Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Seven Pounds": I Told You So!

Friday night, I watched "Seven Pounds" (Amazon and IMDb), starring Will Smith. This blog usually isn't a venue for film reviews, but let me quickly say:

(1) The film is 2 hours and 3 minutes long.
(2) My rating after seeing the first 1 hour and 55 minutes would have been 1 or 2 stars.
(3) My rating after seeing the ending is 5 stars.

Once again, I'm glad that I didn't follow Tyler Cowen's advice to give up on the movie too soon, as I discussed a few days ago.

Oddly, the movie explores the same question I wrote about here a few months ago. However, if you're interested in the movie, I strongly encourage you to see it first before reading too much about it online or clicking this link. But the link is here.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Grocery Store Waste Is Good

CC photo from Steve Hopson on Flickr.

Farmers, restaurants and supermarkets throw away millions of tons of edible food each year at a time when a growing number of Californians struggle to put food on the table.

State studies have found that more than six million tons of food products are dumped annually, enough to fill the Staples Center in Los Angeles 35 times over. Food is the largest single source of waste in California, making up 15.5 percent of the Golden State’s waste stream, according to the California Integrated Waste Management Board.
The above figures come from a partisan source, but no one is disputing the fact that grocery stores throw away a lot of expired food.

But is the waste bad? How could stores be set up to never waste perishable foods?

If stores and farmers could perfectly predict demand from week to week far ahead of time, there would be no waste. One week, customers at a given store would want 213 bunches of bananas, and that store would have stocked exactly 213. Obviously, this is not realistic. And even with omniscient grocery stores, consumers would still do a fair bit of throwing away themselves.

Another way would be to limit supply to the bare minimum. Suppose that demand for bananas at a given grocery store fluctuated between 120 and 300 bunches of bananas each week. To never throw away a rotten banana, the store would stock only 120 bunches each week.

If only one store in an area did this, the store would forgo many profitable sales, as its banana-spurned customers shopped elsewhere. If all stores in the area did this, the price of bananas would skyrocket. In either case, farmers and stores would have every incentive to increase production and therefore make more money. Depending on the underlying distribution of weekly banana demand, perhaps our hypothetical store should stock 250 bunches a week. Sometimes demand will fall short and bananas will go bad, but the strategy will be more profitable and consumers will be better off.

As it is now, the grocery store can change prices to help equate supply and demand. If the store has a batch of bananas about to expire, suddenly there's a sale on bananas. However, bananas are already extremely cheap, so customers are only sensitive to price changes up to a point. Eventually, it's cheaper to throw bananas away than to sell them for a penny (or even for negative prices; i.e., paying customers to take them). And there's nothing wrong with that, because the store tolerates a few rotten bananas in some weeks for higher profits in other weeks.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Domestic Beer Means Cheap Beer

Sam Adams is actually brewed in America, despite its decent taste.

I got a chuckle from a recent blog post written by Washington Post copy chief Bill Walsh. Walsh writes that Samuel Adams is often mistakenly listed on menus as "imported," because "domestic" has become such a synonym for "cheap" and "inferior" when it comes to beer.

Does this perception prove that American goods are inherently shoddy? Or that our status as a world leader is in jeopardy?

No. It's no surprise that the only foreign beers that get widely sold in the United States are the fancier ones.

Suppose that there is a German-brewed equivalent of Bud Light (I'll call it GBL, for German Bud Light). Just like GBL's American counterpart, in the trade-off between taste and price, the pendulum has swung almost all the way in favor of the latter. There's certainly a large market for bottom-of-the-line beer, but GBL cannot compete with BL in the United States because GBL faces higher transportation costs to get the product across the Atlantic.

Now, if labor were significantly cheaper in Germany and if the beer production process required a sufficiently high proportion of labor-to-capital costs, then GBL could save enough money on labor to make up for the transportation costs and thus have a shot at competing with BL. But we don't see such beers very often, suggesting that domestic brewers have an advantage when it comes to supplying the watery ale craved by broke American college students.

On the other hand, perhaps cultural acceptance is a larger hurdle than distribution costs. After Googling around for a while using phrases like "Budweiser in Japan," I found this article, which reports that Budweiser in 2000 had a minuscule share of the Japanese beer market despite hefty advertising.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Returns to Scale in Sports

The authors of "The Wages of Wins" point out that basketball talent follows the law of diminishing returns: each additional talented player helps the team less than the player before him. Time and possessions are scarce; there is only one ball, and when one star has it, his teammates, by definition, do not. In their words:

To further illustrate this point, consider a team comprised of the top five players at each position in 1993-94. Such a team would have John Stockton (22.0 wins produced) at point guard, Nick Anderson (13.3 wins produced) at shooting guard, Scottie Pippen (20.4 wins produced) at small forward, Dennis Rodman (29.6 wins produced) at power forward, and Shaquille O’Neal (26.8 wins produced) at center. These players combined to produce 112 wins. If all these players were on the same team, though, their wins produced could not exceed the length of the regular season, or 82 victories. Hence, if we put all five players on the same team someone would have to play worse.
If you don't like the abstract concept of wins, here's an easier one: if you take the top 5 scorers in the NBA, who each average around 30 points per game, and put them on the same team, the team won't average 150 points per game. There just aren't enough shots to go around.

Similarly, adding a productive hitter to an already-talented baseball team also will decrease his productivity or that of one of his teammates. This is because top spots in the batting order are limited. Each time someone besides the No. 9 hitter makes his team's last out in a game, he and the players ahead of him end up with one more plate appearance than the players lower in the batting order. Over the course of the season, the No. 1 hitter gets about 140 more plate appearances than the No. 9 hitter. Each spot down the order gets about 15 to 20 fewer plate appearances per year than the spot preceding it (see the data for yourself). If the team's new hitter now bats sixth instead of third, as he did with his previous team, he'll get fewer opportunities to drive in runs.

Starting pitching, on the other hand, has constant returns. One star starter does not detract from another star starter. Both pitch every 5 days and, barring injury, will end up with about the same number of starts.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Why No One Besides Tyler Cowen Leaves Movies Early

"Think of all the bad films you've sat through just to get the answer to the nagging question."

So says screenwriter Robert McKee, as quoted in "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die."

One of the professors in my program, Tyler Cowen, is famous for leaving movies early:

"People should be more willing to walk out of movies," he tells anyone who will listen. "Most movies -- they grab you or they don't, and if they don't, just leave. Just go. You have already lost money. Why lose the time?"

If a movie doesn't hook Cowen, he reads a book outside while his wife remains in her seat. Most recent movie they both left: "Greenberg," starring Ben Stiller.
Underlying this behavior, at least how I see it, is the economic maxim of diminishing returns. Basically, for pretty much everything in life, each extra unit is worth less than the one that came before it.

For instance, the first piece of pizza you eat in a sitting is great, while the seventh piece is much less enjoyable. For Tyler, he figures he could stay and watch all 20 scenes of a given movie, but he decides to leave after seeing the first 12 and figures he won't miss much.

But movies usually offer a spike of interest and enjoyment at the end, because the conclusion is so important. Seeing the movie's ending is often worth suffering through the boring middle parts. Even if the ending is predictable, most of us like to see the good guy win or the lovers finally unite.

For example, I definitely sat through some less-than-stellar "24" episodes this season, just to see if Jack Bauer made it out alive and if the sinister Charles Logan got what was coming to him.

Also, I have the unfortunate hobby of following the Los Angeles Dodgers from the East Coast, where most games start at 10 p.m. local time. Contrast how I act if I watch the last six innings of a game versus if I watch the first six innings.

If I begin watching in the fourth inning, I usually just take the current score as given and don't care how we got there. After watching the ninth inning, I feel a sense of completeness, even though I missed a third of the game.

If I begin watching in the first inning and fall asleep sometime during the sixth, I can't help but wonder how the game ended. The morning after, I inevitably have to look up the final score online. I've missed just as much of the game as in the previous example, but the experience is much different.

