Thursday, June 24, 2010

Give breast milk to your driver says fatwa

Gulf News
Riyadh: Saudi women plan to turn a controversial fatwa (religious ruling) to their advantage and launch a campaign to achieve their long-standing demand to drive in this conservative kingdom.

If the demand is not met, the women threatened to follow through the fatwa which allows them to breastfeed their drivers and turn them into their sons.
Breast milk kinship is considered to be as good as a blood relationship in Islam. "A woman can breastfeed a mature man so that he becomes her son. In this way, he can mix with her and her daughters without violating the teachings of Islam," the scholar [Shaikh Abdul Mohsin Bin Nasser Al Obaikan, member of Saudi Council of Senior Scholars and adviser to the king] said.
Another Saudi woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, questioned: "Does Islam allow me to breastfeed a foreign man and prevent me from driving my own car?

"I have not breastfed my own children. How do you expect me to do this with a foreign man? What is this nonsense?" she said.

Another woman said the fatwa should also apply to the husbands who should be breastfed by housemaids. By doing so, all will be brothers and sisters," she said.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Self enforcement of rape law: Markets in everything.

A doctor has invented a female condom with teeth.
Ehlers is distributing the female condoms in the various South African cities where the World Cup soccer games are taking place.

The woman inserts the latex condom like a tampon. Jagged rows of teeth-like hooks line its inside and attach on a man's penis during penetration, Ehlers said.

Once it lodges, only a doctor can remove it -- a procedure Ehlers hopes will be done with authorities on standby to make an arrest.

"It hurts, he cannot pee and walk when it's on," she said. "If he tries to remove it, it will clasp even tighter... however, it doesn't break the skin, and there's no danger of fluid exposure."

How does it deter? How do signal you are wearing one? Since it seems unlike you can signal you are wearing one, do enough females have to use the product for it to have a deterrent effect? What about the free rider problem?

With some adaptation this seems more like a variation on a chastity belt to me.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

An argument for limited government

Mao kills 40 million:
Tombstone took its author, Yang Jisheng, nearly two decades of painstaking research to compile. In two volumes, it gives a minutely chronicled and irrefutable account of the death by starvation of 35-40 million Chinese between 1958 and 1961. It details a tragedy the ruling Communist party has long sought to cover over.

Yang’s epic work was confirmation of what any student of world affairs outside China already knew – that Mao Zedong’s utopian plans to accelerate the establishment of what he called “true Communism” had produced the worst man-made famine in recorded history....

Mao had ordered Chinese farms to be collectivised in the late 1950s and forced many peasants who had once productively grown grain to put their energies into building crude backyard blast furnaces instead. As part of this “Great Leap Forward”, Mao’s acolytes predicted that food production would be doubled, even tripled in a few years and that steel production would soon surpass output in advanced western countries. The new rural communes began reporting whopping, fake harvests to meet Mao’s demand for record grain output. When the government took its share of the grain based on the exaggerated figures, little was left for ordinary people to eat.
But Mao's intentions were good, so it's ok.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Do student evaluations reflect learning?

The buzz this week in academia is over the latest lead article to the flagship economics journal, the Journal of Political Economy. In "Does Professor Quality Matter? Evidence from Random Assignment of Students to Professors" Scott E. Carrell and James E. West use "a unique data that allow us to measure relative student performance in mandatory follow‐on classes."
At the postsecondary level, student evaluations of professors are widely used in faculty promotion and tenure decisions. However, teachers can influence these measures in ways that may reduce actual student learning. Teachers can “teach to the test.” Professors can inflate grades or reduce academic content to elevate student evaluations. Given this, how well do each of these measures correlate with the desired outcome of actual student learning?
...our results indicate that professors who excel at promoting contemporaneous student achievement, on average, harm the subsequent performance of their students in more advanced classes....

