Month: July 2005

Advertising and the English

…advertising in essentially un-English…Advertising, and by extension all forms of marketing and selling, is by definition boastful – and therefore fundamentally at odds with one of the guiding principles of English culture.

For once, however, our self-imposed constraints have had a positive effect: advertising does not fit our system of values, so, rather than abandon our unwritten rules, we have twisted and changed the rules of advertising, and developed a form of advertising that allows us to comply with the modesty rule.  The witty, innovative advertising for which the English are, I am told by people in the trade, internationally renowned and much admired, is really just our way of trying to preserve our modesty.

That is from Kate Fox’s excellent Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour.  If you enjoy the blogging of Grant McCracken, or simply wish to understand the English better, this book is for you.

What is the right way to repudiate frequent-flyer debt?

According to The Economist, frequent flyer miles are now the world’s dominant currency, with outstanding balances at $700bn; some sort of devaluation seems inevitable. But what is the best way to do it?

Airlines could simply repudiate the debt, but this seems unnecessary. The alternatives are devaluation or restricted convertibility. British Airways seem to have decided on the latter: they are making it nearly impossible for me to book frequent-flyer tickets, rectify their errors or coordinate with my wife’s bookings. But this is a puzzle – a simple devaluation would go unnoticed, but the current shenanigans are hugely irritating.


1) They have devalued already and I didn’t notice, but they still had too much debt outstanding.

2) The frequent flyer contract makes devaluation illegal but obstructiveness legal.

3) Never attribute to conspiracy that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

John Kay on climate change

In the Financial Times today or on John’s website.

US President George W. Bush made four assertions: there are large uncertainties about the science and the economics; the Kyoto agreement would involve large costs and negligible benefits for the US; proposals to deal with greenhouse gas emissions that exclude developing countries are ineffective; and that research and development on new technologies should take priority over expenditure for meeting emissions reduction targets. It pains me to say it but on all points Mr Bush is right.

If we accept that the risk of a greenhouse effect is large enough to demand action, the question is: what sort of action?

Greenhouse gas emissions are cumulative; it seems likely that more good will come of stopping the flow entirely later than slightly slowing it now. If only the faddish short-term fixes (such as offshore wind farms) were likely to lead to longer-term solutions (such as nuclear fusion, or solar after three more decades of Moore’s Law-type progress) – we wouldn’t have to make difficult choices today.

My favorite things Peruvian

My list will not be so informed as one of Tyler’s but I was pleasantly surprised to find that with a little thought I could come up with some credible items.

Literature: Mario Vargas Llosa – an easy pick.  The War of the End of the World is his masterpiece – an epic in the style of Hugo and Tolstoy, filled with religion, fanaticism, obsession and violence.  If Vargas Llosa were a leftist he would have won the Nobel by now but he is a classical liberal.  For lighter reading try Aunt Julia and the ScriptWriter or his tale of running for the Peruvian presidency, A Fish in the Water.

Movie: Motorcycle Diaries has some great shots of Machu Picchu and is not without interest but even if it didn’t romanticize an authoritarian it is too slow and unsophisticated to be a great film.  Thus, I am going to cheat a little and go with Touching the Void which takes place in the Peruvian Andes.  As I wrote earlier it is "a harrowing, awe-inspiring, true-story of two climbers made into a great movie/documentary. Aside from the sheer entertainment value, very sheer in this case, the move has a lot to say about the diversity of preferences, the will to survive and believe it or not, how to achieve goals."

Music: Susana Baca, the best of black Peruvian music.  Once nearly lost, this music is now popular in Peru and is earnings worldwide recognition, in part due to the promotional efforts of David Byrne and his LuAka Bop label.

Art: I confess to liking the amazing sex pots (nsfw) of the Moche.  Produced some 1500 years ago by the Moche civilization these erotic ceramics depict all manner of sexual act including oral sex, anal sex, threesomes, homosexuality and more – a real sextravaganza.  Many were destroyed when the Spanish inquisition came to Peru.  Others were hidden away in the basement of museums as objects not fit to be shown or even acknowledged. 

Alfred Kinsey introduced the sex pots to the West in 1954 writing that the Moche artifacts were "the most frank and detailed document of sexual customs ever left by an ancient people.”  Hilariously, quite a few archaeologists at the time argued that the pots were symbolic warnings about what not to do!

Aside from prurient interest, I think the pottery is a fascinating demonstration of how variable are society’s sexual conventions yet how immutable is human nature – tell me, for example, that this guy ain’t proud!

Why are there airline delays?

Austin Goolsbee writes in

Mayer and Sinai’s study also identified the real culprit: the deliberate overscheduling of flights at peak periods by major airlines trying to increase the amount of connecting traffic at their hub airports. Major airlines like United, Delta, and American use a hub-and-spoke model as a way to offer consumers more flight choices and to save money by centralizing operations. Most of the traffic they send through a hub is on the way to somewhere else. (Low-cost carriers, on the other hand, typically carry passengers from one point to another without offering many connections.) Overscheduling at the hubs can’t explain all delays–weather and maintenance problems also contribute. But nationally, about 75 percent of flights go in or out of hub airports, making overscheduling the most important factor…

To cut down on delays, all Continental and American need to do at Newark and O’Hare respectively is to spread flights throughout the day. Continental does just that at O’Hare, because that airport isn’t its hub. Without many connecting passengers to worry about, the airline studiously avoids the congested departure periods. But the hub carriers would lose passengers and money if they did this. Spreading out flights would leave some connecting passengers with long layovers, and everyone in the travel business knows that people won’t pay as much for those tickets. Most people have a hard time figuring out which flights are leaving at overscheduled times, so they tend to avoid tickets that already have long delays built into them.

