Saturday, May 28, 2011

Poverty Is Not a Lack of Stuff

If America is rich, then what does it mean to be poor?

They don't need our money, they need our relationships and connections. From local minister (and recent Mister Diplomat guest) Hugh Hollowell.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Late-May '11 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.

Economic Strategy to Fight Protesters

I've always been skeptical of the benefits of protesting as a way to shout your vote. The infamous Westboro Baptist Church, as I've shared before, is a great example of protest gone bad. This may be the best strategy to get rid of them:
Comedy’s Lovable Queen of Mean Lisa Lampanelli made good on her promise to donate $1,000 to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis for every Westboro Baptist Church member who showed up to protest her recent stand-up show in Topeka, taking to Twitter after the show to say “Thanks to these a-holes, $44,000 will be donated to the GMHC!!!” 
She later bumped it up by $6k, tweeting “WBC inbreds counted 48 protesters, so I won’t quibble. I’ll make it an even $50,000!!!” 
Best part? The donation will be made in the hate group’s name. Thanks WBC!
Apparently this strategy has also worked for Planned Parenthood.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Worthwhile Sentences on Interventionism

From Mark Zuckerberg: "A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa."

From Tate Watkins: "What if an international peacekeeping force had descended into Charleston after Confederate troops bombarded Fort Sumter?"

From Planet Money: "Has any single human being, either directly or indirectly, cost the United States more money than Osama bin Laden?"

From John Mueller and Mark Stewart: "The cumulative increase in expenditures on US domestic homeland security over the decade since 9/11 exceeds one trillion dollars."

From Paul Valery: “Two dangers constantly threaten the world: order and disorder.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How to Tie Your Shoes

Maybe the most practical TED Talk I've ever listened to.

I've since changed the way I tie my shoes.

What I Get Out of Blogging

Last year I did my best to describe why blogging is great for everyone. One of the first benefits I mentioned was how useful it is as a learning/memory tool. Justin Landwehr recently made list of what I'd like to call six reasons why blogging helps you remember what you read:
#1. Write them down. There is a Big increase in retention from doing this. And handwriting seems to be more effective than typing.

#2. Question them. Or have others question them. I remember ideas much better when I have given them a mental colonoscopy.

#3. Re-visit them. This chart was huge in helping me understand how memory works:
(Accompanying article in WIRED, 4/21/08)
My approach is to type up all the ideas from my notebook, typically about 3 months after they were originally written. I have also experimented with a program called Mnemosyne that is like a flash-card program based on this memory principle. I found that it did increase retention, but not so much that I felt compelled to go out of my way to use the program.

#4. Explicitly connect them to other ideas. Based on my experience, this is significantly more effective than re-visiting. I do both, but I find that the ones that are explicitly connected to other ideas I remember more clearly and for a longer time.

This is a really important point that often goes overlooked: Ideas need other ideas to tell them what they mean.

#5. Give them an intuitive place in your mind. Organize them into “chapters”. Memory champions do things like organize ideas into an imagined hotel or landscape.

#6. Explain it to someone. Bonus points if it’s someone who will scrutinize the idea. Double bonus points if it’s someone you respect.
I'm actually kind of curious how non-bloggers remember anything they read.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Imaginary Friends May Make Children More Moral

It's obvious that we are less likely to cheat when people are watching. But it's also true if false eyes are watching:
conducted a field experiment demonstrating that merely hanging up posters of staring human eyes is enough to significantly change people’s behavior. Over the course of 32 days, the scientists spent many hours recording customer’s “littering behavior” in their university’s main cafeteria, counting the number of people that cleaned up after themselves after they had finished their meals. In their study, the researchers determined the effect of the eyes on individual behavior by controlling for several conditions (e.g. posters with a corresponding verbal text, without any text, male versus female faces, posters of something unrelated like flowers, etc). The posters were hung at eye-level and every day the location of each poster was randomly determined. The researchers found that during periods when the posters of eyes, instead of flowers, overlooked the diners, twice as many people cleaned up after themselves.
Similarly, in children, it works if invisible eyes are watching:
Two child groups (5–6 and 8–9 years of age) participated in a challenging rule-following task while they were (a) told that they were in the presence of a watchful invisible person (“Princess Alice”), (b) observed by a real adult, or (c) unsupervised. Children were covertly videotaped performing the task in the experimenter’s absence. Older children had an easier time at following the rules but engaged in equal levels of purposeful cheating as the younger children. Importantly, children’s expressed belief in the invisible person significantly determined their cheating latency, and this was true even after controlling for individual differences in temperament.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Stimulus Package Didn't Work