Student evaluations are positively correlated with contemporaneous professor value‐added and negatively correlated with follow‐on student achievement. That is, students appear to reward higher grades in the introductory course but punish professors who increase deep learning (introductory course professor value‐added in follow‐on courses). Since many U.S. colleges and universities use student evaluations as a measurement of teaching quality for academic promotion and tenure decisions, this latter finding draws into question the value and accuracy of this practice.
The take away? Use your low student evaluations as evidence of your teaching prowess.

In other related news:

1. In Russia, the 'Ask the Audience' lifeline isn't one that the contestant would often use because the audience often gives wrong answers intentionally to trick the contestants. [

2. At the primary and secondary level where teachers and principles are evaluated by student performance on standardized tests, here is the latest example that
Under Pressure, Teachers Tamper With Tests.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cognitive surplus

It stands to reason that if you're spending time in front of the computer you're not watching TV. At least not with your full attention. Gussy that idea up and you have Cognitive Surplus by the appropriately-named Clay Shirky:
He argues that the television sitcom—those comic soap operas that saturated the airwaves for decades—was the alcohol of post-war societies, "absorbing the lion's share of the free time available to the developed world." (The numbers are depressing: even today, Americans sit through a hundred million hours of TV commercials every weekend.) Instead of fretting about the dislocations of the Information Age, we sat on the couch and watched Gilligan's Island.

But now, Shirky says, the reign of television is coming to an end. For the first time in decades, a few select cohorts of those under the age of 30 seem to be watching less TV than their parents. (Shirky doesn't mention that overall television consumption is still rising. According to Nielsen's media tracking survey, the amount of time the average American spent in front of the tube reached 153 hours per month in 2009, the highest level ever recorded.) But if young people aren't watching quite as many mindless sitcoms, and they're not drunk in the streets, then what the hell are they doing?

They're online, prowling the world wide web. Shirky describes this shift in media consumption as a net "cognitive surplus," since our brain is no longer mesmerized by the boob tube. Needless to say, he describes this surplus as a wonderful opportunity, a chance to get back some of the productive social interactions that were lost when we all decided to watch TV alone.
Doing some of my brain fragmenting surfing the other day I found a very recent Center for Disease Control report entitled Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance --- United States, 2009 in which you will learn that
During 2003--2009, a significant linear increase occurred in the percentage of students who used computers 3 or more hours per day (22.1%--24.9%). During 1999--2009, a significant linear decrease occurred in the percentage of students who watched 3 or more hours per day of television (42.8%--32.8%).
And while we're on the subject of what modern information technology does to us, Tyler Cowen took on the New York Times article that is receiving lots of attention:

Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.

And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.

“The technology is rewiring our brains,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world’s leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.
I've read the piece and I don't yet see the evidence. There are plenty of studies where the experimenter imposes his or her own version of multitasking on the participants and then sees their performance fall.

I'm simply not convinced or even moved in my priors by these studies. ... To sound intentionally petulant, the only multitasking that works for me is mine, mine, mine! Until I see a study showing that self-chosen multi-tasking programs lower performance, I don't see that the needle has budged.

I do see stronger evidence (as cited) that video games make people more aggressive. I also see overwhelming evidence that the internet gets people to read and write more. The latter is probably a good thing. I also believe the internet leads to less interest in long novels and more interest in non-fiction. I won't judge that one, but it's misleading to cite only the decline of interest in long novels and by the way don't forget Harry Potter, the form is hardly dead.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Nail gun makes artist more productive

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Have mercy!

O Canada. Only in Canada.

National Post
Ottawa children’s soccer league has introduced a rule that says any team that wins a game by more than five points will lose by default.

The Gloucester Dragons Recreational Soccer league’s newly implemented edict is intended to dissuade a runaway game in favour of sportsmanship. The rule replaces its five-point mercy regulation, whereby any points scored beyond a five-point differential would not be registered.
According to the league’s new rules, coaches of stronger teams are encouraged to deter runaway games by rotating players out of their usual positions, ensuring players pass the ball around, asking players to kick with the weaker foot, taking players off the field and encouraging players to score from farther away.
...The new rule, suggested by “involved parents,” is a temporary measure that will be replaced by a pre-season skill assessment to make fair teams.
A pre-season skill assessment to make fair teams will be a like a horse race where the winner is the horse that comes in last. There's an incentive not to do your best on the skill assessment in order to be matched

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Is this any way to run an oil rig?

