Month: October 2006

Music on YouTube, Now

You’ve all heard by now that Google might buy YouTube.  That means deeper pockets, and of course greater fear of copyright litigation.

It is time for intertemporal substitution.

Here are YouTube recommendations from Michael, at; here is the best from that list.

There is a long and wonderful list of YouTube music videos, from all genres, on Terry Teachout’s page, scroll down all the way to the right.  And no, that video of Gyorgy Cziffra playing Liszt was not speeded up!  Art Tatum was pretty fast too.  On the guitar, Julian Bream was no slouch.

What do prize committees maximize?

Corruption aside, which is certainly not the case in Sweden, a Nobel committee can:

a) promote a political agenda,

b) further its own reputation, the reputation of the associated prizes, and the reputation of the science under consideration, or

c) criticism minimization, which is close to b) but looks at the left-hand tail of the opinion distribution rather than the mean.

I favor a mix of b) and c), at least for the economics prize; for more detail see my book What Price Fame?

Factor c) decreases the chance of Paul Krugman and also, I am sorry to say, Gordon Tullock, who is more than willing to say what he thinks.  b) decreases the chance of Oliver Hart and many other theorists.  Wilson and Milgrom, whose work has been used to design auctions, stand a better chance.  The work of Hart and Tirole is of very high quality but I am not sure it would add luster to the prize.  How many people can understand it, and has it influenced policy?  And has the work of Paul Romer, and associated ideas of increasing returns, stood the test of time?  If we remove Africa from the data set, the world appears to exhibit growth convergence over time.

I’ve already picked Fama and Thaler as my prediction for this year.  I also think Oliver Williamson is more likely to get it than most top economists think.  Bhagwati fits the bill, but it brings up the awkward question of whether he should be bundled with Krugman (trade theory) or Tullock (rent-seeking).  Keep in mind that the Nobel Committee members are not Harvard-MIT insiders, and they have more of an outsider’s perspective on what is likely to endure.

Greg Mankiw considers what a prize committee should maximize.  Does the prize encourage swinging for "home runs" when more people should be hitting for "singles"?  I don’t think Nobel Prize prospects spur many great contributions to economics in the first place; the best scientists have strong internal and external motivations in any case.  Nobel Prizes do motivate lobbying trips to Sweden; one Harvard economist in particular is well-known for these "vacations." 

I see the welfare-maximizing use of the Nobel Prize as generating more publicity for economics, attracting more people to study the science, and giving the science greater credibility in the eyes of politicians, the public, and media.  That means the committee should give prizes to economists who are articulate, intelligible, scholarly, and work on topics of real world interest.  So far they have done a great job; let’s hope for another first-rate pick.


1. Short list for the Nobel Literature Prize; I am rooting for Orhan Pamuk.  Here are Booker Prize odds.

2. TV viewing habits for blacks and whites are converging.

3. How to achieve sustainable gains in happiness: work at happiness-related activities.  And maybe winning the lottery helps after all.

4. A journal issue of research inspired by Thomas Schelling.

5. The population of New Orleans is down to 187, 525.

6. Why no Industrial Revolution in China?

Another reason to give your kid a weird name

Kevin Drum reports:

Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes has somehow gotten hold of a copy of the no-fly list used by airport authorities to screen for possible terrorists. So who’s on the list?

Gary Smith, John Williams and Robert Johnson are some of those names.  Kroft talked to 12 people with the name Robert Johnson, all of whom are detained almost every time they fly.  The detentions can include strip searches and long delays in their travels.

"Well, Robert Johnson will never get off the list," says Donna Bucella, who oversaw the creation of the list and has headed up the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center since 2003.  She regrets the trouble they experience, but chalks it up to the price of security in the post-9/11 world.  "They’re going to be inconvenienced every time … because they do have the name of a person who’s a known or suspected terrorist," says Bucella.

You know, I’ll bet if there were some senator named Robert Johnson, the FBI would figure out a way to make this list a little more user-friendly. Maybe we should try to elect one.