I've have discussed the stimulus package a lot. Here's the closing data:
Our benchmark point estimates suggest the Act created/saved 450 thousand government-
sector jobs and destroyed/forestalled one million private sector jobs. The large majority of
destroyed/forestalled jobs are in a subset of the private service sector comprised of health,
(private) education, professional and business services, which we term HELP services.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Difference Between Humans and Animals, Part XXIII

Dirty dancing edition:
Before I break your heart with a magnificent demonstration of naked, forlorn, magnificent passion, I should tell you a thing or two about the male jumping spider.

These spiders dance when they woo. Here's a quick, silent introduction showing their basic moves: We start with a flourish of side-to-side quicksteps, then two front legs are fully (and repeatedly) extended like a referee signaling "touchdown!"...
Here's the video evidence (background music added):

Like a human dance club, this dance has high stakes:
This, apparently, is what spider ladies like. The more the male spider shakes, vibrates and extends, the more the female will consent to copulate. I don't know if that "leg snap" thing is the move that gets them over the top, but males who have been "muted" (waxed so they can't dance) frequently get eaten by their intendeds. So if you're a male jumping spider, it's best to dance your heart out.
Here's a more detailed description of the entire research and experiment and here's an article from The Guardian teaching you how to improve your own lady-getting dance moves.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

How Advertisers "Trick" Consumers

I've been skeptical about the benefits of advertising, but I've never bought the idea of how they fool us. Yet our memory can fool our brains. I never could articulate the connection, until now:
One way advertisers convince us to buy something is to remind us that we’ve enjoyed their product before. Unfortunately, we can have fond memories of a product that we’ve never even had. Or that doesn’t even exist.

A hundred volunteers looked at print ads for Orville Redenbacher's "Gourmet Fresh" popcorn—a variety that researchers made up. Some subjects saw an ad with a vivid description of the brand's “big white fluffy kernels." Others saw a less evocative ad.

A week later, subjects who saw the vivid ad were twice as likely to believe they'd tried this fictional product as were subjects who saw the plain ad. In fact, the believers were as confident that they had tried the popcorn as were people who actually ate popcorn after seeing the fake ads.
Add this to my battle against self-verification.

Friday, May 20, 2011

How Hurricane Katrina Helped Ex-cons

They were forced to leave "home":
Ex-prisoners tend to be geographically concentrated in a relatively small number of neighborhoods within the most resource deprived sections of metropolitan areas. Furthermore, many prisoners return “home” to the same criminogenic environment with the same criminal opportunities and criminal peers that proved so detrimental prior to incarceration. Yet estimating the causal impact of place of residence on the likelihood of recidivism is complicated by the issue of selection bias. In this study, I use a natural experiment as a means of addressing the selection issue and examine whether the migration of ex-prisoners away from their former place of residence will lead to lower levels of recidivism. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Louisiana Gulf Coast, damaging many of the neighborhoods where ex-prisoners typically reside. The residential destruction resulting from Hurricane Katrina is an exogenous source of variation that influences where a parolee will reside upon release from prison. Findings reveal that moving away from former geographic areas substantially lowers a parolee's likelihood of re-incarceration.
Yet many states force prisoners to stay.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Brookie Dictionary: Complaintment

com-plaint-ment [kəm-ˈplānt-mənt] (n) - an expression of respect, affection, or admiration; which also contains an expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction

Example: "Thanks for doing the dishes, you haven't done that in a long time!"

Here's my first Brookie Dictionary word, Treason.

