Weekly Wisdom Roundup #200 – June 19th 2013
Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. -Abraham Lincoln
America’s 50 worst charities rake in nearly $1 billion for corporate fundraisers – via Tampa Bay Times – The worst charity in America operates from a metal warehouse behind a gas station in Holiday. Every year, Kids Wish Network raises millions of dollars in donations in the name of dying children and their families. Every year, it spends less than 3 cents on the dollar helping kids.Most of the rest gets diverted to enrich the charity’s operators and the for-profit companies Kids Wish hires to drum up donations.
President Barack Obama on Charlie Rose – via Charlie Rose-President Barack Obama sits down with Charlie Rose for an exclusive 45-minute interview at the White House, the President shares his thoughts on Syria, Iran, the NSA leaks controversy and more.
Understanding The Collapse and Crash of Structures – via The New York Review of Books – Henry Petroski would not be startled by that small failure, nor by the larger failure of the entire bridge after eighty years. Indeed, he briefly describes in his engaging book the October 2009 inspection that discovered that the Crown Point Bridge was badly cracked—so badly that a few weeks later it was closed forever, and then demolished with high explosives to make sure it wouldn’t fall on passing boaters. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that no failure surprises Petroski. His classic first book, To Engineer Is Human (1985), whose title sets up twenty-seven years later this book’s pun, also dealt with failure, as do many of his columns in The American Scientist. “A single failure…is a source of knowledge we might not have gained in any other way.” They reveal “weaknesses in reasoning, knowledge, and performance that all the successful designs may not even hint at.” “The best way of achieving lasting success is by more fully understanding failure.”
Manal al-Sharif: A Saudi woman who dared to drive – via Video on TED.com – There’s no actual law against women driving in Saudi Arabia. But it’s forbidden. Two years ago, Manal al-Sharif decided to encourage women to drive by doing so — and filming herself for YouTube. Hear her story of what happened next.
Rock and Roll, Economics, and Rebuilding the Middle Class: How the Music Industry Is A Classic Example of Inequality – via The White House – The music industry is a microcosm of what is happening in the U.S. economy at large. We are increasingly becoming a “winner-take-all economy,” a phenomenon that the music industry has long experienced. Over recent decades, technological change, globalization and an erosion of the institutions and practices that support shared prosperity in the U.S. have put the middle class under increasing stress. The lucky and the talented – and it is often hard to tell the difference – have been doing better and better, while the vast majority has struggled to keep up.
What We Didn’t Know by Adam Hochschild and Spying – via The New York Review of Books – Power begins with surveillance, and the pioneer in American anti-Communist surveillance was Ralph Van Deman, whose elongated hawklike face made him someone a movie director would have cast for the job. A career US Army officer, Van Deman first made his mark keeping a close eye on Filipinos who might have the temerity to resist the long occupation of their country that began with the Spanish-American War. As the military intelligence chief in Manila starting in 1901, he used a web of undercover agents and the newest record-keeping technology—file cards—to track thousands of potential dissidents.
An Example of A Poor Chart: Syria v Libya v Iraq – via The Economist – How does the civil war in Syria, which pits rebels armed with light weapons against the tanks and jets of the government, compare with the bombs planted by terrorists in Pakistan or the drug war in Mexico? The Global Peace Index 2013 has masses of data on the cost in lives and money of violence, but the chart below gives the clearest picture of how the conflicts fought in 2012 stack up. The report also contains a fancy index on the cost of containing violence relative to each country’s economic weight. North Korea comes top; America is alarmingly high, sandwiched between Bahrain and the Central African Republic.
A Giant, Secret Vault Where Rich People Store Their Stuff Tax – via Free : Planet Money : NPR – Freeports are the safe-deposit boxes of the offshore tax-haven world — fancy vaults where rich people store their Picassos and gold bars with maximal safety, minimal scrutiny and special tax exemptions.
A new cross-border tax – via haven database and its significance : Columbia Journalism Review – The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists hit the mother lode when it published the first of its dozens of exposés on the off-shore tax-haven business back in April.Now, the entire database itself has come online. Released over the weekend, it’s an elegantly designed Web application that allows users to look up customers of the off-shore haven business, which sets up shell companies in jurisdictions that allow the real principals to be concealed from the public and, usually, even authorities. The database is relational and allows users to draw the connections between individuals and the entities associated with them, and vice versa.
Albert Einstein—A Visual Genius – via billiondollargraphics.blogspot.com – As Edmunds points out, this fact is very telling when you understand that Einstein credits his major discovery to visualization: Einstein “… figured out the theory of relativity by imagining a ride on a light beam through space …” and “… saw his ideas in pictures and then found the language to describe them.” “Words do not seem to play any roles,” Einstein said. “[There are] more or less clear images.”
Science prizes: The New Nobels – via www.nature.com – The launch of several science mega-prizes is making some researchers millionaires — but others question whether such awards are the best way to promote their field.
Our Orgastic Future – via Lapham’s Quarterly – No description, academic or otherwise, can quite do justice to the comedy that is bonobo sex. On a hilarity scale of one to ten, most animal sex trends quickly toward ten. Bonobo sex goes to eleven. Throughout the day, males and females, adolescents and elders alike greet one another sexually for apparently almost any reason—and do so with everything from a quick feel, to porn-style choreographies, to elaborately athletic couplings. This feature—the variety of their easygoing sex life—is what led Duke primatologist Vanessa Woods to cheekily title her book about them Bonobo Handshake. Bonobos have deployed their elaborate sexual toolkit to ease all kinds of social transitions—ranging from saying good morning to giving the blessing before dinner to expressing a hearty welcome to a new member of the group. Females will casually present themselves to males. The male will walk right up to a female without any hesitation. All bonobos frequently have homosexual sex—the males being quite fond of hanging upside down, face to face, from a tree and engaging in what the gay community calls frottage (some primatologists call it “penis fencing”; to most teenagers it’s better known as dry humping.)
History of Spying (on ourselves; 1791-2013) – via Chart Porn – A wonderful interactive timeline of legislation, rulings, and events related to domestic surveillance in the United States. You can drill down into each event for an explanation, and links to primary sources (like the full text of legislation, etc).
An interactive guide to Europe’s arms trade – via guardian.co.uk – Numbers and PDFs are not the best of friends. So it takes a certain amount of time and commitment to extract valuable data on arms exports from EU portable document formats (PDFs). A campaign group has however dug out the numbers on EU exports of weaponry and other military hardware – and broken it down by source, destination country, year, value, licenses and type of goods. The result is an interactive anyone can use, just click to see the detail
Rising Income Inequality and the Role of Shifting Market-Income Distribution, Tax Burdens, and Tax Rates – via Economic Policy Institute – This paper reviews empirical trends in pre- and post-tax income inequality since 1979 and summarizes recent empirical and theoretical research on the role of tax policy in exacerbating market-based income inequality. It finds that increasing top marginal tax rates could yield potentially large results in slowing the growth of income inequality, and as shown in Fieldhouse (2013a), do so without substantially reducing productive economic activity
Secret Climate Cost Calculations – via triplecrisis.com – Also in 2010, the Obama administration released an estimate of “the social cost of carbon”` (SCC) – that is, the value of the damages done by emission of one more ton of carbon dioxide. Calculated by an anonymous task force that held no public hearings and had no office, website, or named participants, the SCC was released without fanfare as, literally, Appendix 15A to a Department of Energy regulation on energy efficiency standards for small motors.This year, the Obama administration updated the SCC calculation. The update was done by an anonymous task force that held no public hearings, and had no office, website, or named participants. It first appeared as – yes! – Appendix 16A to a Department of Energy regulation on energy efficiency standards for microwave ovens. In the bigger picture, what’s missing is any defense of policymaking by anonymous task forces. Once upon a time, democracy was thought to include requirements of public notice of major decisions, sometimes followed by 90-day comment periods, and even agency responses to public comments. But that was so twentieth-century.
More than seven million refugees displaced in 2012 – via UN – The UN says 7.6 million people became refugees in 2012, with the total number now higher than at any time since 1994.
