Month: December 2004

The most thanked man in science

Apparently it is Olivier Danvy:

Danvy, a French researcher who works
on programming languages at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, says
that at first he was "stunned" to find his name at the top of the list.

on reflection, he puts it down to "a series of coincidences". He is
multidisciplinary, well-travelled, is involved with an international
PhD programme, and belongs to a university department that encourages
international visitors.

a snowball effect," says Danvy, who admits to being a helpful sort of
fellow. "I encourage people a lot, and advise many students on their

Here is the full story; text-mining software was used to compile the results.  Here is Olivier’s home page, which lists his six doctoral students as well.  He has, by the way, 15,800 Google entries as of early this morning…

How to avoid overshopping

Most shoppers have a "looking mode" and a "buying mode."  Once they shift into the buying mode, they can do enormous damage. 

"It’s a change in mindset," Dhar says. "You go from carefully weighing pros and cons to buying. You don’t stop to think. You get into a frenzied mindset. You start looking for things to buy."

[And a] utilitarian purchase, he says, apparently gives you the justification to do something fun. "Essentials drive momentum," he says.

To quote the study: "Shopping momentum arises from this reasonable idea that shopping has an inertial quality, that there is a hurdle to shift from browsing to shopping, which, once crossed, makes further purchases more likely."

Knowing this in advance, how can you constrain yourself?  Leaving your credit cards at home might be too costly.  Two alternatives are suggested:

1. Make your first purchase a guilty pleasure, not a necessity, thereby causing initial remorse to set in.  In other words, take your indulgence up front.

2. Go to stores with multiple checkout counters and use them; customers tend to spend more when they can take all purchases to the same counter.  Paying more than once tends to break momentum, and to focus your attention on the cost.

Here is the full story.

Addendum: Here is the fixed link.

Jail Mail

I edited a book, Changing the Guard, on private prisons and crime control.  Last week I received an interesting letter from an expert in the field….a prisoner in Tennessee.  Frankly, I was expecting a crank but in fact the prisoner, who shall remain anonymous, had a lot of intelligent things to say about how the prison system operates.  Here is one observation:

A privately owned and publicly traded company like CCA has no incentive to rehabilitate criminals.  It is in the best interests of the company for even more criminals to exist.  Unfortunately, the same is true of government run prisons.  And contrary to what you may have been told, prisoners are not paroled because they have indicated by their actions or behaviors while inside that they are less likely to reoffend; they are let go because the Parole Boards believe that will commit another crime.  This way the prison lobbyists can then "prove" that parole doesn’t work.  The Department of Corrections gets less money from paroled prisoners than it does for those kept inside.  And also, "good" inmates are less trouble (less labor) than the trouble-makers, and so trouble-makers get released.

Good analysis.  I hope, however, that he does not test his theory on how to gain early release.

The deadliest day

Christmas is the deadliest day of the year for Americans with 12.4 percent more deaths than normal, researchers said on Monday.

Americans die from heart attacks and other natural causes on Christmas,
the day after and on New Year’s Day than on any other days of the year,
the researchers reported.

It is probably because people are
feeling too busy or too festive to go to the hospital over the winter
holiday season, the researchers wrote in Monday’s issue of the journal

I would have expected a different gloss — my mother always claimed that people feel more depressed on Christmas and New Year’s.  In any case, here is the full story.

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Intelligent bar codes for the consumer

…shoppers choosing, say, turkeys could one day scan bar codes with their cellphone cameras to find out where the birds were from, and even see pictures of the farms.  The transformed bar code would call attention to environmentally friendly products and raise the consciousness of shoppers everywhere…Software already exists that allows camera phones to read bar codes.  And some companies have begun sharing encoded product-tracking information with curious consumers.  This year, Heritage Foods started providing a tracking number with every piece of meat it sells.  When keyed into the company’s Web site, the number provides the animal’s medical and feed history.  The site also features a turkey Web cam, so you can examine the animals’ living conditions for yourself.  As Patrick Martins, co-founder of Heritage Foods, puts it, you can "see Tom naturally mating with Henrietta."

Here is the full story, NYT password required.

My take: I suspect a more popular use of this technology would call up ads and suggested product uses.  Or how about third-party bar codes, such as Consumer Reports might supply?  Consumers would then get suspicious if no such bar code were present.  From another direction altogether, the nerds could program their phones with calibrated macro models to estimate the effect of the expenditure on gdp, the deficit, and the value of the dollar.

That is all from the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Dec.12, the annual "Year in Ideas" feature.  Want another innovation?  Try stock options for soldiers.

Brazil fact of the day

Agriculture is now a $150-billion-a-year business in Brazil,
accounting for more than 40 percent of the country’s exports and
creating what Brazilians call the "green anchor" of their economy.

