Friday, April 29, 2005

Rock, paper... Christie's

When it comes to changing diapers, Erika and I try to alternate when we are both home. Occasionally, however, we lose track of whose turn it is, in which case we resort to the time-honored tradition of rock, paper, scissors.

That was flashing through my head when I read this Caroline Vogel article in the New York Times (thanks to J.H. for the link):

It may have been the most expensive game of rock, paper, scissors ever played.

Takashi Hashiyama, president of Maspro Denkoh Corporation, an electronics company based outside of Nagoya, Japan, could not decide whether Christie's or Sotheby's should sell the company's art collection, which is worth more than $20 million, at next week's auctions in New York.

He did not split the collection - which includes an important Cézanne landscape, an early Picasso street scene and a rare van Gogh view from the artist's Paris apartment - between the two houses, as sometimes happens. Nor did he decide to abandon the auction process and sell the paintings through a private dealer.

Instead, he resorted to an ancient method of decision-making that has been time-tested on playgrounds around the world: rock breaks scissors, scissors cuts paper, paper smothers rock....

After each house had entered its decision, a Maspro manager looked at the choices. Christie's was the winner: scissors beat paper.

After re-reading the article, however, what I found particularly interesting about this story is the contrast between these two paragraphs. There's this one:

In Japan, resorting to such games of chance is not unusual. "I sometimes use such methods when I cannot make a decision," Mr. Hashiyama said in a telephone interview. "As both companies were equally good and I just could not choose one, I asked them to please decide between themselves and suggested to use such methods as rock, paper, scissors."

This actually makes sense -- when the decision-making costs exceed the payoff differential between the two choices, this is a rational decision.

However, this leads to an interesting question -- is rock, paper, scissors a game of chance? While Hashiyama faced a minimal difference in payoffs between his choices, both Sotheby's and Christie's saw a whopping difference between getting nothing or getting some sizeable commissions from Hashiyama's business. Given this gap in payoffs between winning and losing, Christie's thought it was worth doing some strategic research:

Kanae Ishibashi, the president of Christie's in Japan, declined to discuss her preparations for the meeting. But her colleagues in New York said she spent the weekend researching the psychology of the game online and talking to friends, including Nicholas Maclean, the international director of Christie's Impressionist and modern art department.

Mr. Maclean's 11-year-old twins, Flora and Alice, turned out to be the experts Ms. Ishibashi was looking for. They play the game at school, Alice said, "practically every day."

"Everybody knows you always start with scissors," she added. "Rock is way too obvious, and scissors beats paper." Flora piped in. "Since they were beginners, scissors was definitely the safest," she said, adding that if the other side were also to choose scissors and another round was required, the correct play would be to stick to scissors - because, as Alice explained, "Everybody expects you to choose rock."

Sotheby's thought of the game as a strict game of chance, and did no research.

Given that there are apparently rock paper scissors championships and rock-paper-scissors strategy guides (and please, someone tell me if these are hoax sites), who was right -- Christie's or Sotheby's?

[Christie's won, so isn't the answer obvious?--ed. In a one-shot game, it's not clear that Christie's won because of research; they might have won because of chance. A normal-form version of this game reveals that the only equilibrium strategy is to randomize equally among the three options. However, this might be a game where the designations of "rock, paper, scissors" alters how human beings feel about the choices, which subtly alters their expectations of what other players will do, which then alters their own strategies. In other words, a formal model of rock, paper, scissors might not carry the crucial piece of information to optimize on strategy. Now you're making my head hurt--ed. Aha! This is evidence to support the original claim; even if there might be a strategic element to this game, that element is so small that it's outweighed by the computational costs of figuring out the optimal strategy against a specified opponent!!]

"Good ol' rock. Nothing beats that. D'Oh!!" Bart Simpson.

posted by Dan at 11:46 AM | Comments (51) | Trackbacks (8)

Some changes are coming on Internet ads

The Economist has an interesting story on how the evolution of Internet advertising. Here's how it opens:

This year the combined advertising revenues of Google and Yahoo! will rival the combined prime-time ad revenues of America’s three big television networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, predicts Advertising Age. It will, says the trade magazine, represent a “watershed moment” in the evolution of the internet as an advertising medium. A 30-second prime-time TV ad was once considered the most effective—and the most expensive—form of advertising. But that was before the internet got going. And this week online advertising made another leap forward.

