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Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Today’s musical interlude: a virtual choir of 5,905 singers from 101 countries. Each filmed themselves singing. Eric Whitacre and his team then assembled those performances into a unified whole.

To give you a sense of scale: the video includes 5 minutes of the choir performing “Fly to Paradise” and 8 minutes of credits.

ht: long-time reader John Rogers

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A bit of personnel news from my day job at the Urban Institute and the Tax Policy Center:

First, I will be moving upstairs (both figuratively and literally) as the Urban Institute’s first director of economic policy initiatives, starting in June. I’ve loved my time at TPC, but this is a great chance to work with colleagues throughout Urban on an even broader range of economic and fiscal policy issues.  And I won’t be leaving TPC entirely; as an institute fellow affiliated with the center, I will continue to chime in on tax and budget issues. With luck, I will also get time to do more writing, including for this blog.

Second, I am thrilled that Len Burman will be returning as TPC director. Len is currently the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Professor of Public Affairs at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, but his real claim to fame is being one of TPC’s founders and its leader through 2009. TPC wouldn’t be TPC without Len’s vision and effort, and I consider it a real coup to get him back.

For all the details, please see today’s official announcement.

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Why did Homer immortalize the “wine dark” sea rather than, say, the “deep blue” sea? Was Greek wine blue?

That’s what we thought back in high school. But over at Radiolab, Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich, and Tim Howard offer a different hypothesis: Homer didn’t have a word for blue. Indeed, William Gladstone–yes, the British Prime Minister–poured through The Odyssey and The Iliad and found no references to blue whatsoever.

And Homer wasn’t alone. Many old texts in many languages don’t reference blue.

Radiolab offers two hypotheses to explain this.

The first is essentially commercial: blue is extremely rare in nature and hard to synthesize. Red dye easy, blue dye hard. So people didn’t often encounter blue in their daily commerce. As a result, “blue” shows up in most languages later than other, easier-to-experience colors.

The second involves perceptual psychology. At the risk of oversimplifying, you don’t see what you don’t have a name for. So, in a sort of perceptual positive feedback, cultures develop words for “blue” once they start seeing it, and vice-versa. As Robert Krulwich puts it, “weirdly, color is a loss of innocence.”

Listen to this segment here (particularly if you are thinking “wait a minute, what about the sky?”):

http://www.radiolab.org/widgets/ondemand_player/#file=%2Faudio%2Fxspf%2F211213%2F;containerClass=radiolab

P.S. Radiolab rocks. I became an avid podcast listener about three months ago–a side effect of doing physical therapy on my shoulder for an hour plus every day–and it is clearly best of breed.

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Among my idiosyncracies are two footwear anti-fetishes: I hate flip flops and high heels. I have never mastered the dark art of walking in flip flops, and I have always been troubled when women teeter at the edge of falling because of shoes designed for fashion (allegedly) rather than function.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed Thursday’s Wall Street Journal piece about the engineering, some would say architecture, of contemporary high heels. I was also pleased that columnist Christina Binkley emphasized some of the negatives early in her piece:

High heels can exact a heavy toll on the body, pushing weight forward onto the ball of the foot and toes and stressing the back and legs. Most doctors recommend a maximum height of 2 inches.

But with heels, many women trade comfort for style. Women spent $38.5 billion on shoes in the U.S. last year, according to NPD Group, and more than half of those sales were for heels over 3 inches high. High heels are seen as sexy and powerful. Stars on the red carpet clamor for the highest heels possible–leading designers who want their shoes photographed into an arms race for height.

That “arms race” comment got me to thinking. Perhaps there’s an externality here? Are women trying to be taller than other women? If Betty has 2 inch heels, does that mean Veronica wants 2 and a half inch heels? And that Betty will then want 3 inch heels? If so, high heels are an example of the kind of pointless competition that Robert Frank highlights in his recent book, “The Darwin Economy“. As noted in the book description

[Such] competition often leads to “arms races,” encouraging behaviors that not only cause enormous harm to the group but also provide no lasting advantages for individuals, since any gains tend to be relative and mutually offsetting. The good news is that we have the ability to tame the Darwin economy. The best solution is not to prohibit harmful behaviors but to tax them. By doing so, we could make the economic pie larger, eliminate government debt, and provide better public services, all without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone.

Hence today’s question: Are high heels an example of such misguided competition? If so, should we tax them? (Bonus question: Should we tax noisy flip flops?)

P.S. The book description is not correct about the absence of “painful sacrifice.” Someone out there will still purchase such goods (otherwise there would be no revenue to “eliminate government debt”), and there’s a good chance they will view their tax payments as a sacrifice.

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Ran into Felix Salmon out at the Kauffman Foundation’s economic bloggers confab. His latest Felix TV breaks the contemporary art market down into two simple metrics: $ per spot and $ per stripe.

Feliz says buy spots. But a word of warning: Damien Hirst seems hellbent on flooding the dot market. Somehow I think the price of a dot will plummet when he releases his painting with 2 million dots.

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My recent post on “tribes” inspired some thoughtful reader comments about natural selection and stereotyping, and two book recommendations to steel yourself against your brain’s instinctive us vs. them wiring:

I’ve added both to my aspirational reading pile (if electrons can be piled).

Of note to readers in New York, reader Roger K. also noted the apposite opening of Nina Raine’s latest play:

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NPR aired an interesting trio of segments this morning about inconsistency and flip-flopping. I particularly enjoyed Alix Spiegel’s report on Jamie Barden, a psychology professor at Howard University. Barden’s work considers how “tribal” affiliation affects our perceptions of inconsistent behavior by politicians. In one experiment, Barden asked students their view of a hypothetical political operative named Mike who crashed while driving drunk and then, a few weeks later, gave a speech against drunk driving:

Now obviously there are two possible interpretations of Mike’s actions. The first interpretation is that Mike is a hypocrite. Privately he’s driving into poles. Publicly he’s making proclamations. He’s a person whose public and private behavior is inconsistent.

The other interpretation is that Mike is a changed man. Mike had a hard experience. Mike learned. Mike grew.

So when do we see hypocrisy and when do we see growth?

What Barden found is that this decision is based much less on the facts of what happened, than on tribe.

Half the time the hypothetical Mike was described to the students in the study as a Repubican, and half the time he was described as a Democrat.

When participants were making judgments of a Mike who was in their own party, only 16 percent found him to be a hypocrite. When participants were making judgments about a Mike from the opposing party, 40 percent found him to be a hypocrite.

I suspect this is the same phenomenon that leads sports fans to systemtically disagree with referee decisions against their favorite team.

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