The future of dieting

Economist Ed Glaeser, a trim man, is a vigorous partisan of the Atkins Diet. Nonetheless he argues that McDonald’s brings social benefits, not social costs:

Glaeser’s rationale for suggesting that convenience foods are a social good is that, to judge from consumer behavior in the marketplace, people seem to prefer saving time to being thinner. And in economics, by and large, getting what you want is a good thing. Glaeser notes that until relatively recently, cheaper food (in terms of money as well as time) made us taller and healthier. Only in the past 25 years or so have diminishing returns set in.

Now that less is more when it comes to increased calorie intake, Glaeser expects the marketplace to correct the excesses he attributes to self-control problems. For one thing, food technology can’t advance much farther, “short of direct injection,” whereas weight-loss technology is only in its infancy, with vast room to grow. Glaeser can understand the need for regulation in the schools, or if food companies are misleading people. But he says: “I don’t think anybody ate at McDonald’s and thought it was good for them. I take a dim view of these lawsuits.”

Thanks to newmarksdoor.com for the link, and Daniel Akst for the article itself. See also Alex’s post on Three Oreo Cookies.

Impressing a woman vs. impressing a man

Dr. Rangel tells us how to impress a woman:

Wine her, Dine her, Call her, Hug her, Support her, Hold her, Surprise her, Compliment her, Smile at her, Listen to her, Laugh with her, Cry with her, Romance her, Encourage her, Believe in her, Pray with her, Pray for her, Cuddle with her, Shop with her, Give her jewelry, Buy her flowers, Hold her hand, Write love letters to her, Go to the end of the Earth and back again for her.

How to impress a man;

Show up naked… Bring food… Don’t block the TV.

OK, this is clever, but it is not exactly correct either. One good way to impress a woman is to do something to impress other men (and women). The famous attract women in great droves. And if you want to impress a man, help him think that he has high relative status. “Don’t block the TV” is not nearly as good as being the kind of woman who, through whatever means, can impress other men (and women), and thus reflect favorably upon the man.

Inefficiency wages

Almost half of the new, American-trained, 700 man Iraqi army have quit over disputes over pay and conditions. Has the administration never heard of efficiency wages? We need to pay these guys more than the market wage in order to encourage loyalty and gratitude as well as funneling some money back into the economy. It’s not as if these soliders were costing us much. The pay scale in the new Iraqi army is $50 per month for a recruit, $60 per month for privates, and $180 for a Colonel.

Ralph Nader and the regulation of neuroscience

Ralph Nader’s Commercial Alert group seeks to restrict or prohibit commercial research into neuroscience. You might recall that researchers at Emory are hard at work on this problem:

Neuromarketing research uses a magnetic resonance imaging machine, or MRI, to determine which parts of the brain react to different types of advertising in an effort to help marketers develop more effective marketing techniques for selling their products or services.

The critics charge that the research is directed at finding a “buy button” in the mind. Critics also raise the specter of mind control and the loss of individual autonomy. Commercial Alert makes the following threat:

“It is wrong to use medical research for marketing instead of healing,” Ruskin said. “If Emory University doesn’t stop this immediately, we will do everything in our power to shut down Emory’s federal funding.”

My take: The neuroscience techniques remain unproven, but in the meantime corporations are subsidizing an important science. Many of our most significant scientific discoveries have been by accident, when people were looking for some other result altogether. The support for research may well have a real long-run payoff.

Furthermore the worries are overblown. Let’s say we found such a buy button and that corporations could use that knowledge in their ads. Would it really shift the marketing balance of power in favor of sellers? Over time I would expect buyers to compensate, as the knowledge would not stay secret for very long. We could imagine lists of products that were sold by manipulative techniques, and customers would know to stay away from such products. A technological arms race would be set off. We could imagine private entrepreneurs selling “counter-persuasion” techniques to customers, perhaps in the form of drugs, warning buzzers, or counter-subliminal images flashed into your eyeglasses (the latter product is already under development!). Or how about programming the microchip credit card embedded in your arm to discourage or prevent such manipulation-induced purchases? Or how about if consumers use neuroscience to learn how to be truly happy staying at home and cultivating their gardens?