#Business, Economics, Finance, & Investing
Emanuel Derman’s Latest Piece: Data Minding – via The Browser – Notes on privacy, curiosity, government. “The older I get the more I want what Isaiah Berlin called negative liberty, freedom from interference. I don’t want to be controlled. I don’t want to be watched. I understand the value of the vote, but I might be willing to give it up in exchange for the right to not be interfered with. There’s something increasingly attractive about anarchy, in the precise sense of no government
Taking down a cartel, Why are glasses expensive?– via CBS News – A behind-the-scenes look at the investigation that took down the most powerful drug trafficking organization in law enforcement history, then, an Italian firm named Luxottica controls a big chunk of the eyewear business a big chunk of the business; and, is Barcelona becoming the world’s best soccer team?
Didier Sornette: How we can predict the next financial crisis – via Video on TED.com – The 2007-2008 financial crisis, you might think, was an unpredictable one-time crash. But Didier Sornette and his Financial Crisis Observatory have plotted a set of early warning signs for unstable, growing systems, tracking the moment when any bubble is about to pop. (And he’s seeing it happen again, right now.)
The Gamification of Financial Education – via Credit Slips – Using competition and rewards to motivate learning and behavior seems well-suited for personal finance, an area where people need both to learn information and skills and to change behavior. A few off-line financial games such as The Stock Market Game have long been a mainstay of financial education in schools, but more recently, computer-based games have proliferated. Websites hawking financial education games target both adults and childrenThey are sometimes called “Financial Entertainment,” which according to the Doorway to Dreams Fund,”leverages the power and popularity of casual video games to engage consumers in a financial education experience that links increases in financial knowledge and confidence to financial actions and real world behavior change.”
New IMF FinancesiPad App – via FORA.tv – The IMF Finances iPad app brings a new way to access information on Fund finances in a format that is highly interactive and easily shared. The app includes key Fund financial indicators and country financial positions, flows and projections data.
A Father Of High Speed Trading Thinks We Should Slow Down– via Planet Money : NPR – Thomas Peterffy’s life story includes a typing robot, a proto-iPad, and a vast fortune he amassed as one of the first guys to use computers in financial markets.On today’s show, Peterffy tells us his story — and he explains why he’s worried about the financial world he helped create.
China in Africa: The New Imperialists? – via www.newyorker.com – The Chinese have managed to accomplish at least one impressive thing in Africa—they have made everyone else uncomfortable. The Americans are uneasy, worried about (and perhaps jealous of) China’s rapid and profitable investments throughout the continent, and the developmental assistance that it has started to provide in some areas. Europeans have only to look at trade figures: the share of Africa’s exports that China receives has shot from one to fifteen per cent over the past decade, while the European Union’s share fell from thirty-six to twenty-three per cent. China is now Africa’s largest trading partner.
What will future jobs look like? – via Video on TED.com – Economist Andrew McAfee suggests that, yes, probably, droids will take our jobs — or at least the kinds of jobs we know now. In this far-seeing talk, he thinks through what future jobs might look like, and how to educate coming generations to hold them.
#Decision Making, Behavioral Economics, Psychology, & Sciences
Do I Say Yes or Do I Say No? Deciding What’s Worth Doing in Life – via fivesensus.blogspot.com – The moral of this story is obvious but is worth emphasizing: we must make choices in order to avoid being frozen in endless doubt.
How to master your time – Leading a better life – via Quora – And so it is with your life. You have things that are most important and things that are most urgent in permanent competition:
Drexler on Engineering – via www.overcomingbias.com – The essence of science is inquiry; the essence of engineering is design. Scientific inquiry expands the scope of human perception and understanding; engineering design expands the scope of human plans and results
Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience– via Book TV – Dr. Satel presents an analysis of what she calls the culture’s obsession with neuroscience, attempting to dispel myths about what brain scans are able to reveal. She talks with USA Today’s Science Reporter Dan Vergano.
Business donations to judges’ campaigns often equal friendly rulings – via Michael W. Sances – As with legislative campaign contributions, though, the new analysis raises a vexing chicken-and-egg question about whether donations change voting behavior or simply reflect common interests between donor and recipient. Many judicial decisions, moreover, defy any connection to campaign contributions.