This latest innovation comes from Google, which has begun testing a new auction-based service for display advertising. Both Google and Yahoo! make most of their money from advertising. Auctioning keyword search-terms, which deliver sponsored links to advertisers’ websites, has proved to be particularly lucrative. And advertisers like paid-search because, unlike TV, they only pay for results: they are charged when someone clicks on one of their links.

Read the whole thing to see how Google is revamping its AdSense feature.

This segues nicely into a Mickey Kaus report on a potential change in how ads will be gathered on the blogosphere:

Roger L. Simon and Marc Danziger announced the formation of a new network of bloggers, including some big ones (e.g. Instapundit). They want Lexus ads! And they claim to have the unique eyeballs and high-end demographics necessary to get them. ... This is a potentially big deal....

L.A. Voice provides more details:

Simon and Danziger have formed "Pajamas Media," an effort to lay some serious pipe to help the blogging community sell ads en masse to big clients like GM and Amex and ultimately, help the partnership earn enough money to fund a global network of paid newsbloggers - a sort of new-age Associated Press.

Danziger (a new-media architect from way back) is working on step one - the development of mechanisms for distributing big-ticket ads to hundreds of participating blogs so that advertisers can reach the blogs' cumulative millions of daily unique users. Meanwhile, Simon dreams of tying together bloggers in every corner of the globe whose local savvy and grasp of the language and politics of their regions will basically beat the holy hell out of any foreign correspondents.

Both say they want to beat the [L.A.] Times.

Danziger's plan is a good one, provided he can get a solid sales force and reliable tech: it was only a matter of time before someone began to actually build what the blogosphere's been projecting and dreaming of for several years now - a fat pipe for ad money. The ad market is poised to tap into the smart, passionate and micro-targetable audiences of blogs. If Pajamas Media builds the engine correctly (I talked with Danziger for a bit and it certainly sounds like it will) then there's some good cash to be made.

Simon's plan is a lot more amorphous - a worldwide network of pundit/reporters whose local smarts and compelling voices beat the news organizations in the ground war and everyone in the battle for mindshare - but it needs a hell of a lot more development. There's a vast gap between responsible reporting and passionate blogging, particularly when the blogosphere, by and large, does most of its reporting by standing on the work already done by the world's, um, reporters.

As someone with more than a passing interest in this proposal, I'm curious to hear from readers whether they think either or both aspects of the Pajamas Media proposal will fly.

FULL DISLOSURE: I've been contacted about participating in the proposed syndicate.

UPDATE: Roger L. Simon has a post providing some more explanation -- and an open invitation for other bloggers to join in.

Meanwhile, Marc Danziger provides a lot more explanation in this post -- including his take on the future of newspapers and blogs:

I think that newspapers - as a model for the kind of legacy information middleman that makes up the media industry - are badly wounded, but I doubt that they will die.

But they will go from the 93% of the market for written news - and more important for a certain class of advertising - that they once owned to, say 50 - 60%. And more, they will lose the ability to set prices for advertising in the market, which will make the business model for the newspaper much, much tougher....

Blogs will become another media channel. It will happen in part as top bloggers become media figures themselves (and vice versa); as media companies create or sponsor blogs; as blogs intertwine with 'tentpole' media properties that are somehow related to them ( and food blogs; and sex blogs; and so on).

But the heart of the blogosphere will be the emergent, fast-changing, unstructured (formally, anyway) world of blogs as we know them.

And the questions will be how to build useful interfaces between that world and the highly structured world of advertisers, media consumers, and blog novices while respecting the dynamic nature of the blogs themselves.