Sellers seem to have the biggest advantage when manipulation techniques are less than transparent. So neuroscience research into buyer behavior may be a classic prisoner’s dilemma problem. Various sellers may pursue such knowledge, hoping to get a leg up on the competition. The long-run result may be an evaporation of business advantage and an empowering of consumers.

Thanks to Kevin McCabe for the pointer on this issue, check out his neuroeconomics blog.

The secondary consequences of car alarms

According to the Census Bureau, New Yorkers are now more bothered by false car anti-theft alarms than by any other feature of city life, including crime or bad public schools. If you ask me, it is the whooping ones that are worst of all, it is hard to stay overnight in Manhattan without hearing one. It also appears that the alarms do not hinder theft. First, most are false alarms and everyone now ignores them. Second, thieves have learned how to disable the alarms quickly.

False alarms also can make a community more dangerous, by signaling to everyone either that a) theft is common, or b) no one cares, or both. It becomes common knowledge that the community has poorly defined property rights. Here is the full story on this aspect of the problem.

Alternative technologies do a much better job of stopping car theft. You can buy a silent pager that communicates the theft only to the car owner. This one works only for tough guys, though, if I knew that my (insured) car was being stolen, I would run the other way. Better is the “silent engine immobilizer,” which simply shuts down the engine when a thief is tampering with the ignition. General Motors and Ford are now using this technology.

How to conserve flu vaccine

The flu vaccine is now running very scarce, you can wait for weeks and there is no guarantee of getting it at all. Most of the supplies are already in the hands of doctors. Note also the following:

Random immunization is almost useless because, for many viruses, more than 95% of the population must be vaccinated to prevent the disease’s spread.

But things are not as grim as they might sound. First:

An alternative to the flu shot is FluMist, a more expensive inhaled version of the vaccine, which is recommended for healthy people between the ages of 5 and 49. There are about 4 million doses available of FluMist, health officials said.

Although those below 5 and over 49 are the at-risk groups, they are less likely to catch the flu if the rest of us are healthy.

Second, we could administer flu shots more wisely by targeting superspreaders, here is one proposal:

Reuven Cohen of Bar-Ilan University in Israel and his colleagues propose a simple modification of random vaccination that is more effective, according to their computer simulations. The idea is to randomly choose, say, 20% of the individuals and ask them to name one acquaintance; then vaccinate those acquaintances. Potential super-spreaders have such a large number of acquaintances that they are very likely to be named at least once, the researchers found. On the other hand, the super-spreaders are so few in number that the random 20% of individuals is unlikely to include many of them.

Using the team’s vaccination strategy, a disease can be stopped by vaccinating less than 20% of the individuals, in some cases, according to their computer model of a human population. The method can also be tweaked: if a larger sample is asked for names, and those named twice are vaccinated, the total number of vaccinations required can be even lower.

The trick may be getting these people to take the shots, but surely economists can come up with a useful incentives scheme for that, I would prefer a subsidy over a tax.

What does a top British artist earn?

Last year the highest-earning British artist was Damien Hirst, the creator who cuts up dead sharks and puts them in formaldehyde. He pulled in twelve million British pounds last year (over twenty million dollars), although dealer’s commissions may have eaten into this figure. As an aside, many buyers of Hirst’s early dot paintings, see the link for an image, are unhappy because most of those works were made with ordinary household paints and are now falling apart.

A close second on the earnings list was Andrew Vicari, now resident in Monte Carlo, since 1974 he has been the official painter to the Saudi Royal Family.