How can you avoid getting stuck on a late-leaving flight out of O’Hare? You’ve got three alternatives. If you are flying on a dominant carrier out of its hub, you can try to fly at a quiet time of day. To figure out when that is, you can download the airline’s timetable from its Web site to check when flights to other cities are scheduled to leave. You could also fly on an airline that doesn’t use O’Hare as a hub or on a low-cost carrier, both of which tend to avoid the crowded periods. Your last option is to take a deep breath and thank your airline for having so many connecting flights for you. If you’re delayed, you’re just paying the price of access to all those convenient choices.

Here is the full analysis.

Should Londoners abandon public transport?

Collectively, of course not. But for the selfish individual is it worthwhile? It turns out that the quarterly road deaths in London last year averaged 54. 52 people were murdered in the July 7th attacks (and four times more people travel by tube or bus than drive, cycle or walk). Leaving public transport is only going to be safer if the terrorists strike much more often in future.

How likely is that? Since we were all told that attacks were inevitable in the end, the horrible fact that they finally happened shouldn’t really change our estimate of the chance that they will happen again. Experiences in New York and Madrid suggest that a sustained campaign is hard. Let’s hope so.

Aside: Gary Becker and Yona Rubinstein have a paper on the response to the fear of attacks. It seems that defying terrorists is a fixed cost, willingly paid by frequent users of planes, buses or cafes but declined by casual users. That accords with my experience: I have no worries about returning to live in London permanently, but am pleased that my baby daughter will be travelling in a car on our imminent visit.

Kierkegaard and Dubai

One is weary of living in the country and moves to the city; one is weary of one’s native land and goes abroad; one is europemuede [weary of Europe] and goes to America etc.; one indulges in the fanatical hope of an endless journey from star to star.  Or there is another direction, but still extensive.  One is weary of eating on porcelain and eats on silver; wearying of that, one eats on gold; one burns down half of Rome in order to visualize the Trojan conflagration.  This method cancels itself and is the spurious infinity…

The method I propose…consists in changing the method of cultivation and the kinds of crops.  Here at once is the principle of limitation, the sole saving principle in the world.  The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.  A solitary prisoner for life is extremely resourceful; to him a spider can be a source of great amusement.

Two points: a) mid-19th century Denmark cannot have been so much fun, and b) it is time to move on to Singapore…

By the way, that quotation is from "Rotation of Crops," in Either/Or.

Scholars versus Activists

Scholars seek the truth, activists already know the truth.  Activists don’t like questioning, debate or independent research.  Consider how Dennis Durbin and Flaura Winston, two activists at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who have published research on child car seats, react to Steve Levitt’s work:

Their [Levitt and Dubner] conclusions stand in stark contrast to the existing body of
scientific data that support current child restraint recommendations,
and are, in our opinion, irresponsible and dangerous….We hope that this misleading article does not cost a child his life.

This is not science this is a threat – anyone who questions us or our research is putting children in danger.  Back off or we will tar you as monsters.

Contrast this approach with that of a scholar interested in truth:

What is more puzzling to me is why my results and Heaton’s both suggest
very little injury benefit of car seats, but the medical literature
often finds 70% (!!) reductions of injuries with car seats relative to
seat belts. We find reductions that are an order of magnitude smaller.
They use very different methods — surveying people in the weeks after
crashes for instance — but still it is really a puzzle. Which is why,
when you read my paper, I am extremely cautious in interpreting the
injury findings.

I hope that the medical researchers, Heaton,
and I can all work together to try to make some sense of the
conflicting results being generated by these different methodologies to
resolve this important question.

Of course Steve doesn’t need my help, as always the data is his best defense.

Will Dubai become a major tourist center?

Chris Masse posed me this question.  Here are some reasons why not:

1. The city is unwalkable.

2. The temperature can hit 120 in summer, with humidity of up to 90 percent.

3. Much of the place resembles Las Vegas but without casinos.  You can’t even access

4. Most of the modern buildings are ugly or at best mediocre.

5. Most items are no cheaper here than in the United States.

6. Few people are interested in studying economically fertile but politically dystopian Blade Runner-like scenarios.

7. It is more fun for men than for women.

On the other side:

1. Many of the visitors and potential visitors hold a different aesthetic than do North Americans.  They admire the city’s aspirational qualities for its own sake and care less about traditional beauty in the sense of European high culture.  Some would call them "tacky."  Others would say that observing an Arab success is worthy on its own terms.

2. Retail space per capita is four times that of the United States.

3. I am told it is only a ninety minute flight from Karachi.

The bottom line: Yes, Dubai will become a major tourist center.

Markets in everything: Virtual sweatshops

We’ve known for some time that online games have spawned markets where virtual assets go for real dollars. What’s the implication? Profit opportunities for anyone willing to put together high-tech capital and low-cost labor from places such as China, Indonesia and Romania:

Rich Thurman earned $100,000 by farming 9 billion gold in Ultima
Online… Thurman says he had "up to
30 PCs running at once, automatically collecting gold for me."

That is the first step. It isn’t too difficult from there to make the
leap into creating your own sweatshop. All you need is the ability to
write game macros or the money to purchase them. That’s right, if you
know where to look, they are on the open market. A macro that uses a
teleportation exploit in WOW is currently going for $3,000. Then just
hire cheap labor to monitor the bots.

The full story is at the gaming site 1UP, and worth browsing. The tip from Edward Castronova at Terra Nova. Castronova studies the economics and sociology of virtual worlds – read his most famous paper.