Month: January 2011

Paragraphs to ponder on cellphones and prisons

“The smartphone is the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison,” said Terry L. Bittner, director of security products with the ITT Corporation, one of a handful of companies that create cellphone-detection systems for prisons. “The smartphone is the equivalent of the old Swiss Army knife. You can do a lot of other things with it.”

One inmate says: "Almost everybody has a [smart] phone."

Inmates use the phones to coordinate protests and also to plan outside crimes.  How do the phones get in?:

In South Carolina, where most prisons are rural and staff members have to pass through X-ray machines and metal detectors, smugglers resort to an old-fashioned method – tossing phones over fences.

They stuff smartphones into footballs or launch them from a device called a potato cannon or spud gun, which shoots a projectile through a pipe. Packages are sometimes camouflaged with a coating of grass, which makes them hard for guards to detect. The drops are coordinated through texts or calls between inmates and people outside, said Jon Ozmint, director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, which confiscates as many as 2,000 cellphones a year.

The cellphone industry does not support phone-jamming plans, which it claims are illegal: "He [a spokesman] cited the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits the blocking of radio signals – or, in this case, cellphone signals – from authorized users."

The full story is here.

Which shipping company is kindest to your packages?

A field experiment was done, using advanced technology:

So which company treats your packages with the most tender loving care? After crunching the data and averaging the number of spikes recorded by each carrier on each trip, we found that the USPS has the gentlest touch, with a per-trip average of 0.5 acceleration spikes over 6 g's. FedEx and UPS logged an average of three and two big drops per trip, respectively (see graph, next page).

Given those results, we were a little surprised to find that the USPS flipped over its Express Mail packages an awful lot, averaging 12.5 position changes per trip. Meanwhile, FedEx averaged seven position changes, and UPS had an average of four.

All three carriers did a good job at maintaining a stable temperature, but FedEx nabbed the top rating, with an average change of only 26.01 degrees, compared with 26.8 degrees for UPS and almost 32 degrees for the USPS. But the maximum temperatures our package experienced were within 2 degrees, and at no time did a temperature register above 80 degrees or below 47 degrees.

One disheartening result was that our package received more abuse when marked "Fragile" or "This Side Up." The carriers flipped the package more, and it registered above-average acceleration spikes during trips for which we requested careful treatment.

Here is much more, including a nice picture.  At the very least, the packages seem to arrive on time.

For the pointer I thank

The academic job market for history and for economics

During the 2009-10 academic year, the number of positions listed with the American Historical Association dropped by 29.4 percent, according to a study the group will release today. That follows a 23.8 percent drop the year before. Last year, the association announced that the number of listings it received — 806 — was the smallest in a decade; this year's total of 569 marks the smallest number in 25 years.

But in data also being released this week, the American Economic Association is announcing that its job listings in 2010 recovered from a 21 percent decline in 2008. Further, the number of academic jobs exceeded the number in 2008. (Economics job listings include positions in the finance and consulting industries, in addition to academic slots.)

Here is more.  And:

…The total number of listings with the AEA rose to 2,842 in 2010, up from 2,285 in 2009, and only 43 jobs shy of the 2008 total. Because many of the 2008 openings that were listed were for searches that were subsequently called off, the AEA report — prepared by John J. Siegfried, secretary-treasurer of the association — says that it believes job openings are now above 2008 levels.

New academic jobs increased to 1,884 in 2010, up from 1,512 in 2009, and now exceed 2008 totals by 24. The vast majority of the academic jobs are at universities with graduate programs.

The top area of specialization in job listings, by far, was mathematical and quantitative methods, followed by microeconomics, macroeconomics and financial economics, international economics, and macroeconomics and monetary economics.

A sexual selection model of schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder marked by an evolutionarily puzzling combination of high heritability, reduced reproductive success, and a remarkably stable prevalence. Recently, it has been proposed that sexual selection may be crucially involved in the evolution of schizophrenia. In the sexual selection model (SSM) of schizophrenia and schizotypy, schizophrenia represents the negative extreme of a sexually selected indicator of genetic fitness and condition. Schizotypal personality traits are hypothesized to increase the sensitivity of the fitness indicator, thus conferring mating advantages on high-fitness individuals but increasing the risk of schizophrenia in low-fitness individuals; the advantages of successful schzotypy would be mediated by enhanced courtship-related traits such as verbal creativity. Thus, schizotypy-increasing alleles would be maintained by sexual selection, and could be selectively neutral or even beneficial, at least in some populations. However, most empirical studies find that the reduction in fertility experienced by schizophrenic patients is not compensated for by increased fertility in their unaffected relatives. This finding has been interpreted as indicating strong negative selection on schizotypy-increasing alleles, and providing evidence against sexual selection on schizotypy.