Economics of Skirts

Good times equal small skirts:
Urban legend has it that the hemline is correlated with the economy. In times of decline, the hemline moves towards the floor (decreases), and when the economy is booming, skirts get shorter and the hemline increases. We collected monthly data on the hemline, for 1921-2009, and evaluate these against the NBER chronology of the economic cycle. The main finding is that the urban legend holds true but with a time lag of about three years. Hence, the current economic crisis predicts ankle length shirts around 2011 and 2012.
Via Barking up the wrong tree.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Mid-May '11 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.

Time Flies When You're Having Fun/Fear/Fever

Last year I shared how the amount that time flies can make it seem like we are having more fun. Maybe that's because the things that make us happy are usually the things that speed up our internal clock:
Your internal clock is just like that digital watch in some ways. It measures time in what scientists call pulses. Those pulses are accumulated, then stored in your memory as a time interval. Now, here's where things get weird. Your biological clock can be sped up or slowed down anything from drugs to the way you pay attention. If it takes you 60 seconds to cross the street, your internal clock might register that as 50 pulses if you're feeling sleepy. But it might last 100 pulses if you've just drunk an espresso.
So if you're having a good time, just sit back relax (slow your heartbeat) and enjoy it. However, a faster internal clock can also make it seem like time slowed down. In an experiment neuroscientist David Eagleman dropped participants from a SCAD free fall tower. Each person was asked to look at a chronometer when they fell and when they landed and then afterward use a stopwatch to go back over the fall and estimate the feeling of length. Here are the results and explanation:
Eagleman’s subjects overestimate the length of their fall by thirty-six per cent. To his surprise, though, the speed of their perception doesn’t change as they drop: no matter how hard they stare at the chronometer, they can’t read the numbers. “In some sense, that’s more interesting than what we thought was going on,” Eagleman told me. “It suggests that time and memory are so tightly intertwined that they may be impossible to tease apart.”

One of the seats of emotion and memory in the brain is the amygdala, he explained. When something threatens your life, this area seems to kick into overdrive, recording every last detail of the experience. The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. “This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,” Eagleman said—why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.
When your internal clock speeds up, but you are still taking in the same amount of information, sometimes it can actually feel like time slowed down. A pretty good argument to have new experiences later in life (to slow time down). Interestingly enough, being sick can have a similar outcome:
Eagleman traces his research back to psychophysicists in Germany in the late eighteen-hundreds, but his true forefather may be the American physiologist Hudson Hoagland. In the early nineteen-thirties, Hoagland proposed one of the first models for how the brain keeps time, based partly on his wife’s behavior when she had the flu. She complained that he’d been away from her bedside too long, he later recalled, when he’d been gone only a short while. So Hoagland proposed an experiment: she would count off sixty seconds while he timed her with his watch. It’s not hard to imagine her annoyance at this suggestion, or his smugness afterward: when her minute was up, his clock showed thirty-seven seconds. Hoagland went on to repeat the experiment again and again, presumably over his wife’s delirious objections (her fever rose above a hundred and three). The result was one of the classic graphs of time-perception literature: the higher his wife’s temperature, Hoagland found, the shorter her time estimate. Like a racing engine, her mental clock went faster the hotter it got.
Yesterday I tried to figure out whether we should let people know the length of time allotted for good and bad tasks. I think it might depend on what that task does to our internal clock.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Are We There Yet?

Whenever my students are given a task I put a timer on the overhead. That way there is no discrepancy over how long they have been working (or not working). But I've always wondered if I'm making the experience worse or better from their point of view:
"Rather than weakening affective episodes over time, duration knowledge actually intensifies them, rendering a positive experience more pleasurable and a negative experience more aversive," the authors explain.
The authors conducted a field study in a Taiwanese "cram school," an after-school program designed to help middle school students meet academic goals. They told half the students that the session would last 60 minutes and told the other half that the session would be similar to after-hours sessions they had attended in the past (which vary from 30-90 minutes). "The results show that whereas students predicted that duration knowledge would improve their negative experience, in fact it rendered the experience worse."

