Month: November 2005

100 Notable Books of the Year

Here is The New York Times link, not gated, and thanks to John Palmer for the pointer.  Here is the printer-friendly version of the link.  In addition to what I have already covered, I recommend Bob Spitz’s The Beatles and Bob Stevens and Annalyn Swan, de Kooning: An American Master.  I’m now keen to read John Gimlette’s Theatre of Fish: Travels Through Newfoundland and Labrador, which somehow had slipped through my claws during the year.  Orhan Pamuk’s book on Istanbul is the obvious missing choice.  Comments are open for other book suggestions from 2005, or if you wish to take issue with the NYT list.

Musical protectionism, continued

…the musicians of the Cologne New Philharmonic are young freelancers who get to travel and perform live, the public pays less for tickets, and another small step is taken toward fulfilling the vision of the founders of the European Union: free movement of people, goods and services.

They also don’t take government subsidies, but the response has been harsh:

…the influential French and German musicians’ unions contend that his use of mostly Eastern Europeans at nonunion wages amounts to exploitation.

While France is the only country where he has faced charges, several English churches have denied him the right to play there. And although he is allowed to operate as usual in Germany, the musicians’ union has waged a persistent campaign against him.

[In Strasbourg] French officials – tipped off by the union, Hartung says – sent about 80 police officers to arrest him.

The German union has gone as far as to call work in Hartung’s orchestra "a kind of modern slavery."

The unions say a unionized German or French musician would be paid $120 to $180 a day. Hartung says he pays $95 to $120 per concert.

Here is the full story.  Here is my previous post on the dispute.

Further evidence that autism isn’t caused by vaccines

Some relatives of people with autism also display behaviours and brain differences associated with the condition, even though they themselves do not have it. This could make it easier to spot families at risk of having an autistic child. It could also help in the quest to identify the genetic and environmental triggers for the condition, though it seems these triggers might vary from country to country.

Eric Peterson of the University of Colorado in Denver had compared an MRI study of the brains of 40 parents with autistic children to that of 40 age-matched controls. And he told the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington DC that the parents who had an autistic child shared several differences in brain structure with their offspring.

Here is the article.

The rise of randomized trials in economic research

Using randomized prospective trials in economic development policy is not new. Since the 1960s, the U.S. has occasionally implemented them to answer important practical questions in health care, welfare and education policy. By randomly splitting people into two groups, one of which receives an experimental intervention, researchers can set up potentially simple, unbiased comparisons between two approaches. But these evaluations typically cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, largely putting them out of reach of academic researchers, says development economist Abhijit Banerjee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The emergence of cheap, skilled labor in India and other countries during the 1990s changed that, Banerjee says, because these workers could collect the data inexpensively. At the same time, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were proliferating and started looking for ways to evaluate their antipoverty programs.

In 2003 Banerjee and his colleagues Esther Duflo and Sendhil Mullainathan founded an M.I.T. institute devoted to the use of randomized trials, called the Poverty Action Lab. Lab members have completed or begun a variety of projects, including studies of public health measures, small-scale loans (called microcredit), the role of women in village councils, AIDS prevention, and barriers to fertilizer use. The studies typically piggyback on the expansion of an NGO or government program. Researchers work with the organization to select appropriate measures of the program’s outcome and hire an agency to collect or spot-check the data.

Here is the full story.  Here is the home page of Poverty Action Lab.  Here are their completed projects.  Here is the Primary School Deworming Project.  And on this Thanksgiving weekend, I once again express my gratitude for the link from

Rational man

Thousands of pilgrims are pouring into the dense jungle of southern Nepal to worship a 15-year-old boy who has been hailed as a new Buddha.
    Devotees say that Ram Bomjon, who is meditating silently beneath a tree, has not eaten or had anything to drink since he sat down at his chosen spot six months ago.
    Witnesses say they have seen light emanating from the teenager’s forehead. "It looks a bit like when you shine a [flashlight] through your hand," said Tek Bahadur Lama, a member of the committee responsible for dealing with the growing number of visitors from India and elsewhere in Nepal.
    Photographs of Ram, available for about 10 cents from his makeshift shrine, have become ubiquitous across the region. "Far and wide, it’s the only topic of conversation," said Upendra Lamichami, a local journalist…