Both links via Pieter Dorsman. And go click on Tim Oren's thoughts as well.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Looks like Joshua Micah Marshall is also adding some bells and (foreign policy) whistles to Talking Points Memo.

posted by Dan at 10:25 AM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (2)

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Rethinking conservatism

Andrew Sullivan has a long essay in The New Republic that tries to explain modern-day conservatism's policy schizophrenia over the past four years. Some highlights:

Conservatism isn't over. But it has rarely been as confused. Today's conservatives support limited government. But they believe the federal government can intervene in a state court's decisions in a single family's struggle over life and death. They believe in restraining government spending. But they have increased such spending by a mind-boggling 33 percent in a mere four years. They believe in self-reliance. But they have just passed the most expensive new entitlement since the heyday of Great Society liberalism: the Medicare prescription-drug benefit. They believe that foreign policy is about the pursuit of national interest and that the military should be used only to fight and win wars. Yet they have embarked on an extraordinarily ambitious program of military-led nation-building in the Middle East. They believe in states' rights, but they want to amend the Constitution to forbid any state from allowing civil marriage or equivalent civil unions for gay couples. They believe in free trade. But they have imposed tariffs on a number of industries, most famously steel. They believe in balanced budgets. But they have abandoned fiscal discipline and added a cool trillion dollars to the national debt in one presidential term....

But conservatism's very incoherence may be one reason for its endurance. In its long road to victory, the Republican Party has regularly preferred the promise of power to the satisfaction of schism. It has long been pro-government and anti-government. It has contained Rockefeller and Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan, Bush I and Bush II. As a governing philosophy, it has been able to tack for decades from statism to laissez-faire, from big government to individual freedom, with only occasional discomfort. Conservatism's resilience has been a function of its internal ideological diversity and balance. The more closely you look, however, the deeper the division has become in the last few years, intensifying dramatically since last fall's election. Which is why, this time, the balancing act may finally be coming undone.

Let me be rash and describe the fundamental divide within conservatism as a battle between two rival forms. The two forms I'm referring to are ideal types. I know very few conservatives who fit completely into one camp or the other; and these camps do not easily comport with the categories we have become used to deploying--categories like "libertarian," "social conservative," "paleoconservative," "fiscal conservative and social liberal," and so on. There is, I think, a deeper rift, and a more fundamental one.

Call one the conservatism of faith and the other the conservatism of doubt. They have co-existed in the past but are becoming less and less compatible as the conservative ascendancy matures. Start with the type now dominant in Republican discourse: the conservatism of faith. This conservatism states conservative principles--and, indeed, eternal insights into the human condition--as a matter of truth. Because these conservatives believe that the individual is inseparable from her political community and civilization, there can be no government neutrality in promoting such truths. Either a government's laws affirm virtue or they affirm vice. And the meaning of virtue and vice can be understood either by reflecting on the Judeo-Christian moral tradition or by inferring from philosophical understandings what human nature in its finest form should be. These truths are not culturally relative; they are universally valid....

The alternative philosophical tradition begins in precise opposition to the new conservatives' confidence in faith and reason as direct, accessible routes to universal truth. The conservatism of doubt asks how anyone can be sure that his view of what is moral or good is actually true. Conservatives of doubt note that even the most dogmatic of institutions, such as the Catholic or Mormon churches, have changed their views over many centuries, and that, even within such institutions, there is considerable debate about difficult moral issues. They understand that significant critiques of human reason--Nietzsche, anyone?--have rendered the philosophical quest for self-evident truth even more precarious in the modern world. Such conservatives are not nihilists or devotees of what Pope Benedict XVI has called "the dictatorship of relativism." They merely believe that the purported choice between moral absolutism and complete relativism, between God and moral anarchy, is a phony one. Their alternative is a skeptical, careful, prudential approach to all moral questions--and suspicion of anyone claiming to hold the absolute truth. Since such an approach rarely provides a simple answer persuasive to everyone within a democratic society, we live with moral and cultural pluralism.

As always, Andrew's stuff makes for compelling reading -- but I'm unpersuaded by his proposed typology, for several reasons:

1) There is no single conservatism of doubt. Libertarians have grave doubts about government intervention in the marketplace. Realpolitik conservatives have grave doubts about the utility of military intervention to change regimes abroad. Traditional Burkean conservatives have grave doubts about any kind of policy or societal change, unless it happens very, very slowly. But those are all doubts about different aspects of policy. In this sense, the conservatism of doubt bears more than a passing resemblance to Ross Perot's Reform Party -- a lot of people who are pissed of at the guys in power, but disagree on everything else.