The authors also conducted a lab experiment where participants listened to 30-second song clips sung either by a pop star or one of the researchers "who sings abominably." They found that people who knew the duration of the experience had more intense reactions in both directions.
Or maybe not:
In subsequent experiments the authors found that counting down during a positive experience weakens the enjoyment of participants but helps improve negative experiences. "Counting down an activity directs attention away from the activity to its end," the authors write.

"Duration knowledge prompts people to consider the state in which the ongoing experience terminates: an undesirable future state for pleasurable experiences and a desirable one for unpleasant experiences," the authors conclude.
I don't know what to believe.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Dirty South Improv Heads to Kenya?

33 seconds in.

Mega hat tip to Justin Wehr.

A Simple Morality Test

If we are more likely to choose the moral choice if the framework is simple, then here's the best tool I've ever heard. From economist and author Steve Levitt: "How would I feel if my daughter were engaged in that activity?" I don't have a daughter, but I bet little sister is a comparable substitute. I can honestly say I wouldn't mind my sisters working at Walmart, playing online poker, marrying interracially, not voting, buying from China, refusing panhandlers, speculating on oil, or smoking legalized pot.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Limits of Moral Math

One concept I come back to regular is moral math. The idea that we are constantly calculating how good/bad we can/should be. Perhaps there are limits to how much we are willing to sacrifice to feel moral. Here's an environmental example:
For those students for whom the environment was not important to their self-esteem, receiving negative feedback on the ecological footprint questionnaire actually prompted them to be less likely to write to their politician about environmental issues (relative to the students who received positive feedback about their footprint). In other words, for people who aren't green minded, alarming feedback on a footprint questionnaire can actually make them less sympathetic to green causes.
it's been shown that if changing their behaviour seems too difficult, many people change their attitudes instead, in this case ditching their pro-environmental beliefs (as a way to reduce what's known as 'cognitive dissonance', which is when there's a mismatch between our attitudes and behaviour).
But we can combat this by actively writing down our intentions:
The researcher found that the percentage of people who agreed to volunteer didn't differ as a function of whether the instructions invited active or passive responding. Yet there was quite an astonishing difference in the percentage of people who actually showed up to participate in the project several days later. Of those who agreed to participate passively, only 17 percent actually appeared as promised. What about those who agreed to participate through active means? Of those, 49 percent kept their promises. In all, the clear majority of those who appeared as scheduled (74 percent) were those who had actively agreed to volunteer for the program.
On the first day of class I ask my students to write down and get signed by a parent their desired/expected grades. Now I just need to find a way to make them not discount it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Osama bin Laden Never Scared Me

Last night I came across part of an episode of This American Life. It's a conversation with a college student, Lexi Belculfine, who was one of thousands of Penn State students who took to the streets in celebration after announcement of Osama bin Laden's death. This celebration is something the interviewer, and myself, have struggled to understand. The student explained that people currently under thirty experienced 9/11 in a very different way than people over thirty today. To them bin Laden was the boogeyman who convinced a generation that they weren't as safe as their parents said they were.

I'm under thirty and I didn't have that reaction. When my wife called me and told me they found Osama bin Laden, I couldn't wait to watch the trial. To see what I saw when they captured Saddam Hussein. A sad old man who lived in a hole with his tired eyes and shabby beard. But when my wife called me the second time to say they killed him I was a little disheartened. I didn't understand why until I listened to the Penn State student's story. Unlike Lexi, I was never scared of bin Laden. I think it's a combination of 1) being in a mid-sized southern town, far away from NYC, DC, and the eyes of terrorists and 2) my general lack of empathy. For me, 9/11 was sad, in the same way the earthquake in Haiti was sad and the tsunami in Japan was sad.

And I wanted that for everyone else. I wanted them to see just how sad, tired, and foolish bin Laden was. I wanted the world, east and west, to agree that he was a terrible man whose plan on 9/11 actually failed miserably at it's goal of getting America to stop meddling the affairs of the Middle East. He was not a shadowy figure, but a self-righteousness propagandist. I'm not convinced the vengeful feelings of satisfaction are helpful. I don't think we should celebrate the death of America's scariest enemy. I think we should recognize that he was never that scary to begin with.