Maybe the "he reads a book outside while his wife remains in her seat" part is crucial to Cowen's strategy. After all, it's not so bad to miss the end of a movie if you have someone to fill you in.

The iPhone and Avoiding Feature Creep

There's an interesting aside in "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die" about feature creep. The authors parody the design of a typical TV remote: one designer wants to add a button that allows users to toggle between the Gregorian and Julian calendars, a feature that few users would actually want. But because no other designers are willing to put up much of a fight, the button gets incorporated into the final design. Before long, however, the remote is so overdesigned that it becomes difficult to do the basic things it was intended for: namely, changing the channels and adjusting the volume.

The iPhone, and phones like it, could easily have fallen victim to this desire to add features. Yet Apple locked itself in to simple by shipping devices with only two buttons and volume controls. Additionally, the number of apps that come with the phone are minimal, but users can download whatever additional apps they'd like. That way, users can have a versatile device without being bogged down by the niche features they don't want.

For instance, I love my MLB At-Bat, Kindle for iPhone, and RSS reader apps, but many people would see them as a waste of space. It's like we all have our own customized remotes now. One man's calendar toggler is another man's essential feature.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Quarterback Inconsistency Due to Short Seasons?

In "The Wages of Wins," the authors argue that "quarterbacks are like mutual funds," as past performance cannot determine future productivity.

For instance, the authors decided to "grade" each quarterback, based on that quarterback's productivity compared to the rest of the league in each season, to compare how quarterbacks did from year to year. Each quartile received its own letter grade; i.e., the top 20% of quarterbacks in a given year received A's, the next 20% received B's, and so on.

Often, quarterbacks are rather inconsistent, as evidenced by Kerry Collins:
As a rookie in 1995, Collins ranked in the lowest 20%, receiving an F. In 1996 his performance improved and he received a B. The next two seasons, thought, Collins declined, earning an F in both campaigns. Then in 1999 he earned a C, followed by a B in 2000. After declining again, this time to a C, in 2001, Collins earned an A for his efforts in 2002. Unfortunately his success was short-lived, as his performance was worth a D in 2003. In 2004, the final year we examined, Collins earned a C.
The authors conjecture that quarterback performance varies widely because their success is so dependent on on how the other players block, catch, and play defense.

Each NFL season consists of 16 games. I wondered if batters in baseball, whose batting average is thought to be independent of their teammates, would look similarly inconsistent when examined in 16-game chunks.

Someone with more time and inclination could look at a larger sample, but I looked at Tony Gwynn's 1997 season, in which he won the National League batting title with a .372 average (I used data from the ever-useful Baseball-Reference). That year, Gwynn played 149 games. The below table summarizes Gwynn's performance in the first 144 games, divided into nine 16-game periods.

PeriodAt-batsHitsAveragePercent change

Gwynn's lowest period average is .306, still far above the league average (historically around .260). But if he were judged like NFL quarterbacks are, we'd wonder why Gwynn had such a huge drop-off from period 1 to period 2 (equivalent to comparing one season against another in the NFL) before making a huge rebound in period 3. The latter part of the sample, though, doesn't much look like a mutual fund, as the deviations from one "season" to the next aren't very large.

Whether other batters are more or less streaky than Gwynn in '97 remains to be seen.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Why Are Standardized Tests So Long?

The Advanced Placement physics test is three hours long, encompassing 70 multiple choice questions and six to eight free-response questions. Other standardized tests, including the SAT and GRE, are similarly daunting. The LSAT (for lawyers) and MCAT (for doctors) both take up half a day.

But why? I sometimes wonder what's being tested: the student's knowledge of the material or his test-taking stamina.

Each additional hour of testing has declining returns in terms of evaluating the student's true underlying ability. It's always nice to have more data, but couldn't testing services draw pretty much the same conclusions from 30 multiple choice questions that they could from 70? Over a million students take the SAT alone each year. If each of these tests were an hour shorter with nearly the same results, wouldn't we all be better off? Not to mention, shorter tests are also less expensive to grade, at least for the free-response parts.

