Month: August 2005

Outsourcing Blogs

Our general business model is a two tiered effort to hire Chinese
citizens to write blogs en masse for us at a valued wage. …We estimate that our current blogforce
of 25 can support around 500 unrelated blogs…When a vendor
needs to promote a new product to the internet demographic we will be
able to create a believable buzz across hundreds of ‘reputable’ blogs
and countless message boards. We can offer a legitimacy to advertisers
that doesen’t exist anywhere else.

The second tier of our plan
is a blog vacation service where our employees fill in for established
bloggers who need to take a break from regular posting. As all bloggers
know, an unupdated blog is quickly forgotten. For a nominal fee we can
provide seamless integration of filler.

So far the enterprise is nothing more than a blog about starting the business.  But it does make for some amusing reading. 

Our initial results have been a little bit below what we expected.
To increase our authenticity we are trying to isolate and remedy
problem groups. Our design process centers around 3 general groups.
They are:

1.  Teenage girls
2.  Normal Bloggers (yuppies, moms, average college students)
3.  Super Bloggers (bipolars, cynics, liberals, outcasts, super-hip)

Teenage girls are apparently the easiest for Chinese sweat-shop workers to imitate but Super Bloggers are tough.  The entrepreneurs, however, have uncovered the formula:

To create convincing Group 3 product we need to have extensive
faux-archives (to give the illusion of a faithfully updated blog) and
we need to drop a lot of obscure pop-culture references. The key to
good Group 3 is to spend 80% being negative about certain areas of
culture and 15% excessively positive. The last 5% should be used for
self-loathing because the blogger likes certain ‘un-hip’ culture.

Yup, he got the percentages just about right.

Thanks to Noel Welsh, who claims he blogs at Untyping.

Markets in guilt reduction

If you’re feeling guilty about driving your giant sport utility vehicle (but not so guilty that you’d ever give it up), salvation is at hand. For a yearly fee of around $80, a company called TerraPass will offset the damage your SUV does to the atmosphere by spending your money to reduce industrial carbon emissions and to promote the spread of clean energy. They’ll also send you a decal and a bumper sticker, so everyone in the neighborhood will know that your gas guzzler has been sanctified.

Here is the full story, which details other options as well.  Of course we need not stop with SUVs.  Have your life taped and recorded, and submit the results to certified third-party arbitrators (who, by the way, will safeguard your confidentiality).  They will tell you how much of a cancer you have been to the body politic, and suggest offsetting charitable contributions.

Addendum: Read this also, thanks to Graham Lawlor.

Epigenomes

As scientists discover more about the "epigenome," a layer of biochemical reactions that turns genes on and off, they’re finding that it plays a big part in health and heredity…

The epigenome can change according to an individual’s environment, and is passed from generation to generation. It’s part of the reason why "identical" twins can be so different, and it’s also why not only the children but the grandchildren of women who suffered malnutrition during pregnancy are likely to weigh less at birth.

"Now we’re even talking about how to see if socioeconomic status has an impact on the epigenome," Szyf said.

The link is mine, but read more here.  Here is further explanation.

Do consumers prefer ambiguous names?

Today we have crayons called "Inch Worm," "Jazzberry Jam," "Tropical Rain Forest," "Manatee," "Bittersweet" and "Razzmatazz."  Or have you noticed you can’t understand half of the ice cream flavors these days?

Miller and Kahn discovered that there’s method — and perhaps even profit — to this maddening name game. In one test, 100 students taking part in an unrelated study were told that after they had finished the research task they should select jelly beans from six containers as a reward for their participation. They were told that each container held a different flavor of jelly bean. Half the students saw containers labeled with ambiguous names ("white Ireland," "moody blue"), while the other half saw those same containers with more specific descriptive names ("marshmallow white," "blueberry blue"). As the researchers had hypothesized, students took nearly three times as many jelly beans on average from a container that bore a vague name as from one that carried a specific name. In another study involving 60 students, participants were told to pretend they were ordering sweaters from a catalogue. The sweaters in question came in various colors, and these shades were described either ambiguously or using common descriptive names. Again, the students clearly preferred the vague names when making their buying choices. A third test turned up similar results.