Benign Violation Theory of Humor

Similar to my earlier reality and absurdity post on comedy, professor of psychology Peter McGraw has his own theory:
Their paper, “Benign Violations: Making Immoral Behavior Funny,” cited scores of philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists (as well as Mel Brooks and Carol Burnett). The theory they lay out: “Laughter and amusement result from violations that are simultaneously seen as benign.” That is, they perceive a violation—”of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick, physical deformities), linguistic norms (e.g., unusual accents, malapropisms), social norms (e.g., eating from a sterile bedpan, strange behaviors), and even moral norms (e.g., bestiality, disrespectful behaviors)”—while simultaneously recognizing that the violation doesn’t pose a threat to them or their worldview. The theory is ludicrously, vaporously simple. But extensive field tests revealed nuances, variables that determined exactly how funny a joke was perceived to be.
Here it is in diagram form:

Here's the social explanation:
The ultimate takeaway of McGraw’s paper was that the evolutionary purpose of laughter and amusement is to “signal to the world that a violation is indeed OK.” Building on the work of behavioral neurologist V. S. Ramachandran, McGraw believes that laughter developed as an instinctual way to signal that a threat is actually a false alarm—say, that a rustle in the bushes is the wind, not a saber-toothed tiger. “Organisms that could separate benign violations from real threats benefited greatly,” McGraw says.
Here's how you make a moral violation benign:
Dirty jokes violate social norms in a benign way because the traveling salesmen and farmers’ daughters that populate them are not real. Punch lines make people laugh because they gently violate the expectations that the jokes set up. The BVT also explains Sarah Silverman, McGraw says; the appalling things that come out of her mouth register as benign because she seems so oblivious to their offensiveness, and “because she’s so darn cute.” Even tickling, long a stumbling block for humor theorists, appears to fit. Tickling yourself can’t be a violation, because you can’t take yourself by surprise. Being tickled by a stranger in a trench coat isn’t benign; it’s creepy. Only tickling by someone you know and trust can be a benign violation.
If you want to hear more from Mr. McGraw's own words, here's his TED Talk:

Friday, May 13, 2011

Economic History of Gas Prices

Here's some much needed context:
But in constant 2010 dollars, that 1919 price of gas was $3.14. True, at the moment we’re paying a bit more—about $3.96. However, keep in mind that in 1919 there were 7.58 million motor vehicles on America’s roads. Today, Americans own about 254 million vehicles. That means that gas prices have risen 26 percent since 1919, while US vehicle ownership has risen 3,250 percent. And those vehicles are being driven more intensively than their 1919 counterparts. We now drive 6,800 percent more miles per year than in 1919, while gas prices have stayed pretty much stable.

War is Destruction Not Production

From Tyler Cowen:
Put aside Bob Higgs’s points about restricted consumption, Alexander Field has another angle:
Had trends persisted in the absence of war, employment, TFP, and labor productivity would all likely have been higher in 1942…housing construction was robust and growing in 1939, 1940, and 1941, and when the postwar housing boom emerged with full force in 1946, it took off from where it had been arrested in 1941. Since the failure of residential construction to revive fully was one of the major contributors to the persistence of low private investment spending during the Depression, its signs of revival in the years immediately preceding the war suggest that had peace continued, investment, output, and employment growth would have continued as the economy reapproached capacity.