What a pair. Hirst I admire for his visceral impact but I could not live with most of his works, not the least because some of them involve live, buzzing insects. Would you wish to own “the beauty of a disused shop full of butterfly pupae, hatching from white canvases, feeding on sugar syrup, mating, laying eggs and dying”? Or rather would you call the exterminator to get rid of something like that?

I wouldn’t hang a Vicari on my walls, check out his painting of the first Gulf War. I now have a better understanding why the Saudi Royal Family is in such trouble.

But let us look at the bright side. No one (well, hardly anyone) ever said capitalism was about rewarding people in accord with their merits. An unequal distribution of rewards is part of the system that generates more diverse art of many kinds, click here to see a compelling portrait by Lucien Freud, or here for a broader choice of images. Click here for a sparkling Howard Hodgkin, here for a broader choice of Hodgkin images, which always bring a splash of color. They are the British painters I will buy when they start paying bloggers.

The earnings information is from The Art Newspaper, one of the highest quality periodicals of any kind.

Three Oreo Cookies

Obesity rates in the United States have increased dramatically in the past two decades – so much so that manufacturers of everything from clothes to coffins are now super-sizing. But did you know that the entire increase can be explained by three Oreo cookies a day? The trouble is that calories accumulate so holding caloric expenditures constant even a small permanent increase in calories consumed can lead to serious weight gain over long periods of time. Food is getting cheaper and work is becoming more sedentary so it is going to be very difficult to control weight gain. I review some of the recent economic literature on obesity here.

Despite a number of government programs, for example, Swedes continue to get bigger just like everyone else.

For years, this nation of nine million has had the sorts of programs, combining healthy diet and physical exercise, that antiobesity advocates elsewhere in the world dream about. Vending machines in Swedish schools are practically unheard of. TV commercials of any kind aimed at kids under 12 are banned. Schoolchildren as young as eight learn to cook healthy meals. Sports programs are heavily subsidized to get youngsters up and about. But Swedish children are plumping up at alarming rates anyway. The number of kids who are overweight has tripled in the past 15 years — roughly the same rate as in other European countries — to 19% of boys and 15% of girls.

(From the WSJ via Radley Balko.)

I suspect our only real hope is better tasting fat and sugar substitutes. So far I am not too impressed but I do recommend Russel Stover’s low-carb mint patties.

Beware X-Rays

I am always pleased when one of my crank folk medicine theories is proven to be true, or at least possible. It turns out that low-level X-Rays might be much more dangerous than we had thought. In fact they might even be more dangerous than high-level X-Rays, because the cells do not repair themselves in the same way. Keep this in mind when you visit the dentist, I haven’t let them do this to me for six years now, despite continual entreaties and guarantees that it is safe. I picked this fact up from the January 2004 issues of Discover magazine, which covers the 100 biggest science stories of the year, go buy a copy and catch up on a year’s worth of science reading, not yet on-line.

Beautiful women and rational thought

It seems that the two do not go together:

Male students, when shown pictures of pretty women, were more likely to opt for short-term economic gain than wait for a better reward in the future.

Both male and female students at McMaster University were shown pictures of the opposite sex of varying attractiveness taken from the website ‘Hot or Not’. The 209 students were then offered the chance to win a reward. They could either accept a cheque for between $15 and $35 tomorrow or one for $50-$75 at a variable point in the future.

Wilson and Daly found that male students shown the pictures of averagely attractive women showed exponential discounting of the future value of the reward. This indicated that they had made a rational decision. When male students were shown pictures of pretty women, they discounted the future value of the reward in an “irrational” way – they would opt for the smaller amount of money available the next day rather than wait for a much bigger reward.

Women, by contrast, made equally rational decisions whether they had been shown pictures of handsome men or those of average attractiveness.

One biologist hypothesizes that the entire effect should be stronger for unattractive men, who must take greater risks to win partners. Furthermore it is known that working with attractive young women makes men more likely to take foolish chances, engage in stupid affairs, and end up divorced, here is one study.