The New York Times has a long article on the extent of ownership and control on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. A snippet:
More than five weeks before disaster, the rig was hit by several sudden pulsations of gas called “kicks” and a pipe had become stuck in the well. The blowout preventer, designed to seal the well in an emergency, had been discovered to be leaking fluids at least three times.

Dealing with these problems required teamwork, a challenge to the throng of different companies with responsibilities on the rig. Of the 126 people present on the day of the explosion, only eight were employees of BP. The interests of the workers did not always align.

In testimony to government investigators, rig workers repeatedly described a “natural conflict” between BP, which can make more money by completing drilling jobs quickly, and Transocean, which receives a leasing fee from BP every day that it continues drilling.

Halliburton was also on hand to provide cementing services, while a subsidiary monitored various drilling fluids. A different company provided drilling fluid systems, another provided technicians to operate the remote-control vehicles that are they eyes of the rig crew deep underwater, and yet another provided the well casing.

Amid this tangle of overlapping authority and competing interests, no one was solely responsible for ensuring the rig’s safety, and communication was a constant challenge.
One comparatively tiny example of the problems created:
Steve Bertone, the chief engineer for Transocean, wrote in his witness statement that he ran up to the bridge where he heard Captain Kuchta screaming at a worker, Andrea Fleytas, because she had pressed the distress button without authorization.

Mr. Bertone turned to another worker and asked him if he had called to shore for help but was told he did not have permission to do so. Another manager tried to give the go-ahead, the testimony said, but someone else said the order needed to come from the rig’s offshore installation manager.
Misfeasance, malfeasance, or merely the benefit of 20-20 hindsight? As long as nothing catastrophic happened, it may be that hiring a drilling contractor rather doing drilling in-house is the responsible thing to do. The problem is that when something catastrophic happens you need the command and control that only comes with ownership. The question then becomes what's the responsible organizational design given that there is a probability of a catastrophic event?

Torts in theory should put the incentives in the right place to act responsibly. We cannot say that catastrophic ought never to happen, but we can say that the one who caused the damage should be held accountable -- and the question of intent is irrelevant. Further, BP is the accountable party. If BP wants to sue its contractors that's another matter.

One clear reason to say "in theory" is the difficulty of limited liability. Moral hazard exists if there are events so catastrophic that the damages exceed the ability of the firm to pay -- the firm does not do enough to lower the probability of those events and/or reduce the damage should they occur.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Thought for the day

Kenneth Rogoff at Project-Syndicate:
The parallels between the oil spill and the recent financial crisis are all too painful: the promise of innovation, unfathomable complexity, and lack of transparency (scientists estimate that we know only a very small fraction of what goes on at the oceans’ depths.) Wealthy and politically powerful lobbies put enormous pressure on even the most robust governance structures. ...

The oil technology story, like the one for exotic financial instruments, was very compelling and seductive. Oil executives bragged that they could drill a couple of kilometers down, then a kilometer across, and hit their target within a few meters. Suddenly, instead of a world of “peak oil” with ever-depleting resources, technology offered the promise of extending supplies for another generation.
The basic problem of complexity, technology, and regulation extends to many other areas of modern life. Nanotechnology and innovation in developing artificial organisms offer a huge potential boon to mankind, promising development of new materials, medicines, and treatment techniques. Yet, with all of these exciting technologies, it is extremely difficult to strike a balance between managing “tail risk” – a very small risk of a very large disaster – and supporting innovation.
Economics teaches us that when there is huge uncertainty about catastrophic risks, it is dangerous to rely too much on the price mechanism to get incentives right. Unfortunately, economists know much less about how to adapt regulation over time to complex systems with constantly evolving risks, much less how to design regulatory resilient institutions. Until these problems are better understood, we may be doomed to a world of regulation that perpetually overshoots or undershoots its goals.
Read it all.