Friday, August 11, 2017

Why does new money like bling and old money like discreetness?

[A] puzzling aspect of conspicuous consumption [is that] it is often subtle, in the sense that it is difficult for others to observe and recognize. Handwrought silverware only signals wealth to dinner guests. Someone who wishes to signal his wealth as clearly as possible can do better: acknowledging this puzzle, Bagwell and Bernheim (1996) suggest publishing “tax returns or audited asset statements”.

We argue that people engage in subtly conspicuous consumption to simultaneously signal wealth and social capital. Here, social capital is about connectedness—a measure of the relationships that enable access to potentially valuable resources through social interaction...

Consider the following example. Adam is wealthy and socially well-connected. He can distinguish himself from less wealthy individuals by consuming costly status goods; for example, he might purchase an expensive car to drive around town. However, if Adam seeks to demonstrate that he is well-connected as well as wealthy, his consumption choice also has to distinguish him from wealthy, poorly-connected individuals. Thus, a better option might be buying an expensive painting to display in his living room. His guests, observing the painting, and noting that only Adam’s guests ever observe it, infer that he is well-connected because using this painting as a signal of his type is cost-effective only if Adam’s parties are attended by people who Adam seeks to impress. ...

Conventional wisdom often associates loud consumption with the nouveau riche: those who have recently become wealthy. On the other hand, subtle consumption is associated with old money: those whose families have been wealthy for generations. Our interpretation is that old-money types possess large amounts of social capital, as they have been able to develop social connections over time, whereas the nouveau riche, who acquired wealth only recently, have accumulated little social capital. ...

Many forms of cultural knowledge, such as appreciation of music, art or wine, qualify as subtle status goods in our theory: they (i) are costly to acquire, and (ii) being tacit in nature, can only be recognized through extensive social interaction. ... Taking the perspective that cultural capital serves as a subtle good relative to material status goods, our model predicts that individuals with high social capital prefer cultural consumption, whereas people with low social capital favour material status goods.
--Juan Carlos Carbajal, Jonathan Hall, and Hongyi Li, "Inconspicuous Conspicuous Consumption," on subtle status symbols versus bling

Sunday, August 6, 2017

What happens when churches take government money?

Governments have used vouchers to spend billions of dollars on private education; much of this spending has gone to religiously-affiliated schools. ... We use a dataset of Catholic-parish finances from Milwaukee... We show that vouchers are now a dominant source of funding for many churches; parishes in our sample running voucher-accepting schools get more revenue from vouchers than from worshipers. We also find that voucher expansion prevents church closures and mergers. Despite these results, we fail to find evidence that vouchers promote religious behavior: voucher expansion causes significant declines in church donations and church spending on non-educational religious purposes. The meteoric growth of vouchers appears to offer financial stability for congregations while at the same time diminishing their religious activities.
--Daniel Hungerman, Kevin Rinz, and Jay Frymark, "Beyond the Classroom: The Implications of School Vouchers for Church Finances," on where your treasure is, there will your heart be also

Monday, July 31, 2017

A chokehold ruined the Patriots' perfect season

...the one lingering demon from the Belichick-Brady years: the pursuit of perfection that met a devastating end in their Super Bowl XLII loss to the New York Giants. ...

On the [Eli] Manning escape, the New England rush overwhelmed nearly the entire Giants offensive line. Jarvis Green exploded past Shaun O'Hara to the center's left and plowed through left guard Rich Seubert, and Richard Seymour looped behind Jarvis Green and beat O'Hara to his right. The offensive linemen tried to play the rush as if they were switching on a basketball pick-and-roll, and they failed miserably. As Seymour and Green converged on the immobile Manning, O'Hara said he saw "Eli curl up in the fetal position, which he normally does," and then thought, "OK, we're probably going to lose this game."

