The Attention Deficit Society

One highlight of the Milken Global Conference was an excellent panel discussion of how new communication technologies are changing the way that people think and interact.

Moderated by the amusing Dennis Kneale of Fox Business, the panelists were:

Nicholas Carr, Author, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”

Cathy Davidson, Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, Duke University

Clifford Nass, Thomas M. Storke Professor, Stanford University

Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, MIT

I am proud to say that I sat through the entire panel without checking my iPhone or iPad. But it was a struggle.

The full panel is a bit more than an hour. If you are short on time, you may still enjoy the first few minutes of movie clips illustrating some perils of modern technology. Here’s the link again.

From Timid Teenagers to Overbearing Parents in Just Six Weeks

In early January, Esther and I discovered a mother cat and two kittens living under our deck. We’d been petless for several years, but after months of discussion had still not settled on what our next pet should be.  (There is a moral here about the burden of choice, procrastination, and other ideas in behavioral economics, but let’s leave that to the side. This post is about the cats.)

Taking a hint from fate, we decided to befriend the little cat family. And after much patience, many hours playing chase the ribbon, some smelly tuna, and one unintended meal of sushi-grade salmon, we have three beloved house cats: Momma Cat, Cinnamon, and Caramel.

Here are MC and Cinnamon:

We’ve learned much in our efforts to woo our furry friends. For example, I made it to my mid-40s not knowing that cats have whiskers above their eyes, not just by their noses. Four decades of cat doodles have been anatomically incorrect.

We also learned that wooing cats is a lot like growing up.

At first, we were timid teenagers.

“Would you like to come eat with us? We’ll buy you a nice dinner.”

Then progressively more confident.

“Would you like to come into our house?”

“Can we pet you? Would you like to sit on our laps?”

“Would you like to spend the night in our house?”

At this point, we thought we had everything under control. Three lovely kitties who trusted us enough to eat our food, watch TV in the family room, and play chase the ribbon.

But then we were thrust into the role of stressed parents.

“Hey, who is that big Tom cat outside?”

“Looks like she’s interested in boys again. She better not get pregnant. Let’s schedule a doctor’s appointment for her and the kittens.”

“Young lady, you are grounded. You are not to see that Tom cat.”

“Please stop that yowling. You are grounded, that’s it.”

“What do you mean she snuck outside?”

“Kitty, get inside. You are not leaving this house again. And we are moving up that doctor’s appointment.”

So there you go. In just six weeks, we’ve been transformed from timid teenagers into overbearing parents.

The Economics of Damien Hirst

Future generations will remember September 15, 2008 as the day that Lehman died. But the art world has another memory of that fateful day: the opening of a London auction of works by artist Damien Hirst. Over a period of two days, Sotheby’s rapped the gavel on almost $200 million of his new works, marking the high point of the contemporary art bubble that accompanied all the other asset bubbles.

Not familiar with Damien Hirst? He’s probably most famous for a 14 foot tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde (titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living“), spot paintings, and an as-yet-unsold skull covered with diamonds (“For the Love of God“).

The Economist marks this anniversary with enjoyable retrospective on the auction, which was notable not only for the amount of money that changed hands, but also because it was a very rare example of an artist using an auction in the primary market. Artists usually sell through galleries, where dealers try to place new works in the hands of “worthy” buyers. But Hirst decided to take his new work directly to the auction market — with stunning, if transient, success:

The Economist suggests that Hirst was frustrated with the traditional model, in which initial buyers sometimes flipped pieces at a profit in the auction market after buying from a gallery. Hirst thus set himself a mission, saying “The first time you sell something is when it should cost the most” and “I’ve definitely had the goal to make the primary market more expensive.” And he certainly succeeded, albeit with a little help from the credit market.

Other interesting economic tidbits about Hirst’s work are his exceptional reliance on assistants to execute the works (he clearly understands the idea of the division of labor) and the uncertainty about just how many works he (and his team) have created over the years.

We Are Not Going To Die

It’s quiet weekend, so please forgive one more item from my recent sojourn in southeast Alaska. If you are a regular watcher of nature documentaries, you know that Alaska’s humpbacks employ a unique feeding technique called bubble-netting. A group of whales will corral herring in a wall of bubbles, push them to the surface, and then engulf them.

We had the pleasure of watching a pod of whales on their morning round of bubble-netting. During one surface cruise between dives, the whales made a sudden turn and came right over to our skiff. The resulting video (ht Esther) has a certain Cloverfield / Blair Witch feel to it:

Esther also shot a video in which you can listen to the alpha female as she sings to coordinate her bubble-netting team.

More Alaska adventures here.

I Found What I Was Looking For …

Just back from eight days in southeast Alaska. I won’t torment you with too much of a travelogue (my wife and I have another blog for that; so far it covers the first day of the trip).

But I will note that we did find puffins, glaciers, and humpback whales, as wished in my last post. And what about grizzly bears? Well, we got those too, albeit with an asterisk. Turns out that the salmon-eating coastal bears are called brown bears, while their inland cousins are the grizzlies. Learn something new every day.

For bonus points, we also found salmon-eating black bears:

How to Defeat the Lionfish? Use Your Knife and Fork

As regular readers know, I am intrigued by animals in weird places (voles in the Rose Garden, grey whales in the Mediterranean) and quirky discussions of property rights (guacamole, overhead bins, snow shoveling, office lunches). So imagine my delight when I opened the Food section of the Washington Post to discover an issue that brings them together: the battle against the lionfish.

The beautiful, venomous lionfish is native to the Indo-Pacific, but back in 1985 it started showing up in a weird place: the east coast of the United States. Today you can find the spiny critters along the eastern seaboard, through the Caribbean, down to Belize, and over to the Azores. That’s bad news since the lionfish often crowds out (or consumes) native species.

So what to do? According to Wikipedia, some places have offered bounties for killing them (but, one hopes, not enough to induce breeding and importing) or have established kill-on-sight policies. Another strategy, as the WaPo reports, is to move them down a notch on the food chain:

Federal officials have joined with chefs, spear fishermen and seafood distributors to launch a bold campaign: Eat lionfish until it no longer exists outside its native habitat.

The genius of this approach is that it harnesses a classic economic pathology–the tragedy of the commons–to serve a greater good. No one has any property rights to these interlopers, so all we need to do is create enough market demand for their tasty flesh. Once that reaches critical mass, we can sit back and watch fishermen and -women overfish the Atlantic lionfish into oblivion. Or so goes the theory.

I wish them good luck–and look forward to seeing Atlantic lionfish on the menu soon. I am skeptical, however, that it will actually work. But if it does, maybe the seafood alliance could then turn their attention to the new Potomac snakeheads?

Vuvuzelas, Afghanistan, and Fannie and Freddie

Updates on some previous posts: