31 January 2006

Think you are good at counting?

Try this one on for size [Note: Download may take a couple minutes]. The goal is to count the number of passes made by the players wearing white. Don't count the passes made by players in black. Can you tell how many passes were made?

Watch the video now and then navegate back to this page...

How many balls did you count? 13, 14, or 15. I usually get 14, but I noticed that at one point it appears the girl in white dishes one off while partially hidden from view, so that is 15. Go ahead and watch it again and see what you get this time.

Okay how many did you count the second time? Wait! Did you see anything else? No? If not, go back and watch the video again, this time don't count the balls at all, just watch the video. Can you believe you missed that (twice no less)?!

23 January 2006

The Human Element

Because legislation is not driven by the market it lacks information. If the president wants to cut aid to a poor nation he will almost certainly catch bad press, even if the money is destroying the country. A commonly given rationale for cutting foreign aid or restructuring it is that in its present form currupt government officials pilfer much of it... prepetuating the poverty and hence calls for more "aid." Tim Harford gives another reason why we need to rethink our aid strategy in the Undercover Economist. It could have come straight from a Human Factors Engineering journal, though in my opinion it belongs in Engineering Ethics:

Maintence requires two big jobs: keeping the dam in one piece, and clearing the canals of obstructions. This is a lot of work. Farmers won't bother unless they see the benefits, and this potentially leads to a problem. The problem is that while all farmers need the dam to be kept in one piece, farmers near the dam don't much care what happens to the drainage canals farther down the hill. So why should they bother to help with the drainage canals? Fortunately, most farming communities in Nepal have worked out a system of cooperation... the farmers downstream help maintain the dam in exchange for assistance on the canals. So far, so good.

...[However], if a big donor pays for a new dam, everything falls apart. This is not because the dam itself does; quite the reverse. Because the concrete dam needs much less maintenance than the traditional one, the cooperatrion aggreement, which maintained the entire irrigation system, no longer works...

Many modern irrigation systems in Nepal end in failrue because although the technical properties of the system may have been understood and improved, the human properties of the system have not been addressed at all.

Human Factors Engineering, which I am currently studying, is focused on understanding these human properties and adapting the system to accomodate it. Unfortunately, in this and other cases, that analysis either doesn't get done or it is done very poorly. I'm guessing this is because those in charge are more concerned with pointing to a dollar figure ("look how generous we are") than they are with the details. In too many cases these overlooked details, which I will admit would entail non-trivial cost, are what make or break the aid package. So instead of a slightly reduced package that is effective, our less fortunate neighbors get very little benefit (or postive harm) at great cost to us.

20 January 2006

A refreshing surprise from Tim

My (not so) new favorite Economics writer, Tim Harford, has impressed me once again. His The Undercover Economist was a joy to read. And this is from a guy that has read plenty of introductory and pop Economics books. This is the best one. If I've recommended a book in the past and you have yet to act on that recommendation, in light of a new basket of goods and services (including this book), I would advise that you forget the last recommendation and read this book.

I'm always trying to convince people to read these types of books, but I'm usually met with a blank or somewhat skew-faced stare. I refuse to admit that the only reason that I really like this book is because I am interested in the subject. When people says a book is well written, I am prone to write off that endorsement as another thing people say when they like a book and are trying to get you to read it. What they mean is that it was well written for them and they hope for you too. Well, here I'm saying The Undercover Economist is actually well written, and I agree with Steve Levitt (of Freakonomics) that this book should be required reading. Except that that would defeat the point.

Some of my next entries will be related to the book and in so doing I hope that even if I can't get you to read the book, you will at least be exposed-- in a much less skillful and enjoyable way-- to its basic ideas. These happen to be basic ideas to microeconomics and as such may not seem revolutionary, but if you are knowledgeable on the subject you will appreciate the new approach.

09 January 2006

When free, well, isn't again.

This time I went to Rocinha. They advertised drinks for 1 centavo, about .045 cents. So basically free, right? Um, think again.

They wouldn't accept anything other than the newest issue of the 1 centavo coin. The older 1 centavo coin which is still in circulation was not accepted, nor was any coin of higher value (in fact, they wouldn't take R$1, or 100 x 1 centavos). So, in essence, the accepted coin became a token, whose value rose well beyond the face value. I paid R$1 for 2 centavos at one point and another 50 centavos for 2 more centavos. At another point I found 2 centavos sitting on the table and stole them, replacing them with a 10 centavo piece. I had a hard time feeling bad -- stealing a Honda Civic and replacing it with a Ferrari.

I hope they took all those centavos that they collected and melted them into bullets and shot the guy that invented the 1 centavo piece... which wouldn't be surprising, considering it was Rocinha.

07 January 2006

When free, well, isn't.

I went to my friend's concert in Niteroi tonight. I was pretty excited, seeing as entrance was free, including free food! However, I soon remembered my economic roots -- there is no such thing as a free lunch (or churrasco!). Indeed, I waited in line for this "free" food for about 25 minutes, almost the whole time my friend was playing on stage (top of a huge music trailer). How much I would have paid to get in a shorter line! Um, how about R$5. I'm sure that price would surpass the dollar value of time spent for AT LEAST some of the shows patrons standing in the line. So how about having two or three lines. One free, for all those who don't mind waiting. Then another for, say, R$3 or R$5 for those are in a hurry to get back to the concert (mind you for the same quality food). The price would be "sold" voluntarily to only those who feel their concert time is worth more than the "freeness" of the food. In addition, it would act as a fundraiser for the event sponsors!