But as Manning kept moving his feet and staying alive, struggling to break free from the grasp of both New England rushers, a desperate O'Hara slid his gloved right hand onto Seymour's throat. "I said, 'Screw it,'" the Giants center would recall. "I was squeezing his trachea as hard as I could and not letting go." Choked by a 300-pound man, Seymour was temporarily disabled for the split-second that allowed Manning to get away. O'Hara gambled that the officials would miss his WWE move, and miss it they sure as hell did. If they threw a flag there, the Patriots would have ended up 19-0.
--Ian O'Connor, ESPN, on the choke that caused the Patriots' choke

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Marijuana is bad for your grades

Economists Olivier Marie and Ulf Zölitz took advantage of a decision by Maastricht, a city in the Netherlands, to change the rules for “cannabis cafes,” which legally sell recreational marijuana. Because Maastricht is very close to the border of multiple European countries (Belgium, France and Germany), drug tourism was posing difficulties for the city. Hoping to address this, the city barred noncitizens of the Netherlands from buying from the cafes.

This policy change created an intriguing natural experiment at Maastricht University, because students there from neighboring countries suddenly were unable to access legal pot, while students from the Netherlands continued.

The research on more than 4,000 students, published in the Review of Economic Studies, found that those who lost access to legal marijuana showed substantial improvement in their grades. Specifically, those banned from cannabis cafes had a more than 5 percent increase in their odds of passing their courses. Low performing students benefited even more, which the researchers noted is particularly important because these students are at high-risk of dropping out. The researchers attribute their results to the students who were denied legal access to marijuana being less likely to use it and to suffer cognitive impairments (e.g., in concentration and memory) as a result.

Other studies have tried to estimate the impact of marijuana legalization by studying those U.S. states that legalized medicinal or recreational marijuana. But marijuana policy researcher Rosalie Pacula of RAND Corporation noted that the Maastricht study provide evidence that “is much better than anything done so far in the United States.”

States differ in countless ways that are hard for researchers to adjust for in their data analysis, but the Maastricht study examined similar people in the same location — some of them even side by side in the same classrooms — making it easier to isolate the effect of marijuana legalization.
--Keith Humphreys, Washington Post, on the opportunity cost of studying

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Amos Tversky on how to do good research

The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.
--Amos Tversky

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The unhappiness of lawyers

According to some reports, lawyers also have the highest rate of depression of any occupational group in the country. A 1990 study of more than 100 professions indicated that lawyers are 3.6 times as likely to be depressed as people with other jobs. The Hazelden study found that 28 percent of lawyers suffer depression.

“Yes, there are other stressful professions,” said Wil Miller, who practices family law in the offices of Molly B. Kenny in Bellevue, Wash. He spent 10 years as a sex crimes prosecutor, the last six months of which he was addicted to methamphetamines. “Being a surgeon is stressful, for instance — but not in the same way. It would be like having another surgeon across the table from you trying to undo your operation. In law, you are financially rewarded for being hostile.” ...

Some research shows that before they start law school, law students are actually healthier than the general population, both physically and mentally. “There’s good data showing that,” said Andy Benjamin, a psychologist and lawyer who teaches law and psychology at the University of Washington. “They drink less than other young people, use less substances, have less depression and are less hostile.”

In addition, he said, law students generally start school with their sense of self and their values intact. But, in his research, he said, he has found that the formal structure of law school starts to change that.

Rather than hew to their internal self, students begin to focus on external values, he said, like status, comparative worth and competition. “We have seven very strong studies that show this twists people’s psyches and they come out of law school significantly impaired, with depression, anxiety and hostility,” he said. ...

“The psychological factors seen to erode during law school are the very factors most important for the well-being of lawyers,” Lawrence Krieger, a professor at Florida State University College of Law, and Kennon Sheldon, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, wrote in their 2015 paper “What Makes Lawyers Happy?” Conversely, they wrote, “the factors most emphasized in law schools — grades, honors and potential career income — have nil to modest bearing on lawyer well-being.”

After students began law school they experienced “a marked increase in depression, negative mood and physical symptoms, with corresponding decreases in positive affect and life satisfaction,” the professors wrote.

Students also shed some of their idealism. Within the first year of law school, students’ motivation for studying law and becoming lawyers shifted from “helping and community-oriented values to extrinsic, rewards-based values.”