If we held the percentage of passing grades constant, I imagine we'd feel okay with a slightly different group of kids passing the shorter AP physics test but we'd be worried that a slightly different group of potential doctors was passing the shorter MCAT. But are the potential doctors who excel on short tests necessarily worse than those who excel on long tests?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Is Blood Donation Too Much Like Gambling?

There's a very thoughtful post on blood donation over at this field is required. The author writes:

And there’s something that really bothers me about the United Blood Services center that I visit: they really overemphasize all of these stupid rewards programs for frequent donors. It’s tacky as hell, and somehow a little insulting. No, I don’t want to fill out a slip that will enter me in a sweepstakes to win a car. No, I don’t want to log in online and trade my points for prizes.
The author says she would prefer cash incentives to increase supply, or even no compensation at all. I agree with her but do see a potential for abuse. Read her original post and my comment here.

Game Theory and Natural Selection

Richard Dawkins shares a fascinating application of game theory in his 1976 book "The Selfish Gene," which he attributes to biologist J. Maynard Smith.

I won't get too far into the details, but a mixed-strategy Nash equilibrium in game theory is essentially the set of best strategies for each player in a game, given the other player's strategies. For instance, in soccer, the shooter shouldn't always kick to the right side of the goal, even if it's his strongest side, because the goalie would always dive to the same side and stop most of the shots. It may be the case, for example, that the shooter should kick right 5/7 of the time and left 2/7 of the time, while the goalie should dive right 3/4 of the time and left 1/4 of the time. If either player deviates from this strategy, he is worse off.

Dawkins applies this same idea to the evolution of genes for aggression:

An evolutionary stable strategy or ESS is defined as a strategy which, if most of the members of a population adopt it, cannot be bettered by an alternative strategy. It is a subtle and important idea. Another way of putting it is to say that the best strategy for an individual depends on what the majority of the population are doing. Since the rest of the population consists of individuals, each one trying to maximize his own success, the only strategy that persists will be one which, once employed, cannot be bettered by any deviant individual. Following a major environmental change there may be a brief period of evolutionary instability, perhaps even oscillation in the population. But once an ESS is achieved it will stay: selection will penalize deviation from it.
Dawkins imagines a species in which individuals could act as either "doves" or "hawks" (not the actual birds, but the attitudes toward aggression). Doves never pick fights and always run away when threatened. Hawks always fight as hard as they can, only surrendering when seriously injured. Dawkins assigns some arbitrary payouts to each strategy and concludes that neither can completely dominate: a hawk has a huge advantage in a population full of doves, and vice versa. However, a fixed proportion of the two strategies will eventually emerge and hold stable, when the payoffs to being a dove or being a hawk are equal. In Dawkins' numerical example, equilibrium is reached when the population consists of 5/12 doves and 7/12 hawks.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Most Outfield Assists = Best Arm?

CC image from kla4067 on Flickr.

The Dodgers' Matt Kemp led all National League center fielders with 14 assists last year (standings). Does that mean he has the best center field arm?

Not necessarily. As the Orioles broadcasters pointed out a few days ago (at least I think it was the Orioles; I watch a lot of games!), once an outfielder has established a reputation for a strong arm, coaches and base runners become more conservative. Many of the runners he would have otherwise gunned out at second base or at the plate are now staying put at the previous base. Outfield assists would be a great measure of arm strength if base runners made the same decisions regardless of who's throwing, but that obviously isn't the case.

The same can be said about the number of times a catcher throws out base runners attempting to steal.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Why MLB Teams Have Their Own TV Announcers but NFL Teams Don't

CC photo from anniemack on Flickr.

The above photo is of Vin Scully, who has been the Dodgers' broadcaster since 1950. For many in Southern California, a love for the Dodgers and a love for Vinny go hand in hand. Fans across the nation feel much the same way about their own long-tenured baseball announcers (many of whom are now deceased), whether it be Harry Kalas in Philadelphia, Jack Buck in St. Louis, Harry Caray in Chicago, Jon Miller in San Francisco, and so forth.

