Month: January 2006

How to drink less (more?)

Pour into a tall, vertical glass:

If you pour champagne into a tall, slender glass, you’ll probably serve yourself less than if you pour it into a short, fat glass. But the human mind plays tricks, so you’ll almost surely think it’s the other way around.

Brian Wansink, professor of marketing, applied economics and nutritional science at Cornell University, has spent years studying how the shape of containers influences our consumption, and he has weighed in with a new study just in time for New Year’s celebrations.

In the study, published in the current issue of the British Medical Journal, Wansink and Koert van lttersum, assistant professor of marketing at Georgia Institute of Technology, demonstrate that even professional bartenders get the amount wrong much of the time, although their expertise improves with experience.

Three separate studies yielded similar conclusions, regardless of the beverage. Teenagers concerned about their health poured less fruit juice when they were given tall, slender glasses than when they were given short, squat tumblers, although they believed the opposite was true.

What is at work here is how we measure quantities in the mind’s eye, Wansink says. We tend to rely more on a vertical than a horizontal measurement, so it appears at first that a taller glass holds more than a shorter one, even if the short glass is wider. "Elongation," to use the researchers’ word, is the trickster here.

Here is the full story, and thanks to for the pointer.

Modal wives and why it is hard to marry well

I define a modal wife (or husband) as a person you would have married (could have married?) had you met them at the right time, unattached, and under normal life conditions.  The number of modal wives is typically greater than or equal to the number of real wives, although clever philosophers will recognize possible [sic] counterexamples. 

Under one view, you have hundreds or thousands of modal wives, most of whom you never meet.  (How many does the average person meet, how soon do you know when you meet one, and how confused would you be if they were all in the same room at once?)  Your correct dating strategy is to cast your net very widely, and hope to find and marry one of these people. 

Under another view, modal wives are no big deal.  Your so-called "modal wives" are no better for you than, say, the best woman you could pick out of a lot of thirty eligibles.  The key inputs for a good marriage are attitude and a minimum degree of compatibility, not search and discovery.

If this is true, searching for modal wives, or perhaps even thinking about the concept, can make you worse off.  The quest for the perfect mate makes it harder to come to terms with what is otherwise a compatible marriage.  Which perhaps is all you are going to get anyway.  Marriage is good for you, and don’t be too fussy, this is not iTunes.  Too much choice, or too much perceived choice, is problematic.

The two views offer directly conflicting advice (TC: My views are closer to the first position, although attitude remains all-important).  Yet we may be uncertain which view applies to us and to what extent.  You could put all your eggs in one basket and pursue just one strategy, but what a risk if you are wrong.  You could act upon some weighted average of the two views; I suspect this is what most people do.  But then the two strategies are constantly undercutting each other.

That is one reason why it is hard to marry well.

Addendum: Here is a good post on Deception Island, and do also read the excellent comments thread on this post.

Which sport has the most upsets?

Soccer looks random to my untutored eye and perhaps it is:

Eli Ben-Naim, Sidney Redner and Federico Vazquez at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico decided to look at unpredictability of results – how often a team with a worse record overcomes an apparently superior one – as the best measure of how exciting a league is. "If there are no upsets, then every game is predictable and hence boring," says Ben-Naim.

The team analysed results from more than 300,000 games over the last century from the US’s national hockey, football, baseball and basketball leagues and the top English football league. Rugby and cricket were omitted because they do not have a big following in the US.

Their results showed that the "upset frequency" was highest for soccer, followed by baseball, hockey, basketball and finally American football. But when they looked only at data from the past 10 years, the English football Premiership and baseball swapped places, which suggests that soccer might have become more predictable in recent years.

Here is the story.  I have long favored basketball.  In any given year, barring major trades or injuries, only three or four teams (if that) have any chance of winning the title.  You know who the titans are, and you know who the peons are.  Limiting randomness and divvying up the ponds in this fashion boosts suspense and status.  The old Celtics-Lakers match-ups were ideal.  The league is driven by star teams and players, so let’s promote those stars.  Chess has the same property, but a few good pitching nights can turn a World Series around.

The implied prediction is that basketball and football will have large bases of casually informed fans, typically relying on mass media.  Baseball and soccer will have more fanatics, more trivia contests, and will be more deeply rooted in niche media.  You have to know about many players and teams to figure out what is going on, who is likely to win, and why.

Must have been a Monday

[Sir] Bob Geldof is angry about European farm subidies:

The CAP is a protection racket Al Capone would look at in
admiration and be proud of. Why do Europe’s farmers need protection?
Farmers are being paid to look after fields – they are just gardeners.
Some are growing stuff through subsidy that we don’t even need – then
we are paying more taxes to store the stuff we don’t need and more
taxes to destroy the stuff we don’t need. The CAP was responsible for
the butter mountains and the wine lakes. These surpluses are also being
shipped out to Africa and destroying local markets and economies. It is
not giving people a chance to get back on their feet. The CAP should be
scrapped and farmers should be open to competition. We’re not a free
market. There is no free trade. The CAP is anti-free trade….