My take: I suspect this is all true, I fear it will be used to construct an efficiency argument for restricting pornography and tightening social mores. And the next time I do something crazy, I will blame it on having a beautiful wife.

Addendum: Here is some entertaining commentary.

The race to space

Everyone has his or her obsession, one of mine is collecting Mexican amate painting, for some people it is investing in space travel.

The tangible pieces of John Carmack’s dream are scattered around an 8,000-square-foot warehouse: industrial water-purification tank, aluminum cones, compressed air cylinders, used Russian spacesuit.

All are components of the software developer’s project to launch a manned rocket 62 miles up by January 2005.

What binds the pieces together are Carmack’s quiet intellect and considerable bankroll.

“We mostly look at it as a two-horse race,” the 33-year-old millionaire said of the international competition for the $10 million X Prize, offered by a St. Louis-based foundation.

The entrepreneur has a background in computer games and works with a team out of a warehouse, sometimes using the parking lot for small-scale launch attempts. Rather than pursuing secrecy, progress is publicized on the project website, there you can even see videos of failed launch attempts.

NASA had the following response:

NASA has no official comment on the civilian attempts.

“It’s certainly a complicated business. Sometimes [sic] we make it look easy,” said Melissa Mathews, a space agency spokeswoman.

Is Carmack crazy? Beats me, read this interview if you want more data. The whole point is that there is only one way to find out, which is to let him try. Maybe he is right that “Aerospace is plumbing with the volume turned up.”

Thanks to Marko Siladin for the pointer.

Should we renorm IQ tests?

The year in which IQ is tested can make the difference between life and death for a death row inmate. It also can determine the eligibility of children for special services, adults’ Social Security benefits and recruits’ suitability for certain military careers, according to a new study by Cornell University researchers.

That’s because IQ scores tend to rise 5 to 25 points in a single generation. This so-called “Flynn effect” is corrected by toughening up the test every 15 to 20 years to reset the mean score to 100. A score from a test taken at the end of one cycle can vary widely from a score derived from a test taken at the beginning of the next cycle, when the test is more difficult, says Stephen J. Ceci, professor of human development at Cornell.

In other words, our definitions of intelligence and mental retardation are more relativistic than we would like to think. Yet the law, and various institutional categories, look to IQ scores as if they were fully objective. Here is the full story.

The Flynn effect implies, if you take it literally, that most people were morons as recently as a few generations ago. Just think, “someone who scored among the best 10% a hundred years ago, would nowadays be categorized among the 5% weakest. That means that someone who would be considered bright a century ago, should now be considered a moron!” So much as I believe in the idea of progress, I don’t think we can take the numbers at face value. If you are not convinced, try reading David Hume. Here is another survey of hypotheses, and why they fail to explain the data.

We’re past the point where nutrition can explain the rise in IQ scores, and more generally the Flynn effect numbers are inconsistent with more general data about the limits on environment for improving IQ scores. The less culturally specific the test, the stronger the Flynn effect appears. Bill Dickens and Flynn offer some interesting evidence on how genes and environment interact.

My favorite hypothesis, which has no hard data to support it, cites “the impact of the visual and spatial demands that accompany a television-laden, video-game-rich world. ” In other words, TV helps us do well on IQ tests. This does not explain why the Flynn effect predates 1950, but perhaps the more general increase in world complexity forces our brains to adapt. In earlier times people were “smart enough” for their environments, and still could create brilliant achievements on the frontiers they faced, still they might have been ill-suited to live in modern times.

Putting things in perspective

How much investors lost, over the last ten years, by attempting market timing, rather than “buy and hold”: $1 trillion

How much investors lost, over the last ten years, from high mutual fund fees: $20 billion

How much investors lost, over the last ten years, from crooked trades: $10 million

All of the estimates are from the December 22 Forbes, p.84. The last number seems far too low to me, but the point remains: investors are their own worst enemy, they inflict far more damage on themselves than they ever lose through outright fraud.