Young lawyers in treatment at the Center for Network Therapy, an ambulatory detox facility in Middlesex, N.J., frequently tell Dr. Indra Cidambi, the medical director, that the reality of working as a lawyer does not match what they had pictured while in law school. She has found that law students often drink and use drugs until they start their first job. After that, Dr. Cidambi said, “it’s mostly alcohol, until they are established as senior associates or partners and they move back to opiates.”
--Eilene Zimmerman, NYT, on a challenging profession

Saturday, July 15, 2017

How clean is the John Harvard statue?

The John Harvard statue is probably the most touched object in the University. Its left foot is subjected to almost incessant rubbing by tourists who believe that the act brings good luck; the standard pose, for photos, is to place a hand on John Harvard’s shoe, which has become shiny from the human contact.

But Harvard students themselves know better than to touch it—not least because one of three traditional deeds* that some College students strive to complete before graduation involves urinating on John Harvard.

So, how clean is the John Harvard statue?

Administrative staff in charge of its maintenance say the statue is cleaned on an as-needed basis, and is power-washed five to six times a year. “The maintenance really revolves around when the students do their business on it,” reports Joel Day, the facilities manager of University Hall. “The grounds crew are good at noticing; sometimes you can walk by and it smells like it needs to be cleaned.” The statue is not washed during winter, he adds, because hosing it in freezing temperatures would create slipping hazards. ...

Do the maintenance staff themselves think it’s hygienic to touch the statue?

“I don’t imagine it would be hygienic, but I don’t know how you would avoid it,” says McCarthy.

“They really should put a sanitizing station there,” says Day.

“I wouldn’t do it,” says Smith.
--Zara Zhang, Harvard Magazine, on what every Harvard student knows

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Warren Buffett's approach to bidding wars

For decades, Mr. Buffett has included in his company’s annual report a list of criteria for companies that might want to sell businesses to Berkshire. Berkshire is looking for large companies with little debt, the list says—and it isn’t interested in bidding wars or hostile takeovers.

“We don’t participate in auctions,” Mr. Buffett wrote in the latest annual report. “A line from a country song expresses our feeling about new ventures, turnarounds, or auction-like sales: ‘When the phone don’t ring, you’ll know it’s me.’” ...

Mr. Buffett has long been known for quickly negotiating deals and sticking with his initial price offer. ...

Mr. Buffett did raise the offer price in 1999 when he bought a majority stake in MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., now called Berkshire Hathaway Energy. But he made the switch before the deal was announced, as he explained in his 2007 letter to shareholders.

Mr. Buffett originally offered $35 a share for MidAmerican, but after pressure from investment bankers, he raised it to $35.05, he said in the letter. “With that, I explained, they could tell their client they had wrung the last nickel out of me,” he wrote. “At the time, it hurt.”

But given MidAmerican’s growth since then, he said in the same letter, “I’m glad I wilted and offered the extra nickel.”
--Nicole Friedman, WSJ, on avoiding the winner's curse

Friday, July 7, 2017

A shortage of marriageable men doesn't explain the marriage bust

Five percent of births in the U.S. were to unmarried mothers in 1960. Fast forward now — to 2014.
MELISSA KEARNEY: In 2014, over 40 percent of births in the U.S. were to unmarried mothers.
...
It’s really hard for researchers to establish the causal effect of family structure or marriage on kids’ outcomes, of course, because we don’t randomly assign kids to married or unmarried parents. But there’s a lot of research that works really hard to isolate factors. That research consistently shows that kids who live with two married parents have lower rates of poverty, have higher cognitive test scores in childhood, have fewer behavioral problems. They seem to have better health outcomes. They’re less likely to live in poverty when they’re 25. They’re more likely to complete college and they’re less likely to become young, unmarried parents themselves.
...what accounts for so many more unmarried births among mothers with less education? Social conservatives tend to point to the breakdown of old-school social norms. Social liberals cite less access to contraception — although that has improved a lot; and, especially, the lack of economic opportunity — that is, men without good jobs aren’t eager to marry or, from the other end of the equation, they aren’t considered good husband material. In Melissa Kearney’s world, this is called the “marriageable men” theory.
KEARNEY: Yeah. That’s based on this idea that’s been around since William Julius Wilson’s really seminal work in the 1980s arguing that this decline in the economic security of less-educated men — and in certain populations or demographic groups in particular — is behind this rise in nonmarital childbearing and retreat from marriage.
...
And so, hypothesizing the reverse, I’ve been keen to find a situation where we’ve seen an improvement in less-educated men’s economic situation, and the fracking boom constitutes the rare context where men without a college degree have seen an improvement in their employment and earnings prospects in recent years. That gave us a place to look at how family formation outcomes responded.
...
The fracking boom, these localized fracking booms, really meets our standard in the sense that it’s determined by pre-existing geological formations in the earth. Even the most persnickety economists will tend to grant that whether there is this geological formation under your county is probably exogenous to family formation preferences.
...
What our estimates suggest is that an additional $1,000 of fracking production per capita is associated with an increase of six births per thousand women. ...
One of the most interesting things in our research was a comparison to the coal boom and bust situation. It’s a similar economic shock. It’s a similar industry. They’re in similar areas: the Appalachian region in both.
The coal boom and bust happened in the 70s and 80s. What we find is that a 10 percent increase in earnings associated with the coal boom led to very similar-sized increases in married birth rates, as it did in the fracking boom: an 8 percent increase in marital birth rates for a 10 percent increase in earnings with the coal boom, and a 12 percent increase in married birth rates associated with the fracking boom. But the nonmarital birth response is very different: a 10 percent increase in earnings associated with the coal boom actually led to a reduction in nonmarital births. But a 12 percent increase in nonmarital births with a 10 percent increase in earnings associated with fracking. That’s where the response differed.
In the earlier period, when earnings increased associated with the coal boom, marriage increased. And as we’ve been saying, there’s no increase with the fracking boom. ...
In the 70s and 80s, very few births were outside of marriage and there was a social stigma associated with nonmarried births. And so, in the 70s and 80s, when you got more income, it looks like you had more births but only if you were married. Now, we’re at a period where nonmarital births are extremely common among less-educated populations. Now, what we see is if you get more income you have more babies. Right? But it doesn’t matter whether you’re married or not. That’s a real difference.
--Freakonomics Radio on the importance of norms

Romantic kissing doesn't exist in 54% of human cultures

...a recent article in American Anthropologist by Jankowiak, Volsche and Garcia questions the notion that romantic kissing is a human universal by conducting a broad cross cultural survey to document the existence or non-existence of the romantic-sexual kiss around the world.

The authors based their research on a set of 168 cultures compiled from eHRAF World Cultures (128 cultures) as well as the Standard Cross Cultural Sample (27 cultures) and by surveying 88 ethnographers (13 cultures). The report’s findings are intriguing: rather than an overwhelming popularity of romantic smooching, the global ethnographic evidence suggests that it is common in only 46% (77) of the cultures sampled. The remaining 54% (91) of cultures had no evidence of romantic kissing. In short, this new research concludes that romantic-sexual kissing is not as universal as we might presume.

The report also reveals that romantic kissing is most common in the Middle East and Asia, and least common of all among Central American cultures. Similarly, the authors state that “no ethnographer working with Sub-Saharan African, New Guinea, or Amazonian foragers or horticulturalists reported having witnessed any occasion in which their study populations engaged in a romantic–sexual kiss”, whereas it is nearly ubiquitous in northern Asia and North America. ...

Overall, we found that the perception of romantic kissing in non-kissing societies ranges from simple disinterest or amusement to total disgust.

Among the indigenous Tapirapé people of Central Brazil, Wagley (1977) found that “couples showed affection”, but “kissing seems to have been unknown”. He explains,
When I described it to them, it struck them as a strange form of showing physical attraction … and, in a way, disgusting.
...

