Month: October 2005

Speculative hypotheses about the evolutionary functionality of laughter

The common denominator of all jokes is a path of expectation that is diverted by an unexpected twist necessitating a complete reinterpretation of all the previous facts — the punch-line…Reinterpretation alone is insufficient.  The new model must be inconsequential.  For example, a portly gentleman walking toward his car slips on a banana peel and falls.  If he breaks his head and blood spills out, obviously you are not going to laugh.  You are going to rush to the telephone and call an ambulance.  But if he simply wipes off the goo from his face, looks around him, and then gets up, you start laughing.  The reason is, I suggest, because now you know it’s inconsequential, no real harm has been done.  I would argue that laughter is nature’s way of signaling that "it’s a false alarm."  Why is this useful from an evolutionary standpoint?  I suggest that the rhythmic staccato sound of laughter evolved to inform our kin who share our genes; don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm.  Laughter is nature’s OK signal.

That is from V.S. Ramachandran’s A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness.

How petty can my worries get?

Forget about avian flu, I hate waiting in line to board a plane.  But what is the answer?

United Airlines says it believes it has hit on a better solution. It recently announced a logistics ploy it calls Wilma – shorthand for window-middle-aisle – that it claims will cut boarding times by four to five minutes, an eternity in the industry’s on-time takeoff sweepstakes. The idea is to fill the window seats in economy class first, then the middle seats, then the aisle seats, thereby eliminating the free-for-all chaos that clogs the cabin when passengers are sent in by row numbers.

Southwest, of course, eliminates the whole idea of assigned seats.  Or how about some economics?  Charge people for each carry-on, since the bag makes it harder to board (and get off) quickly.  Or have an electronic record of when people manage to reach their seats and buckle their seatbelt.  The sooner you buckle, relative to your position in the plane of course, the greater your chance of a prize or rebate.  Small ideas for a much better world, as they say.

iPod thanks

These are not all my favorite songs, or the best songs ever, but rather great songs you won’t otherwise hear enough of:

96 Teardrops – ? and the Mysterians

Honey Honey – Abba

Murder She Wrote – Chaka Demus

Havana Moon – Chuck Berry

Blue Moon Revisited – Cowboy Junkies

Licking Stick – Desmond Dekker

I Want You Back – Jackson Five

Belshazzar – Johnny Cash

Roast Fish and Cornbread – Lee Perry

I’m a Ding Dong Daddy – Louis Armstrong

Suddenly Blue – Roger McGuinn

Amy – Ryan Adams

Seu Jorge – His five David Bowie songs, from The Life Aquatic

Jenny and the Ess-Dog – Stephen Malkmus

Strollin’ with Bone – T-Bone Walker

Bewildered – James Brown

Jive at Five – Count Basie

Split Enz – I Hope I Never (for the badly hurt and lovesick)

*Malakado (Be My Baby) – Tarika (the song is sung in English, French, and then Malagasy; a special favorite of mine)

Hey, maybe these are the best songs ever!

Why we feel overloaded, and can it be fixed?

The real source of our frustration is signaling with "face time." 

People — and not only at work — get insulted if they are dealt with in peremptory fashion, even when the issue at hand can be resolved quickly.  Imagine a visiting professor comes to give a seminar, but you can’t find time for lunch.  Lunch would have been chit-chat anyway, but now the professor feels you don’t value his research  — or him — very much.  Can you imagine such vanity?  And if others perceive your time as important, they want it all the more.

What are some possible solutions to this problem?  After all, a day has only twenty-four hours and your face has (one hopes) only one side.

1. Pretend that some other privilege you offer (hand kisses? birthday cards?) is extremely costly to you.  Offer this other privilege in lieu of large amounts of time.

2. Pretend to be busier than you are.  Let people believe — perhaps truthfully — that everyone else receives even less time.

3. Pretend your time is unimportant.  (NB: This may involve dressing down.)  The hope is that no one will feel slighted if they don’t get much time.  Who feels slighted not to be given free thumb tacks?  But there exists another equilibrium, in which the neglected person feels all the more insulted.  After all, you are not giving away even your crummy low-value time.

4. Tell people you are autistic, or that you have Asperger’s syndrome.

I await your suggestions in the comments.