Ram’s mother, who is called Maya Devi, like the Buddha’s mother, acknowledges anxiety, particularly at mealtimes, but she tells herself: "God took him to the forest and I have faith that God will feed him."
    "He’s definitely got thinner," she said. "Early in the morning he looks sunken, like there’s no blood in him, but as the sun rises he seems to get brighter and brighter."

    He said no claim had emerged of Ram breaking his fast or moving, even to relieve himself.
    Santa Raj Subedi, the chief government official in Bara District, appealed to the capital, Katmandu, for assistance in dealing with the influx of visitors, and for a team of scientists to examine the case.
    Local doctors failed to reach a final conclusion, although they were allowed no closer than five yards from the boy mystic, declaring that they could confirm no more than that he was alive.

The fervor increased last week when a snake is said to have bitten Ram, and a curtain was drawn around him.
    After five days it was opened and he spoke. "Tell the people not to call me a Buddha. I don’t have the Buddha’s energy. I am at the level of rinpoche [lesser divinity]. A snake bit me but I do not need treatment. I need six years of deep meditation."
    Despite his protestations, "Buddha boy" is famous.
    A thriving market has grown in the once pristine forest, supplying pilgrims with everything from chewing tobacco and bicycle repairs to incense and religious amulets. The ground is covered with litter.
    A fence was built around Ram’s tree to prevent pilgrims from prodding him, then a second, and now a third is planned, as well as a bus park, leaving Ram at the center of an ever-growing circle of commerce.

Here is the link.

Intellectual megalomaniacs deserve attention

Among contemporary writers, perhaps no one deserves a retrospective anthology at midcareer as much as William T. Vollmann, whose staggering rate of production has made it all but impossible to keep up with him—just blink and it seems he has brought out yet another doorstop. Since his debut novel, You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon, appeared in 1987, he has completed four outsize installments of his magnificent Seven Dreams project, a "symbolic history" related through novels that stretch back in time to the first Norse incursions into Greenland and Newfoundland, and portray the clashes of European colonizers and their descendants with indigenous North Americans. He has also published The Atlas, a collage of dispatches from some of the world’s riskiest locales; An Afghanistan Picture Show, or, How I Saved the World, a memoir of sorts recounting his 1982 trip in search of mujahideen at war with the Soviets; Europe Central, just out this spring, a collection of fictionalized portraits that explore the lives of intriguing and often morally ambiguous figures who lived under the twin totalitarian evils of Stalinism and Nazism, with emphasis on the war years; and five books, set in the present, that have emerged from his abiding fascination with prostitutes, mostly, along with a supporting cast of urban-underbelly types. Alternately hard-edged and lyrical, lurid and incandescent, Vollmann’s visions of contemporary life—especially in Whores for Gloria and the monumental Royal Family, in which he’s forged a phantasmagorical urban realism to chronicle San Francisco’s lower depths—are shot through with brutality, yearning, and fever-dreams that fuse squalor and transcendence.

As extensive as this listing of works is, it falls well short of encompassing the full cyclone of Vollmann’s creativity, which also includes poems, reviews, occasional pieces, and even numerous "book objects," which feature his own artwork along with contributions by collaborators such as photographer and friend Ken Miller. At the core of his oeuvre, though, is what he himself describes as his life’s work, some twenty years in the making, the seven-volume, 3,352-page treatise Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom, and Urgent Means, first published by McSweeney’s in 2003 and reissued in a single-volume abridgment last year by Ecco Press. Toiling in a sweatshop of his own devising, clocking up to sixteen hours a day at his desk, the forty-five-year-old Vollmann has exacted a considerable toll on his body at a relatively young age. In his 1998 essay "Writing," considering his "swollen and aching fingers," he tells how "sometimes the ache oozes up to my shoulders, sometimes only to my wrists; once or twice I’ve felt it in my back. Poor posture, they say, or ‘repetitive stress injury,’ or possibly carpal tunnel. . . . Writing is bad for me physically, without a doubt, but what would I do if I stopped?"