People who expect to have evil — "I don’t want his dates Googling him" — kinds of kids will, over time, tend to name them John.  The non-criminal class will then shy away from those names all the more.  We need only a few generations for the new separating equilibrium to be established…

The eternal question

Should a woman ask a man out?

Megan from Sacramento offers an update:

I stopped by a café yesterday on my way home.  Sitting outside was a guy I’ve seen at Pub Quiz a number of times.  Dave told me that Petra saw that guy’s profile on some dating site.  He’s an English professor* and around our age.  So I walked over to his table and introduced myself; we chatted about Pub Quiz for a while…

The chatting went well and he has bluer eyes than I expected.  He asked a couple times if I would be at Pub Quiz this weekend. (No, I’ll be at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and are you sure you don’t want to hang out for dinner one night?)  But he didn’t ask for my number or anything.  I see him around town a fair amount.  I’m sure I’ll see him again.  Should I be even more forward than walking up to his table and introducing myself?  Or with that kind of opening, should I expect that he would ask me out if he were single and interested?

Her readers, some of whom are our readers, run through the usual litany of arguments in the comments.

What is the downside from asking him out?  A rejection is soon forgotten.  Nor would I fear that Megan marries him, yet sadly ends up with a non-aggressive wimp who is one day unable to use a shot gun to protect his family from rampaging terrorists.

No, the risk is that, dating profile and all, his relationship status is ambiguous.  He wants Megan to ask him out, but he would feel guilty doing the asking himself.  In that case Megan could ask if and only if she is able to walk away from such situations quickly and decisively.

An alternative scenario is that Megan is being queued behind another woman.  This guy will promote her in the queue, but only if she shows real interest.  Otherwise the mere act of his asking her out would disrupt his emotional equilibrium vis-a-vis the other woman (women?) in the queue and demote them, in his eyes, prematurely.

In general I believe (unlike my wife) that women should be willing to ask men out.  However flawed the strategy may be, it only has to pay off once to be worth it.  But I am suspicious of English professors when the relationship between processes and outcomes is so fragile.

Would any of you like to ponder the difference between a Dutch and an English auction, and how it applies to dating strategy?

The Ig Nobel Prizes

Here is this year’s list.  Example:

Ornithology – Ivan R. Schwab, of the University of California, Davis, and the late Philip R.A. May of the University of California, Los Angeles, for exploring and explaining why woodpeckers don’t get headaches.

The funny thing is that just about all of these, even the hiccups one, represent real research.  Seriously.  Here is further background.

When to buy things



When to buy: Thursday evenings, six to eight weeks after an item arrives in stores.

After an item lingers in stores a month or more, retailers start
dropping its price to get it out the door, says Kathryn Finney, author
of "How to Be a Budget Fashionista." These season-end clearances tend
to be the same month that designers host fashion weeks (February and
September) to preview the next fall or spring collections. So smart
buyers can check the catwalk to see if any of this season’s trends –
say, leggings or military-style jackets – will still be hot next year,
and then scoop them up on clearance.

Hitting the mall on a weekday ensures you’ll get a good
selection. "On the weekend, you’ll only get picked-over stuff because
the stores don’t have time to restock," she says. By Thursday, most of
the weekend sales have begun, but everything available is on the floor.

Here is much more, and no I do not vouch for the advice.  We are supposed to buy plane tickets on a Wednesday morning, 21 days before the flight.  In my view, the best time to buy books is mid-October or November.  Don’t count on a better price but the selection will be above-average for seasonal reasons.  The best time to browse through CD racks is early December when they are full up for Christmas.  I wouldn’t know about buying anything else, except perhaps Mexican amates; for that I recommend late winter, when they are being painted for arriving "spring break" tourists.

The article is cited at a round-up at

Where are they?

Today’s headline reads:

Milky Way teeming with earth-like orbs.

They don’t have to visit, they can manipulate star patterns for an advertising campaign or a fundraiser.  Not to mention solar-powered self-replicating probes.  They don’t seem interested.