But football teams don't have their own exclusive TV announcers. The economics of each sport dictates its broadcasting style, due to differences in national TV exposure and advertising.

For the majority of fans, baseball is a regional sport. Only occasionally do fans see national broadcasts of random matchups on ESPN, Fox, and other channels. Only two teams--the White Sox and the Cubs (and until recently, the Braves)--have anything resembling a regular national TV presence. Only recently could diehard fans follow out-of-market teams through premium services such as DirecTV or MLB.TV. But the local team can be seen day in and day out, so it makes sense for the club to have its own announcers to build a sense of consistency, warmth, and intimacy with the viewers.

Every Sunday during the NFL season, each game is seen in the local markets of the participating teams as well as other parts of the country, often nationwide. In both baseball and football, local broadcasts are blacked out whenever there's a national broadcast. This is because the league earns more money from national advertisers who can reach the most earnest viewers in the local markets, as well as the rest of the country, than each team could earn from local advertisers on its own broadcast. Because every game is seen by fans across the country, there's no room for each team to have its own TV broadcasters.

On the radio, teams in both sports have their own announcing crews. In the playoffs, both sports employ a single TV broadcast for each game. Advertising and national exposure are the rationale for both.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Suspended from Track? Just Play Pro Basketball

Marion Jones, the famous U.S. track star who is serving a 2-year suspension from the sport, has played her first game for the WNBA's Tulsa Shock (USA Today).

I was going to write a borderline sexist comment about how women's sports lack competition, as evidenced by Jones' ability to take up basketball at the highest level at the age of 34. But we have to remember the various two-sports male stars. Bo Jackson was a No. 1 overall NFL pick and a second-round MLB pick, and he was selected to all-star squads in both sports. Deion Sanders played in both a World Series and a Super Bowl. And the list goes on.

I've been reading about the Noll-Scully measure for league competitiveness in "The Wages of Wins." Essentially, the statistic measures how far actual league standings deviate from what the standings would be if the league were perfectly balanced. Noll-Scully shows that the NBA is the least competitive league among mainstream American sports, and the authors speculate that this is because of the scarcity of talented tall people among the general population. I was wondering if the WNBA was even worse, given the relative lack of athletic interest among women. However, a study by an Atlanta Dream blogger reveals that the WNBA is actually more competitive than the NBA.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Free Agency and the Coase Theorem

I recently came across an interesting point from "The Wages of Wins," a 2006 book by a trio of sports economists.

Many have argued that free agency has hindered the competitive balance in professional sports, because the rich teams can just buy up all the best players. The authors note that this talent hoarding has always been possible. They invoke the Coase theorem, which states, among other things, that resources tend to go toward their more valued uses, regardless of the initial property rights.

The teams in the biggest markets still had the highest relative value for talented players, because winning in these cities is more lucrative. Today's Yankees outbid the rest of baseball for the services of Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia on the free agent market. But the 1920 Yankees acquired Babe Ruth by sending $100,000 to the Red Sox. The richest teams could still acquire the best players, but now a lot more of the profits are going to the players instead of the teams that trade them away.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Poker Tournaments: Playing to Win Vs. Playing to Cash

CC image from banspy on Flickr.

Say you're in a one-table poker tournament with nine players, where the top three players get paid  (with a payout structure something like this). There are four players remaining: one with a short stack, two with a ton of chips, and you, somewhere in the middle. Say you are dealt pocket aces (the best starting hand). Many players in this situation would fold to avoid the risk of busting out, because there's someone else so close to going broke and thus guaranteeing you some prize money.

