Brainteasers From My Dad

When my sister and I were little, our Dad would challenge us with riddles and word games. I mentioned three in my eulogy for Dad:

1. Imagine a two-volume dictionary sitting on a shelf. Each volume has 500 pages. A bookworm is on the first page of letter A. It wants to eat its way to the end of letter Z as fast as possible. How many pages does it need to eat?

2. Should you walk to work or bring your lunch?

3. Is it warmer in the summer or in England?

Dad used the first to show the perils of leaping to conclusions. The second introduced basic economics. As far as I can tell, the third is just amusing; if you see a deeper meaning, please let me know.

 

Remembering My Dad, Donald Marron, 1934 – 2019

© Matt Greenslade

My dad died unexpectedly last Friday. He lived a remarkable, generous life. Obituaries in BloombergNYT, and WSJ give a taste of his success in business, charity, and the arts. He was truly a self-made man.

Some of my favorite memories, however, are of my dad’s rare failures. His unsuccessful effort to hurdle my sister’s cello during a game of chase. That time we got ejected from Yankee Stadium for throwing paper airplanes. The one and only set of tennis I ever won from him.

It’s difficult to believe he’s gone. Dad brought such vigor and energy to life. Indeed, it was only a few months ago that we rocked to Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden. You should have heard him sing “Movin’ Out”. If I make it to my 80s, I’d be thrilled to have half his energy and sharpness.

Health issues brought me to New York City often this past year. They proved a blessing in disguise. My sister Jennifer and I got to see much more of Dad than usual. We hung out in his office, grabbed a few dinners, and celebrated both Dad’s and my birthdays. We feel fortunate we had that time together.

Dad was an inspiration and a great deal of fun. It’s an honor to bear his name.

P.S. See some of his favorite brain teasers here.

Collaborative Art – The Virtual Choir

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

A New Gig Starting June

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.

Psychology, Commerce, and Color Perception

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.

Should High Heels Be Taxed?

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.

Long Spots, Short Stripes

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.