Across the Pacific Ocean in Melanesia, Bronislaw Malinowski’s (1929: 330) classic account describes the impression of kissing among Trobriand Islanders, who were equally bemused by the foreign custom:
The natives know, however, that white people “will sit, will press mouth against mouth–they are pleased with it.” But they regard it as a rather insipid and silly form of amusement.
The Tsonga people of Southern Africa are also openly disgusted by the practice: “Kissing was formerly entirely unknown… When they saw the custom adopted by the Europeans, they said laughingly: “Look at these people! They suck each other! They eat each other’s saliva and dirt!” Even a husband never kissed his wife” (Junod 1927: 353-354).
--Yale Human Relations Area Files on surprisingly non-universal behaviors. HT: Megan McArdle

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Mike Pence is not an outlier on solo dinners with women

Many men and women are wary of a range of one-on-one situations, the poll found. Around a quarter think private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate. Nearly two-thirds say people should take extra caution around members of the opposite sex at work. A majority of women, and nearly half of men, say it’s unacceptable to have dinner or drinks alone with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse. ...

Further, the poll results provide societal context for Vice President Mike Pence’s comment — made in 2002 and resurfaced in a recent profile — that he doesn’t eat alone with any woman other than his wife.

Attitudes reflect a work world shadowed by sexual harassment. In recent news about Uber and Fox News, women see cautionary tales about being alone with men.
--Claire Cain Miller, NYT, on how out of touch the negative press coverage about Pence's personal rule was

Monday, June 26, 2017

You don't like Greek yogurt's taste, just its story

Consider, for instance, the unlikely tale of Chobani, the company that essentially created the Greek yogurt industry in the United States. In 1996, as Chobani’s well-oiled promotional machine will tell you, a Turkish immigrant named Hamdi Ulukaya arrived in the United States with $3,000 in his pocket. Sixteen years later, he was selling $1 billion worth of Greek yogurt by employing refugees from local resettlement centers and extolling the artisanal virtues of Chobani for the body, environment and soul.

This story of authenticity has been essential to Chobani’s success and central to positioning Greek yogurt as an alternative to the sugary concoctions that come from companies like Yoplait. ...

As Chobani grew, Big Yogurt got worried. So Yoplait commissioned a series of focus groups that initially soothed executives’ anxieties: Taste tests revealed that most people disliked Greek yogurt. It was too sour and unfamiliar, the data said. The products’ names were too hard to remember. There was little need, Yoplait executives told one another, for concern.

But as the Greek phenomena gained steam — today, it accounts for more than a third of all yogurt sales in the United States — Yoplait’s studies found an interesting hiccup: Even though people said they disliked Greek yogurt, they kept on trying it, again and again, until they learned to like it. Why? Because, consumers told Yoplait’s researchers, they liked the Chobani story.

Consumers heard that Greek yogurt made it easier to lose weight. (There are 15 grams of sugar in a strawberry Chobani cup; Yoplait’s strawberry has 18.) People said they had heard Chobani was more natural. (Though Chobani does not contain preservatives, other ingredients are similar to those of competitors.)

But the most powerful story, according to current and former Yoplait executives who described their research, was that consumers simply thought Chobani was cool. It was easier to believe it was authentic and healthy because it had an exotic name, a founder who embodied rags-to-riches success and lots of buzz.
--Charles Duhigg, NYT, on ignoring your taste buds

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Remedial failure

Nearly perfect on paper, with résumés packed full of extracurricular activities, [students] seemed increasingly unable to cope with basic setbacks that come with college life: not getting a room assignment they wanted, getting wait-listed for a class or being rejected by clubs.

“We’re not talking about flunking out of pre-med or getting kicked out of college,” Ms. Simmons said. “We’re talking about students showing up in residential life offices distraught and inconsolable when they score less than an A-minus. Ending up in the counseling center after being rejected from a club. Students who are unable to ask for help when they need it, or so fearful of failing that they will avoid taking risks at all.”

Almost a decade ago, faculty at Stanford and Harvard coined the term “failure deprived” to describe what they were observing: the idea that, even as they were ever more outstanding on paper, students seemed unable to cope with simple struggles. “Many of our students just seemed stuck,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of “How to Raise an Adult.”

They soon began connecting the dots: between what they were seeing anecdotally — the lack of coping skills — and what mental health data had shown for some time, including, according to the American College Health Association, an increase in depression and anxiety, overwhelming rates of stress and more demand for counseling services than campuses can keep up with. ...