For most poker players I know, cashing is the ultimate goal, leading to extreme risk aversion when they're on the bubble. But they would do better by being aggressive in such lopsided situations. In the long run, playing pocket aces has a high expected value. If you played this situation a thousand times, a few times you'll get unlucky and bust out, but you also finish in first a lot more than you otherwise would have.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

No Reimbursement for Opportunity Costs

When a company flies you to another city for a job interview, it might offer to reimburse you for your travel expenses, your hotel, and your meals. But it's not going to pay you the daily wage you would have earned at your current job. Sure, you can just take a vacation day and earn your normal pay anyway, but that leaves you with one fewer vacation day. The prospective employer also won't reimburse you to offset the inconvenience of missing out on a night at home with your family and in your own bed.

An "all expenses paid" vacation similarly won't compensate you for the wages (or vacation days) you'll lose in order to go on the trip.

It's odd that corporations are willing to compensate you for expenditures but not for lost income and the cash equivalent of lost pleasure (your opportunity costs, or next-best alternatives). Maybe the former feels more real because money is changing hands. And most people don't dwell on this analysis, because an exciting job interview is well worth taking a day off and a "free" trip is well worth taking a week of vacation.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Would I Have Opposed Nutrition Facts Labels?

CC image from ericskiff on Flickr.

Nutrition Facts labels have been required on most foods in U.S. grocery stores since 1990. I was 4 years old at the time, but I can just picture the little economist inside me opposing the policy.

I would have raised all sorts of arguments about how we shouldn't make it harder or more expensive for firms to do business and how the labeling law was creating a barrier to entry that many food producers could not overcome, resulting in a less diverse grocery store selection. I'd use a bootleggers and Baptists analogy, which involves two morally opposed groups agreeing on a policy for different reasons. Health advocates would support the ban for obvious reasons, but so would corporate food manufacturers, which would now face less competition and thus be able to charge higher prices.

I've been mildly opposed to New York City's law that calorie counts be displayed on restaurant menus for much the same reasons, but perhaps I shouldn't be. The sacrifices required to implement Nutrition Facts labels seem well worth it in retrospect, because they have enabled consumers to make better decisions. This information gain has put pressure on food producers to improve the health content of their products or at least offer healthy alternatives.

One more devil's advocate point: as I said in my prior post, we have to measure the value of something by how much better it is over the next-best alternative. Without Nutrition Facts labels, most people would still know that an apple is healthier than a candy bar, even if they can't quantify the calories, cholesterol, or other parameters involved. How much does knowing the hard numbers really improve health outcomes?

Opportunity Cost: Transit Edition

Imagine a bus system of trivial expense that brings people to an otherwise unreachable neighborhood, where they spend $10 million a year. Does the region's economic activity grow by the full amount?

Only if we make the unrealistic assumption that these people would have spent zero otherwise (or chosen alternate activities with zero utility, if you want to think in terms of economic well-being instead of spending). Surely they would do something else with their time had the bus system not existed, and many of those something elses would involve spending money. This forgone spending must be substracted from the $10 million a year to calculate the marginal revenue of the bus system.

I don't mean to pick on transit advocates. But when we assess the value of something, it's important to remember the value of what's being given up and deduct accordingly. For a good overview of opportunity cost, see Frederic Bastiat's classic essay "What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Should It Be Easy to Apply for Jobs Online?

The effort required to apply for a job online varies considerably.

For some jobs, you just upload your resume and are done after a few clicks. Or the system scans your resume and prefills the required fields, which you then quickly verify.

Other jobs require you to create an account with that particular company, then navigate a maze of drop-down menus and text fields. You have to manually retype all your information, from employment history to education. Still others will require you to check radio buttons for 80 or so questions, such as "Would other people say that you are a hard worker?"

Although job applicants no doubt prefer the former, which approach suits the companies better?

In the former case, the recruiter spends much of her day sifting through resumes. Resumes are coming from all walks of life, from people who don't have enough experience, aren't that serious about the position, or just plain haven't read the job description. For applicants, though, it's best to err on the side of caution and apply, since it's so easy.

In the latter case, the cumbersome process will discourage many applicants. They'll go back and read the job description more closely, perhaps giving up if they know they don't stand a chance. But those who are qualified and who are serious about wanting the job will probably stick out the process. Now, recruiters have resumes from precisely the people they wanted. Of course, this only holds if the process isn't so arduous as to drive away too many qualified people as well.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mystery of the eBay Overbids Solved?

I bought another gift certificate off eBay for barely under face value, which spurred me to ask the seller what I was wondering about in a post a few months ago: why do gift certificates often sell for above face value?

The seller gave me this insightful response:
Ebay issues discount vouchers to buyers like 5 % or 10 % off. So buyers bid upto $105. Depends upon the terms and conditions of the voucher and their necessity.
That seems to make sense.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Bad Behavior and the Hall of Fame

Pete Rose was banned from baseball for betting on the game, and by extension, he's never been elected to the Hall of Fame. Now, Lawrence Taylor has been arrested for suspected rape of a minor, and there have been calls to remove him the NFL Hall of Fame.

One has to wonder if Rose would have been removed from the Hall of Fame, had he already been elected. In theory, bad behavior either does or does not disqualify a player, so whether he had already been elected should be irrelevant. But I imagine that the status quo would prevail.

This reminds me of an earlier post about naming campus buildings after alumni. It's always easier to bestow honors on people after they're dead and therefore have no chance of sullying their reputation.

How to Get Great Teacher Evaluations

From my experience the past two semesters, I've deduced the three simple steps to garnering favorable teacher evaluations:

(1) Be polarizing, to the point of frustrating the majority of your students while earning the deep admiration of a select few. In other words, become the academic equivalent of Sarah Palin.

(2) Don't enforce a strict attendance policy. Base the entire course grade on the final paper. Make it abundantly clear that students can just e-mail it to you if they want.

(3) Distribute teacher evaluations the last day of class.

And, voila! The only students filling out the evaluations are the ones who've liked you enough to deal with your eccentricities all semester. You've biased the sample in your favor.

Which would be great, if teacher evaluations actually mattered for anything.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Uncool Sports Techniques

A fascinating Wall Street Journal article last week discussed how Andy Murray's fellow tennis players demean his "pusher" style, even though he's ranked in the top 10 in the world. This spurred an exchange between a buddy and me about whether athletes foresake "uncool" techniques, even if they're potentially superior.

The prime example I could think of is underhand (or "granny" style) free-throw shooting, most famously practiced by Rick Barry in the '60s and '70s.

My buddy argued for the merits of the overhand shot:

Also --- I'd argue shooting an overhand (or whatever you call it, traditional) free throw is good because of the halo effect.

At the free throw line a struggling shooter can build confidence in his shooting motion by taking easy shots in the overhand motion. So take a few free throws, get your shot back, and suddenly you're swishing three-pointers again.
I can see his point, although Discover magazine and others disagree. Remaining agnostic, I asked: "Did you give underhand a fair shake when you were a kid, weighing the pros and cons and eventually deciding to abandon it?" It was a loaded question, of course. No kid gives underhand shooting the time of day, even if the (potentially) minor advantage might have scored him a few more points, won him a few more games, and so on.

By the way, I'm not the first person to make this observation.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Blogging as Accountability

Sent in from reader Hal Emmer:
I think another example, at least for some people, is blogging.  Even if you don't have much of an audience, the idea that people are out there who are waiting for you to do something is enough to get some people to do it.  I think "show and tell" blogs are the best examples of this - I am willing to bet that people who write about their cooking cook more (and more interesting stuff) than they otherwise would.
He's no doubt correct. This reminded me of a friend who blogs about the U Street neighborhood in DC. I can't speak for her, but she's probably seen more of the neighborhood than she otherwise would have, in order to generate blog material. In that same spirit, my fiancee and I hope our wedding blog will inspire us to keep hammering out all the details required to plan a wedding.

Hal's example also made me of think the ABC "Primetime" segment in 2005 that promised to show unflattering bikini photos of participants on the air if they didn't drop lose 15 pounds in 2 months. You can read more about the segment here, which I first learned about from the excellent game theory book "The Art of Strategy." As the book recounts, one participant narