Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why Tim Tebow is winning

There's no doubt that Tebow's passing accuracy has been spotty at times. At the end of the day, though, he has consistently outplayed the other team's quarterbacks. The problem is that most analysts are limited in their ability to analyze and compare quarterbacks with anything more concrete than the old eye test. Or they look at stats that simply do not matter at the end of the day, such as passing yards, and can't figure out how Tebow is winning games. ...

Enter Cold, Hard Football Facts.com's Real Quarterback Rating, which we introduced over the summer and which has quickly proven itself the most important indicator in football outside of final score. ...

Tebow's Broncos are winning because he consistently outperforms the opposing quarterback when you take into account all aspects of production: passing, running, sacks, total touchdowns, interceptions and fumbles. In fact, he consistently outperforms them by a wide margin. ...

There are two underlying reasons why Tebow is so effective, two reasons that explain his impressive Real Quarterback Rating week after week.

1. He gets the ball in the end zone more often than any QB in football today
2. He protects the football better than any QB in football today

...

Career percentage of touches that result in a TD:
Tim Tebow -- 6.0 percent
Aaron Rodgers -- 5.7 percent
Peyton Manning -- 5.5 percent
Tom Brady -- 5.1 percent
Drew Brees -- 4.7 percent
John Elway -- 3.9 percent

...

Career interception percentage:
Tim Tebow -- 1.78 percent
Aaron Rodgers -- 1.83 percent
Tom Brady -- 2.2 percent
Drew Brees -- 2.71 percent
Peyton Manning -- 2.75 percent
John Elway -- 3.1 percent
--Kerry Byrne, Sports Illustrated, on Tebow's magic

Monday, November 28, 2011

Jeff Sachs's Millennium Villages Project not looking good

A remarkable study reached the public last week. It is the first independent, rigorous, firsthand evaluation of the Millennium Villages Project (MVP), an effort by the United Nations and Columbia University whose admirable goal was to show that “the poorest regions of rural Africa can lift themselves out of extreme poverty in five year’s time.” The new study shows that the MVP is far from reaching that goal at its flagship site

Working on her own, without the collaboration or endorsement of the MVP, Kenyan economist Bernadette Wanjala of Tilburg University collected data on households in or near the site at Sauri, Kenya, where the project was launched in 2005. She interviewed 236 randomly-selected households that had been exposed to the MVP’s large package of agriculture projects, education programs, infrastructure improvements, and health/sanitation works. She also interviewed 175 randomly-selected households from an area of the same district (called Gem) that was not exposed to the intervention. ...

In their just-released paper, Wanjala and her colleague Roldan Muradian of Radboud University use the new survey data to measure the project’s impact on poverty. They carefully compare treated and untreated households that were otherwise similar in many ways—such as household composition, adults’ education, fertility, economic sector, and land holdings. Because this project is large and intensive, spending on the order of 100% of local income per capita, it is reasonable to hope that it might substantially raise recipients’ incomes, at least in the short term.

Wanjala and Muradian find that the project had no significant impact on recipients’ incomes.

How is this possible? While Wanjala and Muradian find that the project caused a 70% increase in agricultural productivity among the treated households, tending to increase household income, it also caused less diversification of household economic activity into profitable non-farm employment, tending to decrease household income. These countervailing effects are precisely what one might expect from a large and intensive subsidy to agricultural activity. On balance, households that received this large and intensive intervention have no more income today than households that did not receive the intervention.
 --Michael Clemens, Center for Global Development, on another big-push development failure. HT: Marginal Revolution


UPDATE: See a skeptical appraisal of the Muradian and Wanjala paper by Chris Blattman here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Being consistent in anti-materialism

Though less openly contemptuous of the spendthrift masses than many of his fellow scolds, [Baylor marketing professor James A. Roberts] still exudes that particular sanctimonious anti-materialism so often found among modestly remunerated professors and journalists.

Here are some of the things that upset him and that "document our preoccupation with status consumption": Lucky Jeans, bling, Hummers, iPhones, 52-inch plasma televisions, purebred lapdogs, McMansions, expensive rims for your tires, couture, Gulfstream jets and Abercrombie & Fitch. This is a fairly accurate list of the aspirational consumption patterns of a class of folks that my Upper West Side neighbors used to refer to as "these people," usually while discussing their voting habits or taste in talk radio. As with most such books, considerably less space is devoted to the extravagant excesses of European travel, arts-enrichment programs or collecting first editions.

One of the running themes of the economist Robin Hanson's excellent blog is that arguments like the ones found in these books are actually an elite-status proxy war. They denigrate the one measure of high-visibility achievement—income—that public intellectuals don't do very well on. Reading "Shiny Objects," you get the feeling that he is onto something.

Consider the matter of status competition. Mr. Roberts, like so many before him, argues that conspicuous consumption is an unhappy zero-sum game. But this is of course true of most forms of competition: Most academics I know can rank-order everyone in the room at a professional conference with the speed and precision of a courtier at Versailles. Any competition, from looks to money to academic credentialing, both consumes a lot of resources and makes many of the participants feel bad about themselves. Why, then, does the literature on status competition always tell us that we should redistribute capital gains or inheritances and never tell us that we should redistribute academic chairs or book contracts? 
--Megan McArdle, WSJ, on the need for a more coherent philosophy of good consumption

Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Friday is for suckers

Oren Etzioni writes articles about artificial intelligence for scholarly journals, is a renowned expert on data mining and gained fame when Microsoft paid $115 million for Farecast, an airline-ticket price predictor he founded.

Now, Professor Etzioni, who teaches computer science at the University of Washington, has directed his considerable intellect at the American ritual of shopping for bargains on Black Friday. After examining billions of prices of consumer electronics, he has decided to spend the busiest shopping day of the year scuba-diving in Bali. 

Why? It is not until early December, Professor Etzioni’s research shows, that prices are likely to be the lowest for electronics, products that are among the biggest sellers on the Friday after Thanksgiving. ...

Following the approach of Farecast, now part of Microsoft’s Bing search engine, the professor’s start-up company, Decide.com, studies current and historical prices, information about new models and rumors about new product introductions to figure out the best time to buy.

Type in the name of a product — a Soundcast SurroundCast speaker system, for instance. Decide.com will pull prices from around the Web, and tell you to buy or wait.
--Stephanie Clifford, NYT, on the reality of Black Friday

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Your low GPA is a disease

The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (most commonly known by the abbreviation ICD) is a medical classification that provides codes to classify diseases and a wide variety of signs, symptoms, abnormal findings, complaints, social circumstances, and external causes of injury or disease. ...

The International Classification of Diseases is published by the World Health Organization (WHO) and used worldwide for morbidity and mortality statistics, reimbursement systems, and automated decision support in medicine.
--Wikipedia


ICD-9 code 313.83: Academic underachievement disorder
--The official WHO proclamation that that A-minus is a disease

God and the Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln told his cabinet he was going to promulgate the Emancipation Proclamation because God had told him to. They were a little taken aback that God had started talking to Lincoln at this late date, but went along.
--David Brooks, NYT, on messages from God

Manipulating the Big Mac Index

At a recently renovated mall in the upscale Recoleta neighborhood [of Buenos Aires], the McDonald’s is immaculate. ...

But reading the brightly lit menu behind the cash register, it appears that something missing: The Big Mac. McDonald’s signature sandwich is not prominently advertised. Down the hall toward the bathroom there is a price list that includes a picture of the Big Mac down near the bottom.

Why is McDonald’s downplaying the world’s most famous burger? ...

At 20 pesos, the individual Big Mac is at least 4.50 pesos cheaper than the list price of comparable options. ...

The relatively inexpensive Big Mac has become an open secret in Argentina, spurred by media attention and discussions on social networks. It is being used as Exhibit A by government critics to explain how the government pressures businesses to keep certain prices frozen and manipulates economic statistics in its interest. There is widespread speculation that the government is trying to influence The Economist’s famous Big Mac Index, a “lighthearted” guide that compares burger prices across the globe to determine whether a currency is under- or over-valued. ...

And downplaying the Big Mac would seem to be McDonald’s way of selling as few as possible. ...

The national statistics agency says the inflation for the 12 months through October was 9.7 percent. But private economists insist the real figure is more than double that number. Independent experts agree the widely discredited government statistics agency has been fudging consumer-price data for years for political gain and, to a lesser extent, to lower inflation-linked debt payments.
--Daniel Politi, International Herald Tribune, on the price of being a signature global commodity

Another unsustainable Baby Boomer practice

When my parents married in 1977, women’s liberation was in full swing and my mother was a consciousness-raiser. She was about as likely to take my father’s name as she was to sport a veil at the wedding. She would remain Ms. Tuhus. Nine months later, the surname for their new baby (me) was self-evident. My parents yoked their names into a new one: Tuhus-Dubrow. ...

The problem, of course, is that this naming practice is unsustainable. (Growing up, I constantly fielded the question, “What will you do if you marry someone else with two last names? Will your kids have four names?”) Like many of the baby boomers’ utopian impulses, it eventually had to run up against practical constraints. ...

What did our parents expect us to do when we reached this stage of our lives? They trusted it would all work out somehow. As Ms. Segal-Reichlin’s parents told her, “We figured that was your problem.”
--Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, NYT, on another generational buck-passing

The 102,000 cupcake Groupon nightmare

Let this be yet another warning to small business owners everywhere: London baker Rachel Brown was recently forced to bake over 100,000 cupcakes for Groupon customers, and ended up losing about $3 on each batch.
--Sarah Jacobsson Purewal, PC World, on losing money on every order but making it up in volume

Need a Cake offered a deal of 12 cupcakes with a choice of flavours and designs for £6.50, which would normally cost £26. It received 8,500 requests as a result, substantially more than its usual production level of about 100 a month.

The company, which employs eight people, had to bring in agency staff to try to meet the upsurge in demand.

Ms Brown estimates the extra costs of staff and distribution could be up to £12,500, wiping out profits for the year.
--BBC

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

U.S. Congress: Still better than South Korea's parliament

South Korea's ruling party forced a long-stalled free trade deal with the United States through parliament Tuesday, enraging opposition lawmakers who blasted their political rivals with tear gas.

South Korean lawmakers voted 151 to 7 in favor of ratifying the landmark trade agreement in a surprise legislative session called by the ruling Grand National Party, parliamentary officials said.

Shouts and screams filled the National Assembly as ruling party lawmakers forced their way onto the parliamentary floor. Amid the scuffling, one opposition lawmaker doused rivals with tear gas.

Security guards hustled him out of the chamber as he shouted and tried to resist. Outside the National Assembly building, opponents of the deal scuffled with police mobilized to maintain order.
--Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press, on extreme politics. HT: New York Daily Intel

Monday, November 21, 2011

Where the GOP outposts ain't

As it turns out, however, evangelical churches are arguably the least-politicized of all the major churches.  At a recent meeting of the excellent Faith Angle Forum, David Campbell, author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, presented his updated research.  When asked whether they heard sermons on political or social issues once a month or more, here is how America’s major religious groups responded:
  • Jewish: 41.4%
  • Non-affiliated: 30.5%
  • Black Protestant: 29.6%
  • Catholic: 20.7%
  • Mainline Protestant: 16%
  • Evangelical: 13.7% 
--Timothy Dalrymple, Philosophical Fragments, on where the campaigning is

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Convex returns to IQ

Research has shown that intellectual ability matters for success in many fields — and not just up to a point.

Exhibit A is a landmark study of intellectually precocious youths directed by the Vanderbilt University researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow. They and their colleagues tracked the educational and occupational accomplishments of more than 2,000 people who as part of a youth talent search scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by the age of 13. (Scores on the SAT correlate so highly with I.Q. that the psychologist Howard Gardner described it as a “thinly disguised” intelligence test.) The remarkable finding of their study is that, compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile — the profoundly gifted — were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.

In our own recent research, we have discovered that “working memory capacity,” a core component of intellectual ability, predicts success in a wide variety of complex activities. In one study, we assessed the practice habits of pianists and then gauged their working memory capacity, which is measured by having a person try to remember information (like a list of random digits) while performing another task. We then had the pianists sight read pieces of music without preparation. ...

In fact, the total amount of practice the pianists had accumulated in their piano careers accounted for nearly half of the performance differences across participants. But working memory capacity made a statistically significant contribution as well (about 7 percent, a medium-size effect).
--David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz, NYT, on predicting the futures of CTY nerds


 --Figure 1 from "Beyond the Threshold Hypothesis: Even Among the Gifted and Top Math/Science Graduate Students, Cognitive Abilities, Vocational Interests, and Lifestyle Preferences Matter for Career Choice, Performance, and Persistence," by Kimberly Ferriman Robertson, Stijn Smeets, David Lubinski, and Camilla P. Benbow

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Adam Smith on maturity

[Adam] Smith also talks about a selfish passion [in Theory of Moral Sentiments], which is a desire for praise. He argues that people instinctively desire praise, but that, as they mature, this feeling develops into a desire for praiseworthiness. This is a little bit different, and I haven’t seen it written about anywhere else. He points out that, suppose you were praised for something that you knew you didn’t do: It was a mistake, people thought you did something, so they’re praising you, but in fact you didn’t do it. It wouldn’t be such a good feeling – even if you could keep the lie going, and continue to receive the praise. He uses that to show that what people really want is to be deservedly praised. And that turn of mind, which develops as people mature, is what makes us into people with integrity.

I think this underlies how the economy works. We start out with selfish feelings, which are intermixed with feelings of empathy for others, and then we develop this mature desire to be praiseworthy. I think it is central to our civilisation that people do that. Adam Smith uses the example of mathematicians. Mathematicians seem to be, in his observation, totally unconcerned with popular praise. That’s because they know they’re doing good work in their mathematics, but also that the public will never appreciate them for what they do. They live in relative poverty, and they don’t seem to care about praise, except from their fellow mathematicians. And yet they’re doing all of this work which benefits humanity. This is something that happens in our society, and it makes the system work. He doesn’t go on, in this book, to explain how this develops into something that works. But this does mark the beginning of the thought process leading to his later book, The Wealth of Nations, in 1776.
--Robert Shiller, The Browser, on praiseworthiness as a building block of civilization

Bad fMRI research

Consider an op-ed piece recently published in the New York Times, which used fMRI results to demonstrate, purportedly, that people "literally love their iPhones." The evidence? When the researchers showed subjects a video of a ringing cellphone, a part of the brain called the insula exhibited a spike in activity. Because previous studies have linked the insula with feelings of love, the authors concluded that the gadget had become a "romantic rival" for husbands and wives.

But here's the problem: The insula is also activated by feelings of disgust and bodily pain. It plays an important role in coordinating hand movement, maintaining balance and monitoring bodily changes. In fact, activity in the insula has been implicated in nearly a third of all fMRI papers. Because the brain is such a vast knot of connections, it's often impossible to understand what's happening based on local patterns of activity. Perhaps we're disgusted by our iPhones, or maybe the insula is just preparing the fingers to move. The pretty picture can't reveal the answer.

What's worse, the very fact that we're looking at a brain scan seems to inhibit our critical thinking. Deena Skolnick Weisberg, a psychologist at Temple University, has demonstrated that merely referencing fMRI research can bias the evaluation of scientific papers.

When she gave neuroscience students and ordinary adults a few examples of obviously flawed scientific explanations, people were consistently able to find the flaws. However, when these same explanations were prefaced with the phrase "Brain scans indicate," both the students and adults became much less critical.
--Jonah Lehrer, WSJ, on overinterpreting brain scans. HT: Franklin Shaddy

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Where to become a firefighter or police officer

According to figures from the [San Francisco] city controller’s office, uniformed police earned average annual wages and benefits last year of $166,607 per officer. Firefighters fared even better, earning an average total compensation of $178,732.
--Judith Miller, City Journal, on the cost of protection in San Francisco. HT: ACT

Monday, November 7, 2011

Preparations for the Victoria's Secret fashion show

So here's what it really takes to be an Angel: [Adriana] Lima, 30, has been working out every day with a personal trainer since August. For the last three weeks, she's been working out twice a day.

"It is really intense, it's not really the amount of time you spend working out, it's the intensity: I jump rope, I do boxing, I lift weights, but I get bored doing that. If I am not moving I get bored very easily."

She sees a nutritionist, who has measured her body's muscle mass, fat ratio and levels of water retention. He prescribes protein shakes, vitamins and supplements to keep Lima's energy levels up during this training period. Lima drinks a gallon of water a day. For nine days before the show, she will drink only protein shakes - "no solids". The concoctions include powdered egg. Two days before the show, she will abstain from the daily gallon of water, and "just drink normally". Then, 12 hours before the show, she will stop drinking entirely.

"No liquids at all so you dry out, sometimes you can lose up to eight pounds just from that," she says.
--Melissa Whitworth, Telegraph, on supermodels not always looking like that

Louis' Lunch did not invent the hamburger

Louis' Lunch, the venerable New Haven lunch counter, is renowned for its tasty burgers (more than 90 percent lean, freshly ground every day, and broiled in antique cast-iron grills.) Unfortunately Louis' partisans have not been content to boast of its excellent food but have gone on to make an erroneous historical claim: that founder Louis Lassen invented the hamburger in 1900. This assertion has gained such a strong foothold in American pseudo-history that the New York Times has repeated it at least 13 times.

Barry Popik disproved this myth some years ago when he discovered the following passage in an 1873 issue of the Times: "We can have a Hamburger steak, which is simply a beefsteak redeemed from its original toughness by being mashed into mince-meat and then formed into a conglomerated mass."

Even Louis' own contention, which is more limited--that in 1900 Lassen became the first to put bread around a beef patty, thereby inventing the "hamburger sandwich"--falls before Popik's evidence. On October 22, 1896, the Kansas City Star noted: "Rare beefsteak chopped fine and seasoned with salt and pepper is an excellent filling for sandwiches." The Reno Evening Gazette, August 25, 1893, wrote of "Tom Fraker's celebrated Hamburger steak sandwiches." And earliest of all, on July 19, 1881, one of New Haven's own local papers--the Evening Register--mentioned a "chopped beef sandwich." Louis' Lunch's burgers may be the best. But clearly they were not the first.
--Fred R. Shapiro, Yale Alumni Magazine, on possibly best but definitely not first

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Admissions officers' adventures in China

Zinch China, a consulting company that advises American colleges and universities about China, last year published a report based on interviews with 250 Beijing high school students bound for the United States, their parents, and a dozen agents and admissions consultants. The company concluded that 90 percent of Chinese applicants submit false recommendations, 70 percent have other people write their personal essays, 50 percent have forged high school transcripts and 10 percent list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive. The “tide of application fraud,” the report predicted, will likely only worsen as more students go to America.
--Tom Bartlett and Karen Fischer, NYT, on the Chinese applicant jungle

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The shoddiness of psychology research

In a survey of more than 2,000 American psychologists scheduled to be published this year, Leslie John of Harvard Business School and two colleagues found that 70 percent had acknowledged, anonymously, to cutting some corners in reporting data. About a third said they had reported an unexpected finding as predicted from the start, and about 1 percent admitted to falsifying data.

Also common is a self-serving statistical sloppiness. In an analysis published this year, Dr. Wicherts and Marjan Bakker, also at the University of Amsterdam, searched a random sample of 281 psychology papers for statistical errors. They found that about half of the papers in high-end journals contained some statistical error, and that about 15 percent of all papers had at least one error that changed a reported finding — almost always in opposition to the authors’ hypothesis. 
--Benedict Carey, NYT, on warranted skepticism about psychology research results