Confessions of a Sociopath – via marginalrevolution.com – I suspect nothing in this book can be trusted. Still, it is one of the more stimulating reads of the year, though I have to be careful not to draw serious inferences from it. The author argues that sociopaths can do what two generations of econometricians have only barely managed, namely to defeat the efficient markets hypothesis and earn systematically super-normal returns. What does it say about me that I find this the least plausible claim in the entire book?
The physics of clogged arteries– via National Academy of Sciences – “What we found was just like in rubber tires,” says biomedical engineer Sheldon Weinbaum of the City College of New York, who led the new work. Pairs of closely spaced inclusions in atherosclerotic plaques, he and his colleagues discovered, can produce high enough levels of stress between them to cause a rupture at typical blood pressures.Atherosclerotic plaques are accumulations of fatty molecules and immune cells that accumulate over time in a person’s arteries. Over the core of the plaque, a thin fibrous cap helps contain the build-up. But when this cap ruptures, it can break loose and send the contents of the plaque careening through the blood stream toward the heart or brain, where they can cause a blockage—and a heart attack or stroke.
What makes good people do bad things? The mere smell of money – via Mail Online – The mere prospect of cash can make unethical behavior much more likely, found a study released last month.
How observing others’ behavior can increase cooperation – via National Academy of Sciences – The question of how to get people to work together has bedeviled society for millennia. Now a large-scale field experiment testing how to get more than 2,400 participants to prevent blackouts in the real world is supporting theoretical work on how to get people to cooperate that until now was largely tested only with small experiments in the lab, findings detailed in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A radio guide to global mental health – via mindhacks.com – The BBC World Service is in the midst of an excellent series on global mental health – called The Truth About Mental Health.
Mass communication, social influence, and consumer behavior – via Wiley Journal of Social Psych – The present article connects advertising by means of mass communication with social influence processes. Predictions derived from a theoretical model on the impact of mass communication on consumers who were not directly exposed to the message (distant consumers) were tested with two field experiments (Experiment 1: n = 77 participants, n = 261 peers; Experiment 2: n = 97 participants, n = 289 peers). Both studies addressed consumer behavior in the media sector. The results suggest that mass communication changes the behavior of distant consumers, that recipients’ opinion leadership enhances the indirect impact of mass communication, and that recipients’ consumer behavior mediates the influence of mass communicated messages on distant consumers. The role of word-of-mouth is also examined.
#Data Science, Data Journalism, Design, Infographics, Information Design, Statistics, & Visualization
Towards a unified view of Information Design – via Mapping Complex Information. Theory and Practice – Definitions of information design are varied, but they tend to be too narrow, too broad, too vague, or unclear. An agreed and integrated definition of information design which fully determines its goals, boundaries, processes, skill sets, rationale, and range of problems it can solve, is hard to find. However, in order to evolve, teach and be ‘improved upon by future generations of practitioners’, the information design field needs that definition (Jacobson, 1999).
Capturing my creative process– via Helena Jakoube @ Visual Loop – As a graphic designer I often deal with a fact that people don’t understand what graphic design means, what it is about, and especially how hard work it can sometimes be. Being designers doesn’t mean that we only play or have fun. The creative process can be very painful, and besides it includes many steps and procedures. These initial thoughts gave a basis to my project, and I started to observe my creative activities and collect the related data. After a while I have gathered quite a lot of information and the infographic elaboration seemed as the best possible solution.
Transition times of information design – via Mapping Complex Information. Theory and Practice – Information design is not an emerging field or subject area. This point has been highly discussed in an assortment of online and print articles, conferences and discussion groups. On-going debates defining its boundaries, its commonalities and differences with data visualisation, information architecture, and user-experience design pop up daily. Countless books have been published tackling the different dimensions of information design. To name a few: Tufte, Wurman, Baer, Visocky O’Grady. However, lack of clarity remains around information design (e.g. in terms of the role and tasks of information designers, applications, methodologies, etc.).