Right and Wrong

Slate asked all of its regular contributors and staff to explain who they were voting for and why, and posted the responses here. I responded as follows:

If George Bush had chosen the racist David Duke as a running mate, I’d have voted against him, almost without regard to any other issue. Instead, John Kerry chose the xenophobe John Edwards as a running mate. I will therefore vote against John Kerry.

Duke thinks it’s imperative to protect white jobs from black competition. Edwards thinks it’s imperative to protect American jobs from foreign competition. There’s not a dime’s worth of moral difference there. While Duke would discriminate on the arbitrary basis of skin color, Edwards would discriminate on the arbitrary basis of birthplace. Either way, bigotry is bigotry, and appeals to base instincts should always be repudiated.

Bush’s reckless spending and disregard for the truth had me almost ready to vote for Kerry-until Kerry picked his running mate. When the real David Duke ran against a corrupt felon for governor of Lousiana, the bumper stickers read, “Vote for the crook. It’s important.” Well, I’m voting for the reckless spendthrift. It’s important again.

A thoughtful e-correspondent disagrees: “I cringe every time Kerry or Edwards step up the protectionist rhetoric, not because its morally wrong but because it’s bad economics.”

My response:

The Jim Crow laws in the South were bad economics for whites. By refusing to trade with blacks, they retarded their own economic progress. But that wasn’t the primary reason to oppose those laws; the primary reason was that they were wrong. I think protectionism is a lot like that.

How is Bollywood financed?

Most Bollywood productions do not get bank loans; they are funded privately. The banks do not understand or trust Bollywood. The funds required for a production are huge, and a family in the industry may be working on several projects at once. The time between investment and return can be years if the film doesn’t do well. Who would have that amount of cash lying around? Only the underworld. The gangs are very happy to see black money turn into Technicolor dreams. A hit film can bring in a fourfold return on investment within the first four weeks of its release. So for the underworld, investing in films is one of the quickest ways to get a return on illegal investment. Without underworld financing, the Hindi film industry would collapse overnight. It would have to rely on financing from banks and shareholders, who do not share the cinematic taste of the dons. Their dreams would be nowhere near as extravagant, as violent, as passionate.

That is from Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.

Posting in October

October 27, 2004: If Dylan Thomas hadn’t drunk himself to death in 1953, he might be celebrating his ninetieth birthday today, perhaps with a successor to the grand and glorious poem he wrote to celebrate his thirtieth.

He left us with a small number of poems so heart-wrenching that I cannot read them, even for the two hundredth time, without all of the symptoms of an emotional crisis. Take In Country Sleep, where a father reassures his daughter that she has nothing to fear from fairy tale villains—but only from the Thief who comes in multiple guises to take her faith and ultimately to leave her “naked and forsaken to grieve he will not come”. In Country Sleep was a standard bedtime poem in our house, and my daughter soon learned to anticipate “the part where Daddy cries”.

Then there’s the prose. Nobody is better at nostalgia and grief for time’s relentlessness:

The lane was always the place to tell your secrets; if you did not have any, you invented them. Occassionally now I dream that I am turning out of school into the lane of confidences when I say to the boys of my class ‘At last, I have a real secret!’

“What is it? What is it?”

“I can fly!”

And when they do not believe me, I flap my arms and slowly leave the ground, only a few inches at first, then gaining air until i fly waving my cap, level with the upper windows of the school, peering in until the mistress at the piano screams, and the metronome falls to the ground and stops, and there is no more time.

And finally there’s the voice, the great booming melliflous irresistible voice lovingly preserved by Caedmon on about a dozen CDs that you will thank yourself for buying. The Caedmon collection includes a performance of the haunting “play for voices” Under Milk Wood narrated by Thomas himself; for an even greater treat, get the BBC Radio version with Richard Burton—or listen to it on the web. (Warning: Do not rent the highly regrettable movie version with Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.)

For a brief 39 years, as Time held him green and dying, Dylan Thomas spun words and images of surpassing beauty that will live as long as the English language. May he rest in peace.

Pricing Madness

A new paper from Jeff Campbell and Ben Eden looks at prices of grocery store items and finds that:

1) The more recently a price has changed, the more likely it is to change again, even if you don’t count temporary sale items.

2) The dispersion of newly set prices is not less than the dispersion of all prices.

Point 1) runs contrary to what pretty much any sticky price model predicts; point 2) runs contrary to what you’d expect if stores were trying to bring their prices into line with the rest of the market.

If you’re looking for a resolution of all this, don’t come to me. I’m still working on why the gas station down the street offers senior citizen discounts on Wednesday afternoons.

And while we’re at it: How come a sandwich at the airport deli costs me twice as much as a sandwich at the deli down the block, but they’ll both sell me a newspaper for the exact same price?

Portraits of Greatness

Alexandre Grothendieck, born in 1928, was the greatest mathematician of the twentieth century and arguably the greatest of all time. Between 1958 and 1972 he reformulated the fundamental concepts of geometry —concepts like point, space and covering (as in, “the northern and southern hemispheres cover the entire earth”) so completely that it is no longer possible to imagine what geometry would be about if Grothendieck had never lived.