The obvious conclusion is that highly intelligent species do not last very long and are also not very common.  Here is my previous post on the Fermi Paradox.  Here is Geoffrey Miller on the Paradox.

China story of the day

Using microscopic earphones and wireless devices, Chinese students upped the ante in the high-tech battle to counter cheating during university entrance exams this month, putting some in hospital as a result.

With 9.5 million students competing for only 2.6 million vacancies, some universities installed cameras and mobile-phone blocking technology at exam halls to foil the cheats.

But students "racked their brains" and in some cases injured themselves with "low-quality devices" to come up with new ways to cheat, state media reported Tuesday, underlining the highly competitive nature of education in China.

A student in Wuhan, capital of China’s central province of Hubei, used earphones so small that they slipped into his aural canal and perforated his eardrum, the China Daily newspaper said.

Another student’s earphones required an operation for their removal, the paper said, while an electronic device connected to headphones and strapped to a third student’s body exploded, leaving a bleeding hole in his abdomen.

Supervisors at an exam hall in Wuhan, capital of central Hubei province, found over 100 "cheating tools" including earphones hidden in vests, wallets and waistbands, the paper said.

Here is the story.  For the pointer, thanks to Tony Vallencourt, an economist who blogs on baseball.

Poor U.S. scores in health care don’t measure Nobels and innovation

Here is my column on that topic.  Excerpt:

In real terms, spending on American biomedical research has doubled
since 1994.  By 2003, spending was up to $94.3 billion (there is no
comparable number for Europe), with 57 percent of that coming from
private industry.  The National Institutes of Health‘s current annual research budget is $28 billion.  All European Union
governments, in contrast, spent $3.7 billion in 2000, and since that
time, Europe has not narrowed the research and development gap.  America
spends more on research and development over all and on drugs in
particular, even though the United States has a smaller population than
the core European Union countries.  From 1989 to 2002, four times as
much money was invested in private biotechnology companies in America
than in Europe.

Dr. Thomas Boehm of Jerini, a biomedical
research company in Berlin, titled his article in The Journal of
Medical Marketing in 2005 “How Can We Explain the American Dominance in
Biomedical Research and Development?” (
Dr. Boehm argues that the research environment in the United States,
compared with Europe, is wealthier, more competitive, more meritocratic
and more tolerant of waste and chaos.  He argues that these features
lead to more medical discoveries.  About 400,000 European researchers
are living in the United States, usually for superior financial
compensation and research facilities.

This innovation-rich environment stems from the money spent on
American health care and also from the richer and more competitive
American universities.  The American government could use its size, or
use the law, to bargain down health care prices, as many European
governments have done.  In the short run, this would save money but in
the longer run it would cost lives.

Medical innovations improve
health and life expectancy in all wealthy countries, not just in the
United States.  That is one reason American citizens do not live longer. 
Furthermore, the lucrative United States health care market enhances
research and development abroad and not just at home.

In other words, the case for national health insurance is far from clear.  In terms of other reforms, one key question is how much waste could be reformed while keeping incentives for innovation intact.  I am optimistic about the prospects for change, but this does mean that eliminating "waste" can have negative secondary consequences.

The argument has another angle, explored only briefly.  The National Institutes of Health is one of the best governmental programs we have in the United States.  Part of its success stems from its relative autonomy.  It is harder to find worthwhile governmental R&D initiatives when Congress is pulling the strings on the specific allocations.  We should do more along the lines of NIH, and lack of autonomy is one big reason why R&D programs such as synfuels did not turn out well.

And no, I don’t think the U.S. system is close to ideal:

American health care has many problems.  Health insurance is linked too
tightly to employment, and too many people cannot afford insurance.
Insurance companies put too much energy into avoiding payments.
Personal medical records are kept on paper rather than in accessible
electronic fashion.  Emergency rooms are not always well suited to serve
as last-resort health care for the poor.  Most fundamentally, the lack
of good measures of health care quality makes it hard to identify and
eliminate waste.