Month: September 2009

Not bad for a spam comment

Your ideas on signalling are always interesting and informative….but,
you focus a lot on signalling to others…..the more fascinating aspect
is the signalling that we do to ourselves…..and why.

I deleted the comment anyway, to prove to myself I am tough and that I abide by the "no spam" rules. 
Behind it was a link to a German site selling computer products.

I assume that above comment was written by a human being.  A' la Turing, I wonder when the average quality of spam comment will exceed the average quality of a non-spam comment.  For many blogs (not MR), we're already there.  Can you imagine blogs competing to capture greater and greater quantities of spam, as a way of "paying" for good comments?  Or how about captchas which only let through spammers and discriminate against most others?

Assorted Links: God and Mammon Edition

  • "Accountants and clergy are both well educated and intelligent, yet we
    pay accountants a lot more than the clergy. Is this because we care
    more about money than about God?"  Robert Whaples explains.

Teacher Absence in the United States

Yesterday I looked at teacher absence in the developing world, highlighting India where a quarter of teachers may be absent on a given day.  Teacher absence isn't that high in the United States but it is still shockingly high.  On a typical school day, 5-6% of teachers are absent, i.e. equivalent to an absence once every 20 days!

Bearing in mind that the typical school year is 180 days, add absences to all the school holidays, teacher workdays, staff development days (btw, ever seen a Walmart shutdown for a staff development day?), and other non-teaching days (e.g. in Fairfax, Mondays are half-days) and the number of days of true teachng greatly diminishes.   

Teachers probably do get sick more often than other workers but teacher absence rates are three times higher than for managers and professional employees in the private sector.  Moreover, are you surprised to learn that teacher absences are most frequent on Mondays and Fridays or that teacher absences are of a duration just short of that requiring medical certification of illness?

Finally, teacher absences reduce student achievement both in the United States and in the developing world

Where to find virgins: go to urban churches

The Man Who Would be Thursday opines:

…look for someone at
a church in an urban area. For example, evangelicals in downtown
Toronto are there because they really believe, while those in rural
Alberta perhaps less so.

He also adds (and explains why):

…find yourself a cute but not spectacular 22 year old with a bachelor’s degree.

P.S. The biggest indicator that a girl is a virgin is her insistence that she wants a guy who is a virgin himself.

Hat tip goes to Robin Hanson, who discusses Thursday more generally.

Mullah maximization

It turned out the Shah's curators knew what they were doing.  They had bought some outstanding contemporary paintings — including Warhol's Suicide (Purple Jumping Man) and the stellar Woman III — to fill the museum that was never built.  Say what you want about the Ayatollah, but despite his public rhetoric about the decadence of the West, his regime knew valuable assets when it saw them.  The regime hung onto the paintings, rather than burn them along with the American flag.

That is from Richard Polsky's new and fun i sold Andy Warhol (too soon).  The book is a sequel of sorts to Polsky's earlier I Bought Andy Warhol.  I am also a fan of Polsky's earlier Art Market Guides.

Words of wisdom (on bank compensation)

…this really [is] a pretty odd situation. Wh[y] doesn’t the market take care of
this problem itself? It really seems like investors would be reluctant
to deal with financial institutions that are organized this way. It
seems like there was a reason the major investment banks were
traditionally organized as partnerships–partnerships don’t have these
incentives, and people should prefer to do business with institutions
that don’t have these incentives. But the market’s not working like
that. And it’s worth trying to understand why. If regulators start
playing cat-and-mouse with compensation shenanigans, the mice are
probably going to wind up winning. But if there’s some specific thing
that’s preventing market discipline from adequately aligning
incentives, we ought to be trying to find out what it is and what can
be done about it.

Here is more.

Meat trends

For every newly converted vegetarian, four poor humans start earning enough money to put beef on the table.  In the past three decades, the earth's dominant carnivores have tripled our average per capita consumption; in the next four decades global meat production will double to 465 million tons.

That is from the new book Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought, by James G. Workman.

In Bayesian terms, how should I evaluate this book?  I cracked it open to one page (never start with the table of contents) and found something interesting and blogworthy.  For the random review copy I am sent, the odds of that happening for a single page sample are below 1 in 50.

Teacher Absence in the Developing World

In South Africa the problem of teacher absence is so bad that frustrated students rioted when teachers repeatedly failed to show up for class. But the problem is not limited to South Africa, teachers are absent throughout the developing world.  Spot checks by the World Bank, for example, indicate that on a typical day 11% of teachers are absent in Peru, 16% are absent in Bangladesh, 27% in Uganda and 25% in India.

Even when teachers are present they are often not teaching.  In India, where a quarter of the teachers are absent on any particular day, only about half of those present are actually teaching.  (These are national averages, in some states the problem is worse.)

The problem is not low salaries.  Salaries for public school teachers in India are above the norm for that country.  Indeed, if anything, absenteeism increases with salary (and it is higher in public schools than in private schools, despite lower wages in the latter).  The problem is political power, teacher unions, and poor incentives. 

Teachers are literate and they vote so they are a powerful political force especially where teacher unions are strong.  As if this were not enough, in India, the teachers have historically had a guarantee of representation in the state Legislative Councils so political power has often flowed to teachers far in excess of their numbers.  As a result, it's virtually impossible to fire a teacher for absenteeism.

The situation in South Africa is not that different than in India.  The NYTimes article on South Africa has this to say:

“We have the highest level of teacher unionization in the world, but their focus is on rights, not responsibilities,” Mamphela Ramphele, former vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, said in a recent speech.

Some reforms are planned in South Africa, including greater monitoring of teacher attendance but this offhand remark suggests the difficulties:

“We must ask ourselves to what extent teachers in many historically disadvantaged schools unwittingly perpetuate the wishes of Hendrik Verwoerd,” [President Zuma] recently told a gathering of principals, implicitly challenging the powerful South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, which is part of the governing alliance (!).  (Emphasis added, AT.)

All Those Years Ago, or, how it feels to be a superpower

I was reading Paul Blustein's The Chastening, his book on the Asian financial crisis published in 2001, and came across the following passage:

"How does it feel to be a superpower?" Timothy Geithner, the U.S. Treasury's assistant secretary for international affairs, whispered jokingly to Eisuke Sakakibara, the Japanese vice minister of finance…Japan [with the bailout of Thailand] now was eager to show that it could take care of its Asian neighbors the same way Washington had helped its most important neighbor in Latin America [Mexico]…The lighthearted comment by Geithner masked an underlying tension between the United States and Japan that would intensify in the coming weeks as the crisis unfolded.  Washington wasn't adding a penny to the Thai package…in part because they feared the IMF's central role in crisis-fighting might be undermined.

Why is coca-cola so expensive in Germany?

Matt asks this question and the answers in his comments section cite sugar policy and the VAT.  (Matt's comment, at #62, is the best of the lot.)  USA Coke also competes with free tap water, which is a no-no in Deutschland.  Here is a German site,, which asks "Wieso ist Coca-Cola so teuer?" but the answers do not impress.  Here is further German language discussion but again Armen Alchian it ain't.  This German Yahoo post considers the marginal cost of production.

I am more inclined to cite the elasticity of demand.  Here in the US of A people will drink three or four cokes in a row, maybe more.  Or they will buy many cans of coke for the whole family along with hot dogs, Twinkies, Hellmann's mayonnaise, and other utility-maximizing commodities.  But those high-volume strategies require a fairly low price.  I haven't lived in Germany for over twenty years, but my impression at the time was that you would drink one coke at a main meal with your food and that was it.  (You also didn't get very much in the Glas, but that's another story.)  They're weren't aiming for volume sales by lowering the price, so instead they would focus on the upper left part of the demand curve.

I don't know if Matt is referring to restaurants or vending machines.  In restaurants drink prices are arguably a proxy for enjoying the amenities, the table and the service of the wait staff.  If the wait staff have higher wages and benefits, due to European labor market regulation, the drink price might be reflecting that higher marginal cost, even if the MC of the drink itself is low relative to price.

People, can you help out on this one?

*Total Recall*

[since 2001] Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell…has been compulsively scanning, capturing, and logging each and every bit of personal data he generates in his daily life.

This trove includes Web sites he's visited (221,173), photos taken (56,282), emails sent and received (156,041), docs written and read (18,883), phone conversations had (2,000), photos snapped by the SenseCam hanging around his neck (66,000), songs listened to (7,139), and videos taken by him (2,164). To collect all this information, he uses a staggering assortment of hardware: desktop scanner, digicam, heart rate monitor, voice recorder, GPS logger, pedometer, smartphone, e-reader.

Here is more and that is all from the interesting new book Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything, by Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell.  You may recall that I mention Bell in Create Your Own Economy.  I don't personally have the ability to operate all that technology.  So if I could measure only five things from my daily life, what should they be?  What would yours be and why? 

Lately I've developed a new theory as to when I sleep especially well (in general I sleep well so the variance is not so large).  I believe that I sleep especially well when I end up going to bed at exactly the same time I expect to be going to bed.  On the unusual occasions when I don't sleep well, it is because I have been winding down my body and mind before I actually have the opportunity to fall asleep.  Somehow when the later chance to sleep comes, it is too late for that sleep to be deep.  Or so it seems to my mental econometrics; it would be interesting to measure it.