…There continues to be a popular perception that war is beneficial to an economy, particularly if it does not lead to much physical damaged to the country prosecuting it. The U.S. experience during the Second World War is the typical poster child for this point of view. Detailed research into the effects of armed conflict, however, has usually produced more nuanced interpretations…In that spirit, the research reported in this chapter represents a revisionist approach to the analysis of the Second World War, although one that is not entirely unanticipated.
You can buy Field’s excellent book here and here is my previous post on the work. Here is Kling on Field, very useful.
You can't use scarce resources to blow things up and count that as wealth. Just another reason why GDP isn't the best measure of wealth.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Gross Downtime Product

In my two posts on Tyler Cowen's new ebook, The Great Stagnation, I described a concern (but not crisis) about the possibility of future economic growth. But perhaps even if we don't don't get more productive at work, we are getting more productive at play:
recent advances in technology are actually increasing per-hour productivity by much more than we realize. But then workers are absorbing those gains by goofing off more at their desks, spending their time on Facebook and surfing the web, and completing their tasks only marginally faster than they used to despite much greater productivity. Admit it: the typical white collar office worker under 35 is spending at least a quarter of his or her day on social networking, reading blogs and chatting with friends. Hours worked are shrinking much faster than hours “worked,” and we’re enjoying a lot more leisure time than is reflected in the data.
Maybe this is the solution to our money > time problem.

Worthwhile Sentences on Work

From Sallie James: "Oh sure, you can pass lots of laws to creates jobs. You could pass a law saying we can no longer use computers. You can pass a law saying no more use of heavy earth moving equipment; we should all use spoons."

From Bryan Caplan: "In a society of Einsteins, Einsteins take out the garbage, scrub floors, and wash dishes."

From Tim Ferriss' email auto response: "Thank you for your email. Sadly, it will be deleted. To regain sanity, I am taking a break from e-mail until March. If still relevant, please email me again in the month of March."

From David Brooks: "One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work."

From former UC President Clark Kerr: "The chancellor's job had come to be defined as providing parking for the faculty, sex for the students, and athletics for the alumni."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Dogs of War

U.S. soldier and his dog leap off the ramp of a helicopter

Who would have guessed one of the most interesting stories I came across after the death of Osama bin Laden (great summary) would be about the role of canines in the military:
Dogs have been fighting alongside U.S. soldiers for more than 100 years, seeing combat in the Civil War and World War I. But their service was informal; only in 1942 were canines officially inducted into the U.S. Army. Today, they're a central part of U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- as of early 2010 the U.S. Army had 2,800 active-duty dogs deployed (the largest canine contingent in the world). And these numbers will continue to grow as these dogs become an ever-more-vital military asset.

So it should come as no surprise that among the 79 commandos involved in Operation Neptune Spear that resulted in Osama bin Laden's killing, there was one dog -- the elite of the four-legged variety.
I recommended the who article quoted. It's short, full of great links and more wonderful photographs of humans and their animals.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Economics Of The Jetsons

From blogger Matt Yglesias:
Earlier today, Annie Lowrey drew our attention to the fact that George Jetson enjoyed a nine-hour workweek—thee hours a day, three days a week. Mike Konczal rightly connected this to JM Keynes’ essay on “The Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren” (PDF) highlighting the consequences of a super-abundance of material prosperity.
Here's the economic reality:
Essentially imagine a world in which productivity grows by an average of 2.5 percent per year for the next fifty years and Mr and Mrs Jetson have chosen to take the cumulative 418 percent increase in income by reducing hours worked to one quarter of present-day standards rather than vastly increased consumption.
Here's the most fascinating conclusion:
You can imagine two different equilibria here. One is that maybe with so many people able to comfortable support themselves on nine-hour workweeks, that entertainment is done entirely on an amateur basis. Maybe Jet Screamer earns $0 from his music, and instead works three days a week at a nursing home to earn a living. He performs music because it’s fun and because he enjoys the groupies.
This would work great for someone (like me) with more hobbies than they know what to do with.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Why Fire and Brimstone Works

Here's the study:
People’s desires to see themselves as moral actors can contribute to their striving for and achievement of a sense of self-completeness. The authors use self-completion theory to predict (and show) that recalling one’s own (im)moral behavior leads to compensatory rather than consistent moral action as a way of completing the moral self. In three studies, people who recalled their immoral behavior reported greater participation in moral activities (Study 1), reported stronger prosocial intentions (Study 2), and showed less cheating (Study 3) than people who recalled their moral behavior.
It recalibrates our moral math.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Human Capital or Capital, Comic Book Edition

I recently shared an article about how college debt has just outgrown credit card debt. My general response was that the average $24,000 in college debt doesn't seem that bad, especially if the average starting salary of a college graduate is $48,351. I also know what it's like to pay off school debt in similar income-to-debt proportion above.