Here is the longer and fascinating story.  Here is my previous post on Vollmann, and do offer comments if you have read his works.

Favorite business books

Steve Levitt in The Financial Times:

My favourite business book is A Whack in the Side of the Head by Roger Von Oech.  It certainly is not a traditional business book.  It is a book about how to generate ideas.  My view is that business people spend too little time trying to generate ideas and too much time making reports.  I always go back to this book when I am in a rut.

Stephen Dubner picked Thomas Schelling’s Choice and Consequence.

Gambling on Science

In 1990 my colleague Robin Hanson wrote:

Imagine a betting pool or market on most disputed science questions, with
the going odds available to the popular media, and treated socially as the
current academic consensus.  Imagine that academics are expected to "put up
or shut up" and accompany claims with at least token bets, and that
statistics are collected on how well people do….

This would be an "idea futures" market, which I offer as an alternative to
existing academic social institutions.

More and more it looks like Robin was right on.  Consider this story from the London Times:

WHEN Ladbrokes teamed up with New Scientist magazine
in August last year to offer odds on five great breakthroughs being made by
2010, it looked like a typical silly-season stunt.

It is now expected to become a very expensive one. As soon as the book
opened, physicists began to put their money where their theories were and backed
themselves to find gravitational waves – ripples in space and time predicted by
Albert Einstein but not yet proven to exist.

Alan Watson, of the University of Leeds, was astounded
to see odds of 500-1 on a discovery that he considered a matter of when, not if,
and promptly wagered £50.

So many other scientists did likewise that by lunchtime Professor Jim Hough,
of the University of Glasgow, who leads a team seeking the waves, was allowed to
stake only £25 at odds that had fallen to 100-1. When his colleague Sheila Rowan
placed her bet in the early afternoon, the odds were down to 5-1, and when the
book was closed they were 2-1.

It’s amazing how far we have come since Robin proposed idea futures, especially given that the idea could have been implemented hundreds of years ago.  But Robin’s vision is even more radical than betting markets.  Robin proposes that betting markets can substitute for many of the funding arrangements that we use today.  Consider the part of the quote I excised above:

Imagine that funding
agencies subsidize pools on questions of interest to them, and that
research labs pay for much of their research with winnings from previous

Imagine indeed!  We are not there yet but the odds are increasing in Robin’s favor.

Review of File-Sharing Papers

Rufus Pollock draws the following conclusions from the literature on file-sharing:

The basic result is that online illegal file-sharing does have a
negative impact on traditional sales. The size of this effect is
debated, and ranges from 0 to 100% of the sales decline in recent
years, but a figure of between 20 and 40% would be a reasonable
consensus value (i.e. that file-sharing accounted for 20-40% of the
decline in sales not a 20-40% decline in sales).
Beyond this
basic result several other very interesting facts have emerged.

is the differential impact of file-sharing on an artist depending on
their existing popularity. According to Blackburn who investigates this
issue the ‘bottom’ 3/4 of artists sell more as a consequence of
file-sharing while the top 1/4 sell less.

Second is the first tentative estimates (by Waldfogel and Rob) of the
welfare consequences of file-sharing. Waldfogel and Rob’s dramatic
result is that file-sharing on average yields a gain to society three
times the loss to the music industry in lost sales.

The conclusion seems right to me – file-sharing increases social-welfare, so in theory a win-win solution is possible, but in practice the increase comes at the expense of music firms.  See here for the blog post and here for a summary of each of the main papers in the literature.

Hat-tip to Cory Doctorow at Boing-Boing Blog.