It was Cornell that, in 2010 after a wave of student suicides, declared that it would be an “obligation of the university” to help students learn life skills. Not long after, Stanford started an initiative called the Resilience Project, in which prominent alumni recounted academic setbacks, recording them on video. “It was an attempt to normalize struggle,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims said.

A consortium of academics soon formed to share resources, and programs have quietly proliferated since then: the Success-Failure Project at Harvard, which features stories of rejection; the Princeton Perspective Project, encouraging conversation about setbacks and struggles; Penn Faces at the University of Pennsylvania, a play on the term used by students to describe those who have mastered the art of appearing happy even when struggling. ...

“For a long time, I think we assumed that this was the stuff that was automatically learned in childhood: that everyone struck out at the baseball diamond or lost the student council race,” said Donna Lisker, Smith’s dean of the college and vice president for student life. “The idea that an 18-year-old doesn’t know how to fail on the one hand sounds preposterous. But I think in many ways we’ve pulled kids away from those natural learning experiences.” ...

Researchers say it’s a complicated interplay of child-rearing and culture: years of helicopter-parenting and micromanaging by anxious parents. “This is the generation that everyone gets a trophy,” said Rebecca Shaw, Smith’s director of residence life. College admissions mania, in which many middle- and upper-class students must navigate what Ms. Simmons calls a “‘Hunger Games’-like mentality” where the preparation starts early, the treadmill never stops and the stakes can feel impossibly high.
--Jessica Bennett, NYT, on the need to let kids fail from time to time

Friday, June 23, 2017

David Ortiz hit .786 in walkoff situations for 1.5 years

Back in 2005 and 2006, when Ortiz came to the plate at Fenway Park with a chance to win the game, he never made an out. That is barely an exaggeration. When I compiled the data for the first version of this post (August 1, 2006), I noted that from the end of the 2004 regular season through July 2006, Ortiz came to the plate 19 times in a walkoff situation - and made only three outs. He had a .786 batting average (11-for-14) with seven home runs and 20 RBI! ...

Of course, the walkoff opportunities listed below tell only a small part of Ortiz's story. But it is a huge part of Big Papi's legend, one that led to Ortiz being dubbed, officially, by the team, as The Greatest Clutch Hitter In Red Sox History.

2003-2016
          PA   AB   H  HR  RBI BB  Walkoffs
2003       7    6   2   1   2   1     2
2004      14   13   5   3   8   1     5
2005       5    3   3   2   5   2     3
2006      10    7   5   3  10   3     5
2007       7    5   1   1   2   1     1
2008       9    5   1   0   0   3     0
2009       3    3   1   1   1   0     1
2010       6    5   1   0   3   1     1
2011       7    5   3   0   0   2     0
2012       3    2   0   0   0   1     0
2013       8    7   1   1   3   1     1
2014      14    8   1   0   0   6     0
2015       6    3   0   0   0   3     0
2016       7    7   3   0   2   0     1
TOTALS   106   79  27  12  36  25    20   (.342 batting average) 
--Allan Wood, Joy of Sox, on Mr. Clutch

Babies who never cry

The creepiest sound I have ever heard was nothing at all. My wife, Maria, and I stood in the hallway of an orphanage somewhere in the former Soviet Union, on the first of two trips required for our petition to adopt. Orphanage staff led us down a hallway to greet the two 1-year-olds we hoped would become our sons. The horror wasn’t the squalor and the stench, although we at times stifled the urge to vomit and weep. The horror was the quiet of it all. The place was more silent than a funeral home by night.

I stopped and pulled on Maria’s elbow. “Why is it so quiet? The place is filled with babies.” Both of us compared the stillness with the buzz and punctuated squeals that came from our church nursery back home. Here, if we listened carefully enough, we could hear babies rocking themselves back and forth, the crib slats gently bumping against the walls. These children did not cry, because infants eventually learn to stop crying if no one ever responds to their calls for food, for comfort, for love. No one ever responded to these children. So they stopped.