My favorite things Rhode Island

Remember the old saying "Nothing but for Providence"?  Well it is not (quite) true.  Here goes:

Music: Thumbs down to George Cohan ("Yankee Doodle Dandy").  The obvious pick is saxophonist Scott Hamilton.  Have you heard of guitarist Les Dudek?  There is also trumpeter Bobby Hackett.  But is that all?

Painter: It is hard not to pick Gilbert Stuart.  Here are some images.  Here is my favorite.

Literature: I have never found H.P. Lovecraft readable, nor have I tried Spalding Gray.  Did you know Cormac McCarthy was born in Providence?

Movie, set in: I don’t like Spielberg’s Amistad, nor have I seen Outside ProvidenceSafe Men is only OK.  Please help me out in the comments.  Here is a good general list of best movies set in particular states.  And if you are looking for directors, the Farrellys are from Providence.

The bottom line
: Rhode Island offers some good names, but thematically they don’t add up to anything very particular.  In my mind, I keep coming back to the music festivals.

Tonight I am giving a talk at Brown University, in case you are wondering.

Goodbye Samizdat

Printers have a special place in the history of liberty.  It is very disturbing, therefore, to learn that documents printed on color printers from Xerox, HP and other manufacturers contain secret government codes identifying the time, date and serial number of the printer.  No, I am not kidding.  These codes can be read under magnifying glass and special light.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation broke one of the codes and is pursuing more information. 

Would the Berlin Wall have fallen if East European governments had access to this kind of technology twenty years ago? 


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What I’ve been reading

Warped Passages: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions, by Lisa Randall.  Have you ever tried to read those Scientific American articles on the weak and strong forces, or on how we might live in a three-dimensional universe on a 3 + n dimensional brane?  This book is the closest you will get to understanding such matters.  You can skip the chunk which recaps Einstein and quantum mechanics.  Alternatively, you might wait until scientists figure out the apparent paradoxes, and then read a book with the answers.

Veronica: A Novel, by Mary Gaitskill.  If I like a novel about an aging hippie temptress with hepatitis, and her older AIDS-ridden friend, and the sadomasochism of the fashion world, it must have something going for it.  Nominated for a National Book Award, and rightfully so.

Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000, by James McCann.  If you are ever bored, go out and read all the books about the history of corn you can find.  Start here.

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt.  I know what you are thinking.  "I read Tony Judt all the time.  I already know lots about Europe after 1945.  Why do I need this 800-page book?  Why should I pay almost $40?"  Don’t be lured down that fallacious path.  Go for the excellent book by the excellent author, every time.

How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food, by Mark Bittman.  If you could only own one cookbook, this would probably be it.

Is Grand Central Station still a focal point?

We all know Thomas Schelling’s classic analysis of focal points.  One of his original examples stipulated that two individuals are to meet somewhere in New York City, but they do not know the time or place.  Where would they appear?  Schelling suggested that a twelve noon meeting at Grand Central Station (actually called Grand Central Terminal), beneath the central clock, would be focal.

Focal points change, and of course trains have become a less important form of transportation.  I have been to Manhattan many times, but have not been in GCS in a good twenty years.  And when I take the train, I usually end up getting off at Penn Station.  Stick with noon as the time, which place would you find focal today?  I see a few options:

1. The clock at Grand Central Station remains focal.  Where else to go?  Note the clock stands above the designated information point as well.

2. The clock remains focal, but only because Schelling himself has kept it that way with his analysis.

3. Ground Zero.

4. The Empire State Building.

5. The US Air Shuttle Terminal at La Guardia.

6. A central point at Times Square.

7. The Metropolitan Museum of Art or perhaps at Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon painting at MOMA. 

I will opt for number two, but for my mom I would wait on the stairs of the Met.  What do you think?  Comments, of course, are open.

Addendum: Brock Sides picks a focal point for Memphis and for the world; on the latter I say in front of The White House.

New betting market in avian flu

Go to, click under Current Events, this link helps.  The contract is for whether bird flu is found in the U.S.; more useful would be a contract on whether human-to-human transmission becomes widespread and causes many deaths.  Bird flu in U.S. birds, while terrible for Perdue Chicken, is not what most people care about.  It is in this country, and Western Europe, that bird flu is least likely to mutate into a form deadly for humans.  Right now the market is saying 15 to 18 percent that bird flu will be confirmed in the U.S. before year’s end.

Thanks to Ryan Peterson for the pointer.