But this got me thinking. What's better for an economy, smart people or effective machines? I came across a great thought experiment in this BBC article about Superman. Apparently the last son of Krypton is considering separating himself from the United States. So here's my question, who would be better for US economic growth, Superman (as capital) or his nemesis Lex Luthor (human capital).

In spite of my love for the Man of Steel, I think that Mr. Luthor would be better for long term economic growth. Here's why: Superman is a great asset to any economy. He's super strong, super fast, super everything. He could decrease crime easily. He could do construction is a fraction of the time. He could even help during natural disasters, which we seem to have plenty of recently.

But Superman dies. Although he ages very slowly, he does get older which mean he will eventually die. Lex Luther on the other hand can use his extreme intelligence to create a second Industrial Revolution bring us unimaginable prosperity. This is shown perfectly in my favorite comic book of all time Red Son.

It's a re-imagining of the Superman story as if he was born in Soviet Russia, not the United States. In this alternate storyline Lex Luther (though still power hungry) is the good guy protecting the American way. After Superman is "defeated" (I don't want to spoil too much), Luther goes on to lead America and Earth into great wealth. Whether in comic books or in life, human capital has more long term value than simple capital:
They found that intelligence made a difference in gross domestic product. For each one-point increase in a country's average IQ, the per capita GDP was $229 higher. It made an even bigger difference if the smartest 5 percent of the population got smarter; for every additional IQ point in that group, a country's per capita GDP was $468 higher.
Especially the smartest people:
researchers analyzed test scores from 90 countries and found that the intelligence of the people, particularly the smartest 5 percent, made a big contribution to the strength of their economies.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Why Men's Acheivements are More Public

An article I shared a while back discussed reasons why women are less likely to blog (mostly that women need/want less outside praise for their achievements). I wonder, does this apply to other parts of their life? This study suggests yes:
Two ecologically valid studies involving anticipated public performance offer insight into women's tendencies to avoid placing their abilities under a spotlight. First, in an experimental study, women felt less comfortable than did men and experienced more personal risk when they anticipated that their test scores would be public. Second, in a naturalistic observational setting, students taking an experiential forensic psychology course were required to perform intellectually challenging activities in public. Women displayed more concern about the course requirements than did men, and subsequently dropped the course in disproportionate numbers.
Could this also be why women are less likely to do speak up in my class, pursue leadership positions or do improv?

Friday, May 06, 2011

Difference Between Reality and Absurdity is Comedy

One of the benefits of teaching both adult improv classes (next starting May 16th) classes and children's improv camps (next starting June 20th) is seeing the strengths and weaknesses in both. The obvious difference is in energy. Kids can literally do improv games for 4 hours, run around for an hour at lunch, and be ready for another 4 hours afterward. It's tough to get a solid 3 hours of physical and mental effort out of adults. But below that difference is something deeper.

In a recent NPR story on what makes something funny, improviser Neil Casey from the renowned Death by Roo Roo discusses how patterns, what improvisers call "game", makes us laugh. But what kind of repeated patterns does our brain not only follow, but find amusing? The unexpected reality.

Children love to do absurd scenes. Give them the suggestion of kitchen and they'll be astronauts on sun trying to stop a bacon attack. Give that same suggestion to adults and they'll argue about whether there is too much flour in the cake. Adults love to do boring, often argumentative scenes. They like to play themselves. Where as kids like to play any but. Somewhere in the middle lies the ideal.

The title of this post is a quote from Bill Arnett, the director of the training center at Chicago's most famous improv theater, iO. In every scene we should establish a basic reality, but within that reality there should be a little absurdity. By my own calculation you need 99% real with 1% absurd. It isn't about astronauts fighting bacon. Or adults arguing about flour. But it can't be about married astronauts arguing about who's going to cook breakfast. A normal couple having a normal fight, just in space.