The silence continued as we entered the boys’ room. Little Sergei (now Timothy) smiled at us, dancing up and down while holding the side of his crib. Little Maxim (now Benjamin) stood straight at attention, regal and czar-like. But neither boy made a sound. We read them books filled with words they couldn’t understand, about saying goodnight to the moon and cows jumping over the same. But there were no cries, no squeals, no groans. Every day we left at the appointed time in the same way we had entered: in silence.

On the last day of the trip, Maria and I arrived at the moment we had dreaded since the minute we received our adoption referral. We had to tell the boys goodbye, as by law we had to return to the United States and wait for the legal paperwork to be completed before returning to pick them up for good. After hugging and kissing them, we walked out into the quiet hallway as Maria shook with tears.

And that’s when we heard the scream.

Little Maxim fell back in his crib and let out a guttural yell. It seemed he knew, maybe for the first time, that he would be heard. On some primal level, he knew he had a father and mother now. ...

Little Maxim’s scream changed everything—more, I think, than did the judge’s verdict and the notarized paperwork. It was the moment, in his recognizing that he would be heard, that he went from being an orphan to being a son. It was also the moment I became a father, in fact if not in law. We both recognized that something was wrong, because suddenly, life as it had been seemed terribly disordered.
--Russell Moore, Adopted for Life, on the goodness of baby cries

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Non-stinky kimchi?

If Western consumers on a health kick can be convinced to drink yeasty, probiotic tea and tart, cultured yogurt, then why wouldn’t they be up for spicy pickled cabbage fermented with garlic for months on end?

Well, that’s the goal of South Korean scientists at the World Institute of Kimchi on Kimchi Street in Kimchi Town, on the outskirts of the southern city of Gwangju.

“We are trying to globalize kimchi,” said Ha Jae-ho, head of the institute, describing it as a “functional food.” ...

Even among kimchi-loving Koreans, many have separate kimchi fridges to stop the dish from tainting other food. If they keep it in their regular fridge, it goes into a vault-like box.

For this reason, scientists are trying to increase the good bacteria — especially the lactic acid that gives kimchi its probiotic qualities — and decrease the bad parts, namely the smell so pungent it can take days to work its way out a person’s pores. ...

In labs at the institute, scientists are working on the distinctive fumes, at least. “We’re trying to engineer the smell out of kimchi,” said Lee Mi-ae, a white-coated researcher. “But it’s difficult because the smell is linked to the flavor of the kimchi.”
--Anna Fifield, Washington Post, on creating a culinary abomination

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Claw machines for toys are rigged

At some point or another you've probably played one of these claw machines, hoping to score the plush toy of your dreams. But despite your skill at perfectly positioning the claw over the prize and activating it, you've found that the pincers just don't grab tightly enough to pick up a stuffed animal.

It's not your imagination. Those claw machines are rigged. ...

Some people think the claw machine is so hard to win because the stuffed animals are packed so tightly together. But the bigger reason is more insidious than that: the claw machine is programmed to have a strong grip only part of the time.

This isn't a closely kept secret. It's publicly available information, pulled straight from the instruction guides for the biggest claw games out there. ...

The machine's owner can fine-tune the strength of the claw beforehand so that it only has a strong grip a fraction of the time that people play.

The owner can manually adjust the "dropping skill," as well. That means that on a given number of tries, the claw will drop a prize that it's grabbed before it delivers it to you.

The machines also allow the owner to select a desired level of profit and then automatically adjust the claw strength to make sure that players are only winning a limited number of times...

This isn't isolated to one claw machine or one company — this is standard practice industry-wide.

Starting in 1951, the machines were regulated as gambling devices, but in 1974, those regulations were relaxed. A claw boom began. Today, they're ubiquitous in grocery stores, malls, and anywhere else with lots of foot traffic.
--Phil Edwards, Vox, on money from suckers. HT: MEL

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Friendliness can come from a genetic disorder

Eli D’Angelo has a superpower: the ability to win over strangers in seconds flat.

I once watched the gregarious 12-year-old approach a scowling man in a leather jacket and chaps as he secured his Harley in a restaurant parking lot. He didn’t look like he was in the mood for conversation, but his expression softened as soon as Eli complimented his bike. When Eli reached out to hug him, he hugged back.

Even more intimidating was the group of teenage girls Eli once greeted at an after-school soccer practice. With smiles and flattery, he talked them into drawing him a picture of a two-headed guitar-playing zombie who shoots laser beams from his eyes. ...

Eli’s superpower is actually a symptom. He has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder sometimes called “cocktail party syndrome” because it makes people extremely outgoing and irrepressibly friendly. When I first heard of the disorder — before I knew much about the intellectual impairments and serious health issues it also entails — I was envious of the apparent social ease it imparted. ...

But Eli violated the standard rules of etiquette more often than he obeyed them. ... Again and again, people forgave Eli’s faux pas and responded instead to the earnestness of his interest in them and the sincerity of his care.

And Eli truly cares about people. He wants to talk to them, hug them, invite them over for a sleepover. He can’t help feeling this way; almost everyone with Williams does. It’s one of the quirks of the disorder, caused by the deletion of about two dozen genes from chromosome seven. The absence of these genes, it seems, produces an insatiable drive to connect with other people. ...

Spending time with Eli, and others with Williams, made me realize that this is the key difference between us: It’s not that they’re not awkward, it’s that they’re not afraid of being awkward. They don’t have the fear of looking foolish that holds many of us back. We’re so terrified of that one-in-100 chance of embarrassment or rejection that we avoid the 99 interactions that are more likely to be fulfilling. ... Lacking that concern, Eli grasped what has long eluded me: that most people aren’t excessively judgmental. They’re quick to forgive. And more often than not, they want to connect.
--Jennifer Latson, New York, on the darnedest genetic influences on behavior

Liberals on immigration a decade ago

A decade ago, liberals publicly questioned immigration in ways that would shock many progressives today.

In 2005, a left-leaning blogger wrote, “Illegal immigration wreaks havoc economically, socially, and culturally; makes a mockery of the rule of law; and is disgraceful just on basic fairness grounds alone.” In 2006, a liberal columnist wrote that “immigration reduces the wages of domestic workers who compete with immigrants” and that “the fiscal burden of low-wage immigrants is also pretty clear.” His conclusion: “We’ll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants.” That same year, a Democratic senator wrote, “When I see Mexican flags waved at proimmigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”

The blogger was Glenn Greenwald. The columnist was Paul Krugman. The senator was Barack Obama.

Prominent liberals didn’t oppose immigration a decade ago. Most acknowledged its benefits to America’s economy and culture. They supported a path to citizenship for the undocumented. Still, they routinely asserted that low-skilled immigrants depressed the wages of low-skilled American workers and strained America’s welfare state. And they were far more likely than liberals today are to acknowledge that, as Krugman put it, “immigration is an intensely painful topic … because it places basic principles in conflict.”

Today, little of that ambivalence remains. In 2008, the Democratic platform called undocumented immigrants “our neighbors.” But it also warned, “We cannot continue to allow people to enter the United States undetected, undocumented, and unchecked,” adding that “those who enter our country’s borders illegally, and those who employ them, disrespect the rule of the law.” By 2016, such language was gone. The party’s platform described America’s immigration system as a problem, but not illegal immigration itself. And it focused almost entirely on the forms of immigration enforcement that Democrats opposed. In its immigration section, the 2008 platform referred three times to people entering the country “illegally.” The immigration section of the 2016 platform didn’t use the word illegal, or any variation of it, at all. ...

In July 2015, two months after officially announcing his candidacy for president, Sanders was interviewed by Ezra Klein, the editor in chief of Vox. Klein asked whether, in order to fight global poverty, the U.S. should consider “sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders.” Sanders reacted with horror. “That’s a Koch brothers proposal,” he scoffed. He went on to insist that “right-wing people in this country would love … an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country.”

...progressive commentators now routinely claim that there’s a near-consensus among economists on immigration’s benefits.

There isn’t. According to a comprehensive new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Groups comparable to … immigrants in terms of their skill may experience a wage reduction as a result of immigration-induced increases in labor supply.” But academics sometimes de-emphasize this wage reduction because, like liberal journalists and politicians, they face pressures to support immigration.
--Peter Beinart, The Atlantic, on why we should be charitable towards our opponents