Why does ambiguity seem to sell? Miller and Kahn theorize that, without real information, consumers try to understand why the product has such a jazzy name and fill in the blanks with imagined desirable qualities.

Here is the full story.  Here is another summary.  Here is the paper.  Here is one researcher’s home page.

Will New Zealand reform any further?

The core outlines of the New Zealand story are well-known: in 1980 the country was arguably the most socialized OECD country and stood on the verge of bankruptcy.  By the early 1990s New Zealand was one of the freest economies and had produced a solid if not spectacular economic performance.  The reforms included near free trade, substantial privatization, elimination of agricultural subsidies, free labor markets based on contract, free capital markets, 0-2 percent inflation as a formal regime, a relatively flat tax, and greater transparency in policymaking.  But the New Zealand economy has not seen major reforms in over a decade and in a few areas, such as labor markets, there has been backsliding.  Will reforms return?  I see a few hypotheses:

1. New Zealand reformed everything short of social welfare spending, education, and health care, which few voters wish or wished to reform.  In fact the point of previous reforms was to preserve (and perhaps extend) previous levels of social welfare spending.

2. Further reforms were thwarted by a move to proportional representation in the early 1990s, which gave minority parties undue influence and weakened threads of accountability.

3. Asset privatizations in particular were oversold — remember the Auckland blackout? — and New Zealanders lost their appetite for further changes.

4. New Zealand policymakers were well ahead of public attitudes, and managed so many reforms only because the country’s (previous) Parliamentary system had few checks and balances.  It is taking public opinion an entire generation to catch up to where policy stands.  Only then might current reforms continue.

5. New Zealanders can once again sit content, since they are no longer in danger of being blown out of the water by Australia.  If they start falling behind again, reforms will resume.

6. Donald Brash will be elected Prime Minister in September, and reforms will resume then.

I’ll give the greatest weight to #1 and #4, and say no to #6, comments are open, Kiwi commentators are especially welcome.

U.S. fact of the day

In July the Spanish-language Univision was No.1 among all networks for 18 to 34 year olds, a critical demographic for advertisers.  The station averaged 1.2 million nightly viewers from this age group; Fox was second.

That is from Entertainment Weekly, August 5 issue; it is lovely to be back home, pawing through one ‘s magazines.

Factory tours

Eric Rasmusen recommends factory tours.  Along related lines, four of my favorite global sites are Gary, Indiana, the Ruhrgebiet near Duisburg, Germany, the harbor in Rotterdam (yes you can take a tour), and of course the view from the Pulaski Skyway.  I call it "industrial beauty."  And to think they asked me on New Zealand television whether New Jersey has more than one culture…

Cutting government spending in Colorado?

The stricter Colorado [spending] cap does three things: it imposes firm spending caps (which grow only to reflect population and inflation), returns any excess revenues to taxpayers and allows only voters, not legislators, to override the caps.

Both sides agree that the measure reined in the budget. The growth in per capita spending fell to 31 percent in the decade after the cap from 72 percent in the decade before..

But even as the Colorado measure galvanizes antispending groups elsewhere, it is dividing them at home, prompting a right-on-right fight that is luring outside combatants and drawing blood.

On one side is Gov. Bill Owens, the two-term Republican once promoted by National Review as a conservative of presidential timber. Arguing that the strict provision has forced a fiscal crisis, Mr. Owens is championing a ballot measure that would suspend the limit for five years, allowing the state to spend an additional $3.7 billion. Otherwise, he warns, the cap may be repealed.

On the other side are former allies who call the governor a tax-raising apostate discrediting the law he claims to protect. In addition to Mr. Norquist, they include the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and the former House majority leader, Dick Armey, a leader of an antitax group called FreedomWorks.