The Undercover Economist, part II

I once made the mistake of entering into a sportsman’s bet with the economist John Kay.  He wondered what would have happened if you had bought shares in the Great Western Railway, the most famous of all the rail companies in Britain, the birthplace of train travel.  He speculated that even had you bought them on the first day they were available, and held them for the long term, your returns would have been quite modest, say, less than 10 percent a year.  I couldn’t conceive that one of the most successful companies of the railroad revolution could have possibly returned such a modest sum to shareholders.  Off I went to flick through dusty nineteenth-century editions of The Economist and find out the answer.  Of course, Kay was right.  Not long after the Great Western Railway shares were put on sale for 100 pounds a share in 1835, there was a tremendous burst of speculation in rail shares.  Great Western shares peaked at 224 pounds in 1845, ten years after the company was formed.  Then they crashed and never reached that level again in the century-long life of the company.  The long-term investor would have received dividend payments and would have made a respectable but unremarkable 5 percent annual return…

Here is my previous post on Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist, the hot popular economics book of the moment.  Here is a history of the railway.

Don’t put your faith in a central Tamiflu stockpile

Countries around the world are stockpiling Tamiflu, in anticipation of a possible avian flu pandemic.  This is better than doing nothing, but Tamiflu is unlikely to protect most of us, should a pandemic arrive.  Here are a few reasons why:

1. Tamiflu must be taken within the first two days of symptoms.  Your chance of getting some Tamiflu that quickly, in a pandemic, will not be great (of course you could buy some on your own).

2. Tamiflu, if taken preventively, can prevent you from getting sick in the first place.  But you would need two tablets each day.  Only essential medical personnel, and select  politicians, are likely to receive such treatments.

3. You show up at the emergency room with avian flu, and then they have to decide where you stand on the priority list.  Will the hospital fear a lawsuit?  How long will this take?  Will it require federal or regulatory clearance?

4. Given the crush of the infected, will you be afraid to show up at the emergency room in the first place?  Maybe you just have the common cold.  See point #1.

5. Many Tamiflu supplies will be exhausted on false alarms, such as colds and other flus.

6. A Tamiflu stockpile is only good for a few years.  If avian flu does not come soon, do you expect the stockpile to be replenished?  Or would avian flu become the new "swine flu", never to be uttered by politicians again?  The avian flu threat will likely be with us for at least ten years, in the form of a bird "flu reservoir" for possible mutation.

7. There is some chance that the virus will develop Tamiflu immunity over time, especially if Tamiflu is applied indiscriminately at the early stages of a pandemic.

8. Let’s say the virus arrives first in California.  Will Tamiflu supplies all be sent that way at first?  Will they ever later be shipped back to Kansas?  How much of the stockpile — an inevitable political football — will be available at any point in time?

Did I mention that the U.S. won’t be getting any more new Tamiflu for at least two years?  Right now we only have 4.3 million courses.

Comments are open.  Yes we should buy more Tamiflu, but we need to think harder about what else to do as well.

iPod bleg

I am soliciting song suggestions to put on my iPod; all genres are welcome.  There is no need to suggest famous songs, such as the classics of classic rock.  Most pieces of classical music are too long for how I use the medium.  Comments, of course, are open.

Housing Economics

The NYTimes Magazine has an excellent article on the housing market based around a discussion of the development firm Toll Brothers.  Bob Toll the president of the firm is predicting that US housing prices will converge with those in Europe.

"In Britain you pay seven times your annual income for a home; in the
U.S. you pay three and a half." The British get 330 square feet, per
person, in their homes; in the U.S., we get 750 square feet. Not only
does Toll say he believes the next generation of buyers will be paying
twice as much of their annual incomes; in terms of space, he also seems
to think they’re going to get only half as much. "And that average,
million-dollar insane home in the burbs? It’s going to be $4 million."

Toll agrees with Glaeser et al. that the key force driving up prices is zoning and growth regulations.  In New Jersey it now takes Toll Brothers up to two million dollars in legal fees and ten years in time to get the permits necessary to build. 

Susan Wachter, a housing economist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has an interesting public choice insight about why zoning is worse in Europe.

European towns also have less incentive to encourage development,
Wachter says, because they generally do not, unlike their American
equivalents, depend on their local tax base to pay for education and
services, which tend to be federalized.

This implies that towns in states that reduce their reliance on the property tax – often done, as in CA, in order to "equalize" school funding or other expenditure – will soon restrict development.  Go to it graduate students.

Lots of other interesting material on the organization of the industry.