Already the world’s biggest exporter of chickens, orange juice, sugar,
coffee and tobacco, according to Agriculture Ministry statistics,
Brazil soon hopes to add soybeans to the list, depending on what
happens in that volatile market.

With a grass-fed herd of 175
million cattle that is the world’s largest, it passed the United States
as the world’s largest exporter of beef last year. During the first
nine months of 2004, sales of Brazilian beef abroad rose 77 percent
over the same period last year, leading the government to predict $2.5
billion in earnings from beef exports this year.

Over all, the
agricultural bonanza, aided in part by mad cow disease in Europe and
avian flu in Asia, is likely to give Brazil a record trade surplus of
over $30 billion.

…Brazil, which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell described as "an
agricultural superpower" during a visit in October, hopes to pass the
United States as the world’s largest agricultural producer.


"What’s really driving this revolution is that the Brazilians
discovered how to use tropical and savanna soils that had always been
considered poor," said G. Edward Schuh, director of the Center for
International Economic Policy at the University of Minnesota. "They
learned that with modest applications of lime and phosphorus they can
quadruple and quintuple their yields, not just with soybeans but also
with maize, cotton and other commodities."

In the 1960s, coffee was responsible for 60 percent of Brazil’s exports.  Today it is seventh on the list.

Here is the full story, NYT password required.

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Luring Alex to lunch

Here is my side of the conversation:

"Alex, will you come to lunch with us?

Busy? (scornfully).  Doing what?

You write articles so that people will read them, no?

How many people read one of your articles?

That’s not bad.  But how much time does it take to write the article?

If it is so good that articles are read, why not read another article instead of writing one? Surely not only your articles are worthy of being read. 

Reading a good article is so much easier and quicker than writing one.

So you admit my point.  You oversupply the writing of articles, relative to a general  undersupply of the reading of articles.  The same might be said of academia in general.

And surely, Glaucon, we should correct institutional failures, no?

Now let me ask you — going to lunch, and talking with us — is it more like writing an article or reading an article?

That’s what I thought."

The chicken tikka was delicious.

Social security update

President Bush has taken special care to tell us that his social security plans will involve no new "payroll taxes" [does this mean "no new taxes"?].  Nor, supposedly, will the plan to cut the deficit be derailed.  What then will happen?  The Wall Street Journal (December 10, p.A5) writes:

While Mr. Bush has been silent, some administration officials privately acknowledge his idea is that workers who open private accounts would agree to take a smaller share of Social Security benefits.

Cryptic, yes.  Does it simply mean that putting money into a private account lowers your participation in standard old age benefits?  That, taken alone, wouldn’t ease the transition costs at all, given the pay as you go nature of the system.  Or does it mean that you pay a transfer tax on the switch to private accounts?  How much could our government raise by auctioning off the right to leave the system?  [Probably not full value, but government can reap some equity-based returns up front, without having to own the equities in the longer run.]  Of course if the transfer tax is high enough, there is not much "privatization" at all but rather we stick with the status quo.  Stay tuned…

Rock, paper, scissors — no longer just a game

The rules are simple: Two players count "1…2…3…Go!" and then offer up their hand in one of three ways: rock (clenched fist), paper (open, flat hand), or scissors (forefinger and middle finger form a ‘V’).  The winner is decided according to the rules that rock blunts scissors (rock wins), scissors cut paper (scissors win), and paper covers rock (paper wins).  If the weapons are the same, then the game is a tie.

Given the intransitive rankings, a player should try to feign randomness; a predictable strategy is beaten.  Appearing more random than your opponent is in fact the only dimension of competition.  Apparently many find this thrilling or at least humorous:

Rock Paper Scissors is evolving into something else entirely: a genuine, bona fide, almost legitimate sport…
    The World Rock Paper Scissors (RPS) Society – yep, there’s one of those, too – boasts 2,200 members. The winner of this year’s world championship was honored with a parade at Disney World. Simon & Schuster recently published an official strategy guide.
    "I can think of five bars in the Dupont [Circle] area where you can find a money game, $1 to $20," Mr. Simmons says. "It’s the equivalent of pickup basketball."
    Tonight [Friday], Fox Sports Net’s "Best Damn Sports Show Period" will feature an extended segment on October’s world championships, held in Toronto. A British-made RPS documentary film is due in January.

Read this account of gambit strategies; here are gambits in more depth, written by the reigning world champion, Master Roshambollah.  Here are some faking strategies.