That is from Marco Del Giudice and for the pointer I thank Harpersnotes.

My pre-election column on Obama

Guessing the “true economic views” of Barack Obama has become a small industry in the United States and also around the world.  I’ve met people who are convinced that he is a radical left-winger and that his parents were 1960s communists.  I’ve met others who claim Obama absorbed lots of free market economics at the University of Chicago, during his time as a Law Professor there.  In this view he is a conservative stealth candidate who will surprise many of his left-wing supporters.

Obama’s voting record in the Senate is relatively but not radically left-wing.  But since he’s been planning on the Presidency for years, that recent experience does not settle the question.

My view of Obama’s economics is a simple and straightforward one and it is consistent with his public pronouncements.  I view him as an economic pragmatist who is willing to borrow good ideas from many sources.  He stands further to the left than do most Americans (myself included) but he has lined up the very best economic talent to advise him.

Since politicians are so often professional liars, why should we take Obama’s proclaimed pragmatism seriously?

If you read’s Obama first memoir, which he wrote before he was a public figure, issues of race and identity dominate.  He is acutely aware of being a mixed-race person in a community of largely white American leaders.  Most of all, I think Obama wants to do a good job as President and he wants to be seen as having done a good job.  That would pave the way for improved race relations and also, although Obama would not use these words, it would bring higher status for African-Americans.  When it comes to his subconscious emotions, I see Obama as more attached to the notion of excelling than to any particular view of economic policy.

Keep in mind that Obama was raised by a white mother (the black father was absent) and he “decided to be black,” and to marry a black woman and attend a black church, only later in his life.  Oddly, his hopes for improved race relations are the hopes that would be held by a utopian white liberal rather than the vision held by most African-Americans.  That is one reason why African-Americans were initially so slow to support him and why so many educated white elites feel so at home with him.

Obama is also famously detached and it seems he never loses his cool.  He does not drink up ideology like a drug but instead is focused on creating his own personal success.  That implies a very strong ego but also again a economic and also a foreign policy pragmatism, in the good sense.  If Obama is elected, I expect the major economic storyline to be Obama pushing policies in the national interest (as he perceives it) and Congress pushing back with earmarked expenditures and special privileges for interest groups.

There is plenty of talk about Obama being half-black but perhaps the more important fact is that Obama is from Hawaii.  Hawaiians barely think of themselves as North Americans and they do live many miles from the continent.  The Hawaiian background is part of where Obama’s cosmopolitanism – which is strong and sincere – comes from. 

My description may sound like a very favorable portrait of Obama on economics but he will likely encounter serious problems if he wins the election.  The important American Presidents are those like Reagan who “know a few big things” and push them unceasingly, without much regard for the pragmatic or even the reasonable.  Obama is not used to connecting with mainstream America.  Congress will test him and push him around.  There’s a very small chance that he makes big mistakes, but at this point the best prediction is that he will be ineffective in tackling many of America’s biggest problems.

End of column, a few notes: There was no room for citations (my apologies!), it was written for a non-American audience, and I will look for my McCain draft as well.

Advice for a future regulator

WW, a loyal MR reader, emailed me a request:

My friend recently accepted a fellowship at REDACTED and will be starting in a few months. I was wondering what advice or reading suggestions you might have for a future component of the regulatory regime.

I am assuming this is not a "policy level" position.  I suggest these pointers:

1. Ponder whether you actually wish to move up into a managerial position over time.  Your job will change a lot and your headaches will increase.  Inertia will push you in this direction, but don't take it for granted.

2. Figure out in advance what kinds of cognitive capture you will be subject to, and whether you wish to fight or embrace them.

3. Watch Kurosawa's movie Ikiru, about a dying Japanese bureaucrat and his final quest for meaning.

4. Keep on reading within the field you work on.  There will be a tendency to assume you "know it all," but the perspectives of outsiders will remain valuable, even if they commit stupid blunders on some of the details.

5. If you don't already know, learn the value of ambiguity and how to build alliances in the workplace.  Many people remain bad at these skills.

What else can you all think of?

Addendum: David Henderson has more.