In this endeavor, he collaborated with several of the world’s finest mathematicians who put their own research agendas on hold for the privilege of attending Grothendieck’s daily seminars, fleshing out his ideas, and committing them to paper. The resulting documents, totalling over 10,000 pages, revolutionized geometry, arithmetic and algebra by viewing all of mathematics from a height of abstraction at which subjects blend together, every unnecessary detail is stripped away, and essential truths are almost automatically revealed.

Today he lives alone in a cabin in the Pyrenees, tending a garden and refusing visitors.

It’s been over 30 years since Grothendieck’s abrupt retreat from civilization, and for most of that time I’ve been waiting for someone to write his biography. This is, after all, a compelling story. Its hero is a brilliant eccentric described by everyone who’s known him as a man of indescribable charisma. (It was this legendary charisma, no less than the brilliance and clarity of the Grothendieck vision, that lured so many first-rate mathematicians away from their own research for the sake of the grand collaboration.) Besides his mathematical work, he’s given us several thousand pages of introspective autobiography, philosophy and theology, including a several-hundred page proof of the existence of God. (The thrust of the argument, as I understand it: We all have dreams, don’t we? And what could dreams be, if not messages from God? And how could God send us messages if he didn’t exist? Q.E.D.)

It’s a story touched by many of the defining events of the twentieth century: a father who died in Auschwitz, a leadership role in the antiwar and counterculture movements of the late sixties, and a career abandoned at its height partly to protest NATO’s role in the funding of mathematical research—and then, to add to the drama, decades of isolation punctuated by cryptic pronouncements and long rambling screeds that, in the opinion of many former friends and colleagues, indicate he’s gone stark raving mad.

The telling of this tale is long overdue but it looks like the waiting is over. Allyn Jackson’s superb two-part article has appeared here and here, and a full length book (by Winfried Scharlau) is apparently in the works. There is also a brilliant lecture by Colin McLarty on Grothendieck’s philosophy of mathematics. Both McLarty’s and Jackson’s pieces require some mathematical sensibility. It remains to be seen whether someone will distill the Grothendieck story down to the comfort level of, say, the average New Yorker subscriber while remaining true to the spirit and breathtaking beauty of the Grothendieck revolution.

Sex and the single woman

Women living with their male partners are more likely to give birth to boys than are single women. The “marriage effect” (strictly speaking cohabiting effect) is small (51.5% boys in the cohabiting group versus 49.9% in the single group) but statistically significant. The marriage effect combined with an increase in the number of single mothers may be large enough to explain the decline in male births observed in many developed countries.

The cads versus dads theory had predicted the opposite result. Cads should have more sons than dads because big cads, by their very nature, have good male genes that are ideally passed on to little cads.

Earlier Steve noted that high status parents are more likely to have sons which makes evolutionary sense because succesful males are more likely to have children than unsuccesful ones while females are likely to have children regardless, so you want to specialize in boys when times are good and in girls when times are bad. The “marriage effect” could be an expectational consequence of the same logic. If women “know” that their male partners are unlikely to be around they know that they are more likely to have low-status in the future and thus should have girls.

I have not read the original research but it is easy to go wrong. Since girls cause divorce (and presumably also separation) it is critical to measure cohabitation before conception in order to distinguish “cohabiting causes boys” from “girls cause separation.” The research claims to measure cohabitation before “birth/conception” but retrospective bias could easily cause mothers to say that the father left before the birth (or before the child’s sex was known).

Here is an article from The Economist, here is a New Scientist piece that emphasizes different factors and here is the original research ($)

Bayesian lie detectors

Here is a new way to get at the truth:

Drazen Prelec, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, US, has devised a scoring system, or “Bayesian truth serum” to encourage people to divulge their honest opinions…

Prelec says if people truly hold a particular opinion, they tend to give higher estimates that other people share it. So if someone did have more than 20 recent sexual partners – but lied about it – that person would probably assume a higher rate of such behaviour in general than someone who had not had so many partners…

For example, he describes a situation where two paintings are viewed by a group of 10 people who are then asked, privately, to pick their favourite. Seven people say they prefer painting A, while three vote for painting B. If, on the second question, all 10 people said they thought everyone else would prefer painting A, then those three people expressing a personal preference for painting B might be thought of as a safer bet for having told the truth. That is because, argues Prelec, despite what they thought was more popular, those individuals still chose the other painting.

In other words, thinking that others are disagreeing with you predicts truthtelling. Prelec claims that the formula works best on groups of ten or greater.

I can, of course, think of caveats. The group must be your peers rather than hated rivals; conformity often brings social benefits but not always. But nonetheless I expect there is a grain of truth here.

Do you recall the old saying? “The surest way to get good information from a person is to ask for advice.”

Here is the full story.

Not quite Coase

While on location in September on Moreno Avenue in Los Angeles’ Brentwood neighborhood, a broad street lined with substantial homes, producer Ronald Schwary’s location team asked Stefanie and Myron Roth to halt their noisy tree trimming. Some bargaining ensued, and the Roths agreed to send the trimmers away in exchange for $1,000.

A nice use of Coasian bargaining, no? No, not in Hollywood.

Rather than pay them quickly with a check, Schwary, winner of a best picture Oscar for the 1980 film “Ordinary People,” rounded up 100,000 pennies and had them delivered, weeks later, in 20 densely packed bags to the Roths’ house.

…The Roths, who said they could not even lift the 30-pound bags, were not amused.

Thanks to Nicholas Tabarrok for the pointer.