[What about the faith side?--ed. That typology is also not unidimensional. Religious conservatives obviously believe in the importance of religion in American life; neoconservatives carry a similar fervor about regime change in the Middle East, but as Andrew himself acknowledges that, "neocons feel about religion... good for the masses but not quite my cup of tea."]

2) The political theorists don't match up. To provide some historical orientation to his typology, Sullivan says at one point:

Doubt, in other words, means restraint. And restraint of government is the indispensable foundation of human freedom. The modern liberal European state was founded on such doubt. In the seventeenth century, men like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke looked at the consequences of various faiths battling for control of the moralizing state--and they balked. They saw civil war, religious extremism, torture, burnings at the stake, police states, and the Inquisition. They saw polities like Great Britain's ravaged by sectarian squabbles over what the truth is, how it is discovered, and how to impose it on a society as a whole. And they made a fundamental break with ancient and medieval political thought by insisting that government retreat from such areas--that it leave the definition of the good life to private citizens, to churches uncontaminated by government, or to universities that would seek and discuss competing views of the truth.

Well...... I know Sullivan has the Ph.D. in political theory, but I would take issue with his interpretation of Hobbes. While he was not a huge fan of religion, Hobbes was in many ways your classic big government liberal. Consider his arguments in Leviathan about those things that weaken or tend to the dissolution of a commonwealth:

[A] man to obtain a kingdom is sometimes content with less power than to the peace and defence of the Commonwealth is necessarily required. From whence it cometh to pass that when the exercise of the power laid by is for the public safety to be resumed, it hath the resemblance of an unjust act, which disposeth great numbers of men, when occasion is presented, to rebel; in the same manner as the bodies of children gotten by diseased parents are subject either to untimely death, or to purge the ill quality derived from their vicious conception, by breaking out into biles and scabs....

In the second place, I observe the diseases of a Commonwealth that proceed from the poison of seditious doctrines, whereof one is that every private man is judge of good and evil actions. This is true in the condition of mere nature, where there are no civil laws; and also under civil government in such cases as are not determined by the law. But otherwise, it is manifest that the measure of good and evil actions is the civil law; and the judge the legislator, who is always representative of the Commonwealth. From this false doctrine, men are disposed to debate with themselves and dispute the commands of the Commonwealth, and afterwards to obey or disobey them as in their private judgments they shall think fit; whereby the Commonwealth is distracted and weakened.

A fourth opinion repugnant to the nature of a Commonwealth is this: that he that hath the sovereign power is subject to the civil laws. It is true that sovereigns are all subject to the laws of nature, because such laws be divine and divine and cannot by any man or Commonwealth be abrogated. But to those laws which the sovereign himself, that is, which the Commonwealth, maketh, he is not subject. For to be subject to laws is to be to be subject to the Commonwealth, that is, to the sovereign representative, that is, to himself which is not subjection, but freedom from the laws. Which error, because it setteth the laws above the sovereign, setteth also a judge above him, and a power to punish him; which is to make a new sovereign; and again for the same reason a third to punish the second; and so continually without end, to the confusion and dissolution of the Commonwealth.

A fifth doctrine that tendeth to the dissolution of a Commonwealth is that every private man has an absolute propriety in his goods, such as excludeth the right of the sovereign. Every man has indeed a propriety that excludes the right of every other subject: and he has it only from the sovereign power, without the protection whereof every other man should have right to the same. But the right of the sovereign also be excluded, he cannot perform the office they have put him into, which is to defend them both from foreign enemies and from the injuries of one another; and consequently there is no longer a Commonwealth.

With Hobbes, we're not exactly talking about a big believer in the whole checks and balances thing. [Why not discuss Hobbes' big-government social politics, or the importance of faith in Locke's derivation of property rights?--ed. Because I'm trying to keep this post under 5,000 words.]

In the end, Sullivan is dressing up a very simple argument -- "keeping religion in its safest place--away from the trappings of power.... keeping politics in its safest place--as the proper arrangement of our common obligations, and not as a means to save or transform our lives and souls" -- in clothes that don't fit. The divide between those who put their faith first in their politics and those who prefer to keep it out of government is not responsible for all of the hypocrisies that Andrew listed in his first paragraph -- they're just responsible for many of the obvious ones.

The question of whether religious fundamentalists have too much power in the Republican Part and in the Bush administration is a good one to have -- currently Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds are going a couple of rounds on the question. However, I'm not sure that Sullivan's TNR essay provides anything new in answering that question.

posted by Dan at 04:31 PM | Comments (33) | Trackbacks (2)

Open Chinese nationalism thread

I've been remiss in not posting about the surge of anti-Japan protests in China over the past ten days or so, and the official Chinese reaction, which ranged from tacit support at the outset to a hasty, clumsy effort to assuage the Japanese and characterize the protests as part of an evil plot to undermine the Communist Party.

Comment away on the implications. I will only make one observation -- the Chinese government has been extraordinarily maladroit over the past six months. Until recently, the government was keenly aware about the geopolitical anxiety caused in the Asia-Pacific region by its growing economic and military strength. Being a rising, somewhat opaque power is tricky terrain for any state to navigate. Post-9/11, the Chinese had been pretty deft, tolerating the U.S. focus on the Middle East while pointing out to its neighbors, Europe, and even Africa the value of close economic relations with Beijing. Chinese academics have labeled this the "peaceful rising" strategy.

However, in the past six months, the Chinese government has:

1) Looked stingy following the meager tsunami aid allotment;

2) Looked stupid following their anti-Taiwan law;

3) Looked out of control with their handling of the anti-Japan riots.

I'm curious to see how both the Chinese and the other countries in the region will respond.


posted by Dan at 12:44 PM | Comments (20) | Trackbacks (1)

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

I definitely feel better about investing in the U.S.S.R..... I mean, Russia

In the wake of the Russian government's prosecution of Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, president Vladimir Putin tried to assuage domestic and foreign investors in his state-of-the-nation address.

If this AP account by Alex Nicholson is accurate, I'm not sure he succeeded:

President Vladimir Putin lamented the demise of the Soviet Union in some of his strongest language to date, saying in a nationally televised speech before parliament Monday that it was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.''

In his annual address to lawmakers, top government officials and political leaders, Putin also sought to reassure skittish investors about Russia's investment climate - just two days before a ruling in the tax evasion and fraud trial of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

His statements on the collapse of the Soviet Union and its effects on Russians, at home and abroad, come as the country is awash in nostalgia just two weeks before the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe - a conflict Russians call the "Great Patriotic War.''

Putin, who served as a colonel in the KGB, has resurrected some communist symbols during his presidency, bringing back the music of the old Soviet anthem and the Soviet-style red banner as the military's flag.

In the 50-minute address at the Kremlin, Putin avoided mentioning the need to work more closely with other former Soviet republics - in contrast to previous addresses - and he made passing reference to the treatment of Russian-speaking minorities in former Soviet republics.

"First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,'' Putin said. "As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory. The epidemic of collapse has spilled over to Russia itself.''

....Liberal politician Irina Khakamada dismissed Putin's address as "an export product'' marked by "liberal rhetoric and ritual statements addressed to the West.''

[What the hell is Khakamada talking about?--ed. Well, if you read Jeremy Page's account of the speech in the London Times, "Putin tried to make peace with Russia’s increasingly critical clique of influential businessmen yesterday by ordering his tax police to stop 'terrorising' companies." So Putin wasn't only scaring the bejeesus out of the near abroad, Eastern and Central Europe, and the West. Well, I certainly want to invest all of's financial resources into Russia right now!!--ed. And that's about all I'm expecting Putin to reap from this speech.]

posted by Dan at 09:14 AM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (3)

Monday, April 25, 2005

What happens if the French say "non"?

When we last left the French referendum on the EU constitution, President Jacques Chirac had bungled a TV appearance designed to bolster support for a "oui" vote.

In today's Financial Times, John Thornhill reports that France's neighbors are warning of the apocalypse if France says non.

A French rejection of the European Union's constitutional treaty would result in the “fall of Europe,” Romano Prodi, former president of the European Commission, warned on Sunday.

His words came as the Yes campaign stepped up its increasingly desperate search for a strategy to turn the tide of public opinion ahead of the May 29 vote. In the starkest warning yet of the consequences for the EU if French voters reject the treaty Mr Prodi who was in office when it was drawn up told a French newspaper: “There would be no more Europe. We will pass through a long period of crisis.

“The problem will not only be a catastrophe for France, but the fall of Europe.”

Mr Prodi said the treaty was not perfect but was the best compromise possible. “It is impossible for me to imagine a French No. I have always thought of France as a pillar of Europe.

“A No would be catastrophic for Europe, from a social and economic point of view, not only political. And that is the whole contradiction: everybody knows very well that there is no Europe without France, yet France does not realise the chance it has with Europe. She should reflect on that because an isolated France would be very weak,” he said....

However, the latest opinion polls in France suggest the No camp is consolidating its lead with 58 per cent support. They also suggest that a growing number of French voters are playing down the fallout from a No vote.

The fact that articles like this one and this Charlemagne column in the Economist are being printed suggests that experts are taking the likelihood of a non vote very seriously.

Of course, this begs the question -- would a rejection of the EU constitution really mean the end of the EU project? I'd like to hear from the Europeanists in the audience, but this strikes me as a gross exaggeration. The European project has managed to generate a common market, a common Court of Justice, the euro, Schengenland, an increasingly assertive European parliament, and even the faint stirrings of a common foreign and defense policy -- all using the current set of legal and political arrangements. None of these will disappear if the French say non (a good indicator of its significance will be to see what happens to the value of the euro as the probability of a non vote approaches one. If it actually starts to fall in value, then I'm wrong).

The "end of Europe" claim by Prodi is an extreme version of the "bicycle theory" of international integration, which says that if there is any slowdown in integration, the process starts to wobble like a slow bicycle, eventually toppling under its own weight. This line was also used after the Maastricht accord was signed in the early nineties. I suspect that warnings like Prodi's will, if anything, further turn off people against what elites tell them about the European Union.

Does this mean the EU would just sail along after a French rejection? Non, it would not, but I'm not sure that the ensuing difficulties would be any more severe than, say, what the World Trade Organization experienced after the 1999 Battle in Seattle. The EU will live on.

What will be interesting to see is whether the rest of Europe would interpret a negative vote as an actual rejection of the planned future of the EU or explain it away as a rejection of Jacques Chirac and nothing more.

posted by Dan at 03:59 PM | Comments (25) | Trackbacks (4)

Sunday, April 24, 2005

In praise of the average Americans

If there is one thing that too many modern-day Democrat and Republican party elites share, it's a mild contempt for the average American. For Democrats, Americans are obese spendthrifts susceptible to faith-based argumentation at the expeense of logic and evidence. For Republicans, Americans are obese spendthrifts susceptible to the temptations of a debased popular culture at the expense of moral probity.

Well, a bunch of stories this week suggest that the average American is a hell of a lot smarter than the donkey and elephant elites.

Over at Slate, Daniel Gross observes that Americans are responding to interest rate increases by.... reducing their spending and paying off their debts:

It turns out many customers are having entirely rational reactions to rising interest rates (and perhaps the new bankruptcy law). They're taking the sometimes painful steps necessary to reduce credit card debt before it gets too onerous. Perhaps MBNA was caught short because it has taken consumers so long to wake up. For nearly 20 years, consumers were schooled to believe that interest rates generally fell and that any increases were short-term blips. Now, the Fed has boosted rates seven times recently, and we've entered a period in which interest rates will likely rise or remain stable—but not fall.

Credit card companies have been operating in an era of falling interest rates so long that they may have forgotten that when interest rates rise, people either seek to pay down debt or look for cheaper sources of financing....

There's another wrinkle in the complex interest-rate climate that may hurt credit card companies. Interest rates on credit cards tend to respond to moves in short-term interest rates, which means they are rising. But mortgage rates respond to moves in long-term interest rates. And those rates remain remarkably low. Since long-term rates are steady, it now makes more sense for people who need cash to turn to a home-equity line of credit rather than to an MBNA card.

At the margins, some Americans seem to be using their slowly growing incomes to reduce credit card debt rather than to buy new stuff. (That could be one factor behind March's weak retail spending report.)