Style often corresponds to personality:

Paper is subtle, the choice of intellectual, passive-aggressive types. Scissors are devious, a tool of controlled malice. Rock is between-the-eyes intimidation, preferred by beginners and players who have been backed into a corner.
    "People fall into patterns," Mr. Simmons [also known as Master R] said. "From my personal experience, women tend to open with scissors. There are some other tells I don’t want to go into. But I can see things in the shoulders and the forearm."

Here is the full story.  Here is the world championship web site, which offers T-shirts and books, and of course the exact rules.  Here is the on-line magazine.  Here is an essay on how to coach the game.  The game also has applications in evolutionary biology.

The bottom line: The game is interesting precisely because it is so difficult to be (or appear) random in critical moments.  And being random universally only brings you to the middle of the pack.  On the computational dimension of randomness, read this article.

The new plan for health care reform

Replace the tax deductibility of health insurance for the wealthy and middle class with tax credits for low-income individuals to buy health insurance.

Andrew Samwick explains here and here, try this excerpt:

Who benefits from this deductibility [of insurance]? …the average family with $100,000 or more in income receives a benefit of $2,780. Compare this to an average benefit of $1,231 for a family with $30,000 – $39,999 in income. Because tax rates are higher at higher income levels, and those with higher incomes are more likely to have coverage, the benefit goes up with income…

The portion of this disparity that is due to the progressivity of the tax system is ridiculous. Subject it all to tax, and take some portion of the $100 – $200 billion saved and use it to provide refundable tax credits to purchase health insurance, whether through an employer or an individual policy. The credits should phase out at higher income levels. 

Brad DeLong signs on as well.  R. Glenn Hubbard and co-authors endorse a related but not identical idea in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal.

The core rationale is simple.  Employers would substitute toward plans where beneficiaries care about costs at the margin.  At the same time, the uninsured would have a greater chance of receiving coverage.

My take:  Whether I press the "yes" button depends on what we compare it to.  It sounds like a good package deal, especially if done in revenue-neutral fashion.  The distributional change is compelling.  It looks less good when broken into constituent parts.

People at the upper end will face higher insurance costs; I suspect at the margin many will be pushed out of group plans into higher-premium private plans.  (I’ve never been convinced that the tax subsidy for insurance, while costly, is the fundamental problem in the health care market.)  Why should we favor this, except as a revenue-raising measure?  On this part of the plan I vote "no."

What about the newly created benefits at the lower end of the income distribution?  Well, I can think of many worse ways for the government to spend its money.  But for me the proposal is neither a first nor a second best.

Many of the uninsured are linked to recent immigration.  But if we are willing to spend money in this fashion (I am), I would rather spend the money taking in more immigrants.  That helps the people who need it most and brings significant health benefits to many, including the recipients of remittances.  (Admittedly emergency room budgets will take a whacking.)  I also would prefer a more targeted program to address the behavioral obstacles that keep many of the poor, insured or not, from seeking preventive care.  So on this second part of the plan I vote "maybe."  It is not my favored way of spending government money, though it is an above-average way of spending the money.

Nobody has a really good health care plan.  This idea remains in the running, and might make sense as a "best politically feasible package plan."  But it is not my first or second best choice, and as a blogger I will demand license to dream.

The future of the DVD?

Mark Cuban is on the move:

Cuban and Wagner plan to buck the Hollywood system of releasing movies over many months, through separate windows for theaters, pay-per-view, DVD, and broadcast TV. Instead, Cuban said, they intend to attempt "day-and-date releases," in which their films premiere simultaneously on Landmark screens, HDNet, and DVD. "We think it’s a way of maximizing our revenues, controlling marketing costs, and adding value to our brands," he said. "And we don’t think giving people alternatives to going to the theater will hurt us at the box office. It’s just like with the Mavericks: We still sell out the games even though they’re on free TV."

Even more heretical is Cuban’s opinion of DVDs, which is that they suck — or, at least, that they’re inferior to hard drives as a medium for storing digital content. "Why would we invest in DVD," he asked, "knowing that hard drives are going to grow in capacity, shrink in size and price, and can also be erased and rewritten?" He imagines selling HD movies stored on key-chain drives — or putting multiple films on larger drives, "like software used to be packaged on PCs." Moreover, he added, "with ever-expanding storage, we can increase picture quality for years to come by taking advantage of new cameras and better compression schemes. With DVDs, we can’t."

Cuban’s bottom line?

"We’re on the brink of a war for the living room between the PC and electronics companies," he said. "And the thing we know about death wars like that is that the consumer always wins."

Here is the full story.  I’ll jump on board when a hard drive crash occurs less than every five years; I’ve never had a TV break on me.  Right now for me "convergence" would be a nightmare.  Simpler is better, it is the time constraints that bind, and all the rest is about giving me something I don’t (yet?) want.

Addendum: Here is a good short article on where the DVD is headed.