Stay tuned…I would be surprised if this kind of initiative proved to be a long-run political equilibrium in many states.  Voters could simply cut spending by voting for anti-spending politiicians, if they were truly convinced of the merits of that position.  In part this is voters wanting to feel they want to cut spending, without actually having the desire to do so, a kind of expressive politics of the right.  Here is the full story.  Here is one account of failures at the federal level, courtesy of Cato and Reason.

Who are the smartest people?

When asked the above question, and given a list of 50 names, Americans responded with these rankings:

1 Albert Einstein
2 Bill Gates
3 Marie Curie
4 Stephen Hawking
5 Condoleezza Rice
6 Bill Clinton
7 Sandra Day O’Connor
8 Oprah Winfrey
9 Warren Buffett
10 Jane Goodall

I will object to Johnny Carson, Dr. Phil, and Ralph Lauren in the Top 50, but applaud Hayao Miyazaki, Susan Polgar, and Jackie Chan.  Here is the full list.  The only academics in the Top 50 are Einstein, Hawking, and Curie, not one person from the social sciences is represented, unless you count Condi Rice. 

Addendum: Thanks to MacNeil, who directs me to further information about the survey.  The wording of this post has been amended to reflect what appears to be an agenda-setting role for Marilyn vos Savant; she appears to have provided the initial list.

Further evidence that illegal downloads are a red herring

Music copied onto blank recordable CDs is becoming a bigger threat to
the bottom line of record stores and music labels than online
file-sharing, the head of the recording industry’s trade group said
Friday…"Burned" CDs accounted for 29 percent of all recorded music obtained by
fans in 2004, compared to 16 percent attributed to downloads from
online file-sharing networks…

Here is the story.

Pornographic Giffen goods?

Well, not exactly, but the logic remains interesting:

At least one major voice in the porn world thinks a small tax — well below 25 percent — might actually have the unanticipated effect of helping the adult industry.

"As soon as we get a universal or national porn tax, we get what we’ve always wanted — that comfort zone of respectability that cigarettes, alcohol and gambling have," said Bill Margold, a former porn performer who now advocates for adult performers.

Margold suspects the "greedy" adult industry will oppose any kind of tax, even if it’s in the 1- or 2-percent range. But "in the long run, they’ll see it’s the best thing that ever happened to them. It is respectability, and respectability has a price tag."

Consistent with this argument, the religious right opposes the idea of taxing porn; here is the storyAddendum: Ben Wieland directs my attention to this earlier post on taxing brothels.

Can Blogs Discipline The Media?

A favorite (alas unpublished) theory paper of mine shows:

He who pays the piper calls the tune, but he can only successfully call for a tune that he will recognize upon hearing. … When experts must pay to acquire information, have no intrinsic interest in client topics, and can coordinate to acquire the same information, no expert ever pays to know more than any client will know when rewarding those experts.


So why should you ever believe what you read?  Consider “Avoid bridge, construction delays.”  The newspaper might fear that you will try the bridge, and think less of them if their forecast is bad.  Or they might fear that your close friend will, and tell you.

How about “Michael Jackson arrested today”?  Few readers would normally check this firsthand, but if a big story like this was wrong then a competing publication might make a stink, and then one of your friends might check it out.  For the vast majority of media claims, however, there is little incentive to make a big stink, and few people who care would ever learn the truth given a stink.  So if it takes the media much effort to learn the truth, why should they bother?

Media watchdog charities might claim to check for you, but why should you believe they share your interest in knowing the truth, instead of just wanting you to write them a check?  Bloggers can also claim to help you check, but if those bloggers mainly care about attracting readers (an interest MR and others often admit), the same problem remains.

The only real solution I can see is to make better use of the people you have good reason to think really do share your strong interest in knowing the truth about some topic.  So connected blogs by people who know each other in other ways may be the key.  Perhaps such networks lower the cost of raising a stink to the people who care.

Of course it may also be that most of us do not really care about the truth; we might just want interesting new things to talk about with each other.  Which might explain the otherwise-surprising lack of interest in this problem (which applies to academia at least as well as to the media).