05 January 2006

By Anonymous

Anonymity is a way of increasing supply. Police take anonymous tips because they know that if they didn't, they'd get less. I allow anonymous comments on this blog because otherwise I'd only get, um, 1 or 2 a month. I do this because more than wanting to know "who said it," I want some critiques and comments on the stuff I'm thinking about. But that doesn't mean I don't want to know who, you, my commentors are!

Police would love to know who is supplying them information, in their case so they can check credibility, do follow-up questioning, have a witness, etc. I would love to know who my anonymous commentors are as it would allow me to apply a type of Bayesian update (used very loosely) to our relationship status. However, I also derive pleasure from providing an outlet to which people may anonymously post (sometimes it just feels good to get your ideas out there, regardless of whether you are getting credit or not).

Now this brings me to my most recent comment, from Anonymous. Just in case the commentor decides to erase it later, I'll reproduce it here
Hum... além de ser lindo e arrasar na pista de dança vc tb é inteligente!!! Gostei do seu blog.Mas gostei ainda mais de vc. Aguardando atualizações... Beijos de sua admiradora brasileira.
Here is my, admittably faliable, translation into English
Hmm... besides being handsome and demolishing the dance floor you are also intelligent!!! I liked your blog. But I liked you even more. Awaiting updates... Kisses from your Brazilian admirer.
Now I'm not one to blackmail, and I'm not sure you can blackmail an anonymous person, but I'll make the following proposition to my "admiradora brasileira." I'll take down this post when you ask me to, unanonymously! Beijos, Jeff!

Addendum: Having read the comment, you may be asking yourself, "Jeff, that seems fairly specific... how can you not know who it is?" In reality, if I'm not being duped, I can only think of one person that would write it... but then I didn't think she knew my last name or that I had a blog. So that shakes it up just enough to be interesting!

02 January 2006

Preserving culture: make sure to rotate your storage

Just like your food storage, some say you should rotate your culture. To be more precise, you should allow it to change. That is the opinion of Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy prof. at Princeton University from Ghana. I agree with him that people and their freedoms to choose their own lifestyle are more important than so called "culture preservation." And as Appiah writes in the New York Times Magazine, it is people that are beneficiaries of globalization. Nor is it accurate to say globalization is causing homogeneity of culture --or least not an undesirable kind.

Since it is a long article, here are some of my favorite quotes (though if you are interested in the topic I suggest reading it):

Talk of cultural imperialism "structuring the consciousnesses" of those in the periphery treats people like Sipho as blank slates on which global capitalism's moving finger writes its message, leaving behind another cultural automaton as it moves on. It is deeply condescending. And it isn't true.


When we make judgments, after all, it's rarely because we have applied well-thought-out principles to a set of facts and deduced an answer. Our efforts to justify what we have done - or what we plan to do - are typically made up after the event, rationalizations of what we have decided intuitively to do. And a good deal of what we intuitively take to be right, we take to be right just because it is what we are used to. That does not mean, however, that we cannot become accustomed to doing things differently.


Cosmopolitans believe in universal truth, too, though we are less certain that we already have all of it. It is not skepticism about the very idea of truth that guides us; it is realism about how hard the truth is to find.

01 January 2006

Internal Consitency on Porn (or whatever it is!)

New legislation seeks to ban the sale of postcards laden with ladies in bikinis in Rio de Janeiro. The premise is to reduce sex tourism and the image of Rio as a scuzzy city. Having viewed the postcards in question, my unsubstantiated opinion is that banning them will produce little of the desired effect.

  1. People who buy the postcards are already in Rio de Janeiro. They are here for a reason and the postcard that they see/buy during the trip doesn't change that.
  2. I don't know what kind of people would actually send these types of postcards to a friend, but I assume that word of mouth would do more than some staged photo to intice the friend to come (whether for sex tourism, the beaches, or the culture).
In addition, these post card are by far not the worse thing being displayed in the street. More concerning are the naked women displayed on beach towels hanging in store windows and adult magazine advertisements on billboards and on the sidewalk (no they don't cover like in the US). These are much more prominently displayed meaning that you (and all the children) walking down the street or driving on the high way are pretty much forcibly exposed to it. And as a colluege pointed out to me, while you will find many scantily clad beach goers in Ipanema, you won't find a naked woman covering herself with only her hair and hands.

Not done yet. O Globo, Rio de Janeiro's major newspaper, occasionally features photographs of topless women.

Oh one more. Have you ever been to Carnival. Not a lot of clothes being worn there either.

Obviously (to me on the beach), Brazil is more open about exposing the human body than in the US, though perhaps less so than in Europe where topless is the way women go. So to me this is a problem of priorities. And it seems rather obvious. Which leads me to conclude that perhaps the postcard ban is the easiest piece of legislation to push through because it isn't supported by a huge media conglomerate like Playboy, while still appeasing the more fundamental constituents and not really bothering anybody but the few gringos that buy the postcards as gag gifts or memorabilia.

But then again, I'm not surprised. It seems few people are or care to be consitent.