Here's an article the neuroscience behind it. Our brain is always trying to make sense about the present and the future. When those predictions are simultaneously affirmed and surprised, you have comedy. I know what an argument with my wife is like. Check. I don't know what space is like. Check. Let the comedy begin (tonight).

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Worthwhile Sentences on Misconceptions

From Anthony Randazzo: "It means you're not going to buy a home, until you can afford to buy a home. During the housing bubble we didn't see home ownership rates rise. We just saw really cheap quasi-rental...they didn't really ever own that home."

From Larry Summers: "I was struck by the extent to which the U.S. bonds were a flight-to-quality asset even in a global financial crisis in which the United States was at the epicenter."

From Jimmy Kimmel: "I realize that I am ignorant when it comes to this sort of thing, but isn't conducting an orchestra basically air guitar for rich people?"

From Ross Douthat: "The problem is that this isn’t how the President has sold the board to the public: Instead, he’s promised that it will only reduce “unnecessary spending,” which is basically the equivalent of a Republican promising to keep the entitlement system solvent by reducing Medicare fraud."

From Sheldon Richman: "Schools, by their structure, are preparing kids for some sort of authoritarian lifestyle"

From Ladies' Home Journal in 1918: "The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl."

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Only You Can Improve Your Relationships

We all have relationship problems. I've talked about a lack of dedication, giving too much (or too little),  focusing too much on the short-run, sharing too much (or too little), or fostering anger instead of resolving conflict. The pattern in all of those previous posts is what I can do, not what the other person can do. Here's why:
This research examined the consequences of targeting the self versus the partner when trying to improve intimate relationships. As predicted, when participants (N = 160) focused their relationship improvement attempts on changing the partner, individuals reported more negative improvement strategies, lower improvement success, and, in turn, more negative relationship evaluations. Self-focused improvement attempts and participants’ own self-regulation efforts, however, were not associated with more positive relationship evaluations or improvement. Instead, individuals reported more improvement and greater relationship quality when partners were perceived to be engaging in successful self-regulation efforts. The results suggest that targeting the partner may do more harm than good despite that relationship evaluations pivot on whether the partner produces change.
To clarify, trying to change your partner only makes it worse. Trying to change yourself doesn't improve it for you, but it does for your partner. So we should always focus on self improvement and find others who do the same. If you can understand each other, you can love each other.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Economics of Weight Gain

From research on American teenagers:
I found statistically significant estimates, indicating that females gain weight in weaker economic periods and males gain weight in stronger economic periods.
Perhaps male wieght gain is something to be earned and female weight gain is a stress response. Anyone got any other possible explanations?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Motivation as Intellegence

There are clearly different kinds of smart, but I may have missed the most obvious type, motivation. Here are two experiments using IQ tests. In the first they discovered that financial rewards (only $1-10) elicited on average 10 points on the IQ scale of 100. In the second experiment they showed that researchers could predict future success just by measuring how often students looked unmotivated (yawning, heads on the table, or looking around). The researchers suggest that motivation could account for 84% of the differences between years of schooling or ability to find a job. So, "IQ tests are measuring much more than just raw intelligence--they also measure how badly subjects want to succeed both on the test and later in life". Yet another reason to teach patience and motivation in schools.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Early-May '11 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.

Strength as a Entrepreneur

From a Q & A with young professional guidance counselor Penelope Trunk:
What advice would you have for people determined to start their own business despite your warnings?

I went to graduate school for creative writing, and on the first day of school, the professor came in and said, "If there is any other career you can do, you must do it. This is the worst career ever. You make no money, it's high risk, nobody gives you any good feedback, so anyone who can think of anything else to do should get up and leave." I think entrepreneurship is a lot like a career as a creative writer. Relying on supporting a family with your crazy, high-risk idea, and putting all your own money and time into it is insane. So only insane people do it.

Do you really think entrepreneurs are crazy?

There was a great article in the Harvard Business Review that describes how venture capitalists decide who to fund. Venture capitalists are looking for someone who is somewhat crazy—just on the right side of being a psychopath.
Perhaps it's the right thing for me.