And while we're on the subject of consumer behavior, could commentators please stop bashing Americans for not saving enough when they are acting rationally? If the assets that Americans hold -- like equities or their houses, for example -- are dramatically increasing in value, then it makes sense that their stream of additional savings will taper off.

Meanwhile, earlier this week Jonathan Bor and Frank Roylance reported in the Baltimore Sun that just a smidgen of obesity might be good for you:

Government analysts downgraded the annual death toll from obesity Tuesday in a study that is certain to bewilder a public already obsessed with dieting and nutrition.

In fact, they inexplicably found that people who weigh a few pounds more than the ideal are less likely to die than those who weigh a few pounds less.

Taken together, the findings will undoubtedly leave scientists and consumers arguing over obesity's true role in mortality -- though no one argues that being overweight is good for you.

The latest report by scientists with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that obesity kills about 112,000 people a year, only a third of the number estimated just four months ago....

The study, which mines data from three national health surveys spanning the 1970s through 2000, also found that people who are slightly overweight actually have a lower chance of dying than people who weigh a few pounds less.

The same cannot be said for people who are truly obese; they face a greater risk the more weight they gain.

Health experts agree that American are becoming fatter with each passing year, leading to an epidemic of diabetes, even among children.

Still, Tuesday's announcement will hearten critics who have argued that government agencies, which spend millions convincing Americans to eat less and exercise more, have inflated obesity's death toll.

The legal team here at would like to remind everyone that this report does not recommend obesity and that anyone now tempted to go order several Hardee's Monster Thickburgers are doing so at their own discretion and not with the blessing of More seriously, check out food economist Parke Wilde for an informed appraisal of the ramifications of the CDCP study.

Finally, that allegedly brain-dead American boob tube may acually provide more cognitive stimulation than previously thought. Steven Johnson explains why this might be true in the New York Times Magazine:

For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ''masses'' want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But as that ''24'' episode suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of ''24,'' you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ''24,'' you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion -- video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms -- turn out to be nutritional after all.

I believe that the Sleeper Curve is the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today, and I believe it is largely a force for good: enhancing our cognitive faculties, not dumbing them down. And yet you almost never hear this story in popular accounts of today's media. Instead, you hear dire tales of addiction, violence, mindless escapism. It's assumed that shows that promote smoking or gratuitous violence are bad for us, while those that thunder against teen pregnancy or intolerance have a positive role in society. Judged by that morality-play standard, the story of popular culture over the past 50 years -- if not 500 -- is a story of decline: the morals of the stories have grown darker and more ambiguous, and the antiheroes have multiplied.

The usual counterargument here is that what media have lost in moral clarity, they have gained in realism. The real world doesn't come in nicely packaged public-service announcements, and we're better off with entertainment like ''The Sopranos'' that reflects our fallen state with all its ethical ambiguity. I happen to be sympathetic to that argument, but it's not the one I want to make here. I think there is another way to assess the social virtue of pop culture, one that looks at media as a kind of cognitive workout, not as a series of life lessons. There may indeed be more ''negative messages'' in the mediasphere today. But that's not the only way to evaluate whether our television shows or video games are having a positive impact. Just as important -- if not more important -- is the kind of thinking you have to do to make sense of a cultural experience. That is where the Sleeper Curve becomes visible.

Read the whole thing. The only troubling note I found in the piece was the admission that, "The only prominent holdouts [to more cognitively sophisticated plots] in drama are shows like ''Law and Order'' that have essentially updated the venerable ''Dragnet'' format and thus remained anchored to a single narrative line." Which is true, except that when you tally up all the "Law and Order" and "CSI" shows & spinoffs, that's an awful lot of the prime time schedule.

Johnson earns my goodwill, however, by labeling his phenomenon the Sleeper Curve after this classic exchange from the Woody Allen movie Sleeper:

SCIENTIST A: Has he asked for anything special?
SCIENTIST B: Yes, this morning for breakfast . . . he requested something called ''wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk.''
SCIENTIST A: Oh, yes. Those were the charmed substances that some years ago were felt to contain life-preserving properties.
SCIENTIST B: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or . . . hot fudge?
SCIENTIST A: Those were thought to be unhealthy.

posted by Dan at 09:09 PM | Comments (70) | Trackbacks (2)