CAP is killing people. Africa is only eight miles down
the road from Europe and it is in conceivable that there is starvation
and poverty there while huge amounts are wasted across Europe on
farming subsidies. Europe gives 65 cents -just over half a euro -to the
average poverty-stricken African in aid in a year, whereas a surplus
cow in Europe gets 848 euros a year.

Hat tip to the Adam Smith Institute Blog.

The final fall of music copyright?

The Viktoria Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden, is working on a concept they call PUSH MUSIC, which is software that automatically shares music files with nearby users who have similar tastes. It monitors the listening history of the user, and develops awareness about what kind of new music he might like. The concept envisions Wi-Fi-enabled music players that automatically establish a peer-to-peer connection, enabling people to either "browse" the music collections of others and take a copy of whatever they like, or — here’s the magic part — just automatically receive music the software has selected for you.

Here is the link, and comments are open for those who know more about this.  Here are the comments from  Can you be liable if some other listener "pushes" stolen property onto your computer?  Will the risk of passing malicious code make this unworkable?

Thirty questions with Tyler Cowen

I thank Norm Geras for this interview.  A few excerpts:

What, if anything, do you worry about? > I worry about the worrying of my wife.

If you had to change your first name, what would you change it to?
> I would change my name to ‘Cowen Tyler’, which is what many
foreigners call me anyway.

Who are your sporting heroes? > Darrell Walker, former point guard for the Washington Bullets.

Do check out Norm’s main blog.  My favorite all-time blogger is, of course, Alex; I asked Norm to add this to my previous answer.

What does a recipe maximize?

Brad DeLong’s daring but unsound cinnamon gambit led me to wonder what a recipe is intended to do.  I see at least two possibilities:

1. A food recipe is designed to put you on the highest indifference curve possible, taking into account market prices and constraints.

2. A food recipe is designed to taste as good as possible, ignoring market prices and constraints.  Bring on the caviar.

Cookbooks by famous chefs are more likely to fall into #2.  The chef makes money not just from the cookbook but also from TV appearances, endorsements, and other ancillary products and activities.  You might resent having spent so much on the saffron, but if it tasted good you will praise and value the chef.  Few people will visit the restaurant of a man who shows you how to find cheaper potatoes.

Knowing this, how should you adjust recipes?  It depends on the quality/price gradient.  You could cut back on the most expensive ingredients, cut back on all ingredients, or perhaps add more spices and buy a quality of meat lower than suggested.  At the very least you should cut back on your labor input and take shortcuts.  This is in fact what most home cooks do, relative to the recipes they use.  You don’t really peel all those boiled almonds, do you?  Don’t feel guilty, just ponder the first-order conditions, smile, and gulp it down.

If you have a not-very-clearly-branded cookbook, you might be better off following the instructions to the letter.  They are hoping to make money from happy book buying cooks, not ancillary food products.  If the recipe is old enough, it is hard to predict the direction in which relative prices have changed, but at the very least wages have probably gone up.  So you are back to making adjustments and taking some extra shortcuts to stay on your highest possible indifference curve.

If the recipe is from a supermarket, cut back on the high-margin items.  Use more canned goods and less expensive cheese, relative to what is suggested.  (Hey, what about blog recipes?)

Lunchtime Pho with Alex contributed to these ideas; I enjoyed the food but I believe the restaurant followed #1.  I spent $6.45.  Comments are open.

The end of insight?

The story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was talking about the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence with some other physicists. They were impressed that our galaxy holds 100 billion stars, that life evolved quickly and progressively on earth, and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. They reasoned that extra-terrestrial intelligence should be common by now. Fermi listened patiently, then asked simply, "So, where is everybody?". That is, if extra-terrestrial intelligence is common, why haven’t we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi’s Paradox.

The paradox has become more ever more baffling. Over 150 extrasolar planets have been identified in the last few years, suggesting that life-hospitable planets orbit most stars. Paleontology shows that organic life evolved very quickly after earth’s surface cooled and became life-hospitable. Given simple life, evolution shows progressive trends towards larger bodies, brains, and social complexity. Evolutionary psychology reveals several credible paths from simpler social minds to human-level creative intelligence. Yet 40 years of intensive searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence have yielded nothing. No radio signals, no credible spacecraft sightings, no close encounters of any kind.

So, it looks as if there are two possibilities. Perhaps our science over-estimates the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence evolving. Or, perhaps evolved technical intelligence has some deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating. After Hiroshima, some suggested that any aliens bright enough to make colonizing space-ships would be bright enough to make thermonuclear bombs, and would use them on each other sooner or later. Perhaps extra-terrestrial intelligence always blows itself up. Fermi’s Paradox became, for a while, a cautionary tale about Cold War geopolitics.

I suggest a different, even darker solution to Fermi’s Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today.

The fundamental problem is that any evolved mind must pay attention to indirect cues of biological fitness, rather than tracking fitness itself. We don’t seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that tended to promote survival and luscious mates who tended to produce bright, healthy babies. Modern results: fast food and pornography. Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote our real biological fitness, but it’s even better at delivering fake fitness — subjective cues of survival and reproduction, without the real-world effects. Fresh organic fruit juice costs so much more than nutrition-free soda. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends on TV. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity.

Fitness-faking technology tends to evolve much faster than our psychological resistance to it. The printing press is invented; people read more novels and have fewer kids; only a few curmudgeons lament this. The Xbox 360 is invented; people would rather play a high-resolution virtual ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong than be a perfect-resolution real human. Teens today must find their way through a carnival of addictively fitness-faking entertainment products: MP3, DVD, TiVo, XM radio, Verizon cellphones, Spice cable, EverQuest online, instant messaging, Ecstasy, BC Bud. The traditional staples of physical, mental, and social development (athletics, homework, dating) are neglected. The few young people with the self-control to pursue the meritocratic path often get distracted at the last minute — the MIT graduates apply to do computer game design for Electronics Arts, rather than rocket science for NASA.

Around 1900, most inventions concerned physical reality: cars, airplanes, zeppelins, electric lights, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, bras, zippers. In 2005, most inventions concern virtual entertainment — the top 10 patent-recipients are usually IBM, Matsushita, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Micron Technology, Samsung, Intel, Hitachi, Toshiba, and Sony — not Boeing, Toyota, or Wonderbra. We have already shifted from a reality economy to a virtual economy, from physics to psychology as the value-driver and resource-allocator. We are already disappearing up our own brainstems. Freud’s pleasure principle triumphs over the reality principle. We narrow-cast human-interest stories to each other, rather than broad-casting messages of universal peace and progress to other star systems.

Maybe the bright aliens did the same. I suspect that a certain period of fitness-faking narcissism is inevitable after any intelligent life evolves. This is the Great Temptation for any technological species — to shape their subjective reality to provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children.

Heritable variation in personality might allow some lineages to resist the Great Temptation and last longer. Those who persist will evolve more self-control, conscientiousness, and pragmatism. They will evolve a horror of virtual entertainment, psychoactive drugs, and contraception. They will stress the values of hard work, delayed gratification, child-rearing, and environmental stewardship. They will combine the family values of the Religious Right with the sustainability values of the Greenpeace Left.

My dangerous idea-within-an-idea is that this, too, is already happening. Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, and anti-consumerism activists, already understand exactly what the Great Temptation is, and how to avoid it. They insulate themselves from our Creative-Class dream-worlds and our EverQuest economics. They wait patiently for our fitness-faking narcissism to go extinct. Those practical-minded breeders will inherit the earth, as like-minded aliens may have inherited a few other planets. When they finally achieve Contact, it will not be a meeting of novel-readers and game-players. It will be a meeting of dead-serious super-parents who congratulate each other on surviving not just the Bomb, but the Xbox. They will toast each other not in a soft-porn Holodeck, but in a sacred nursery.

Chuck Norris mania

Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits.

Chuck Norris frequently donates blood to the Red Cross. Just not his own.

Chuck Norris’s tears cure cancer. Too bad he has never cried.

Read more on the cult here.  There are more sayings.  Here is my favorite photo of Chuck.  How about this dictum?

There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of creatures Chuck Norris has allowed to live.

Thanks to Yana for the pointer.

Alex needs your help

You may have heard that Alex is going to Marrakesh.  But is he ready to deal with the touts?

The fundamental problem: for most of the day you don’t want a (Moroccan) guide at all.  But having a guide, if nothing else, keeps away trouble.  If you walk around without a guide, you are pestered incessantly by all the other would-be guides.  It is like choosing which giant leech should be attached to your head, knowing that the space will not remain empty.

The guides don’t cost much up front ("I am your friend.  I love United States.  I show you for free.  Very good friend.  No charge nothing."), but at the end of the day they ask you for money.  I don’t just mean ask, I mean beg, plead, cajole, and finally, if need be, demand.  Avoiding this spectacle — humiliating to both parties — is itself worth at least twenty dollars.  In the meantime the guides bring you around to merchants of their choosing, and receive kickbacks on anything you buy.  So don’t expect the guide to do your bidding or to bring you where you want to go.

In Marrakesh you cannot do without a guide altogether.  You will get lost in the souks and never come back to your blogging life.  And you might wish to visit two or three quality stores, rather than the twenty your guide has in mind.  A guide can, in principle, bring you to the good ones.  But little do you know just how interesting he thinks the carpet factory will be [hey, you can’t see child labor like this just anywhere…].

So how should Alex structure an optimal compensation package for his guide?  How can he avoid being ferried to stores he does not wish to visit?  Can the end-of-day performance art be dampened if not avoided?  When should he pay the guide, how much, with what instructions, and contingent on what?  Must he use the same guide for more than one day?

Comments are open; whether Alex knows it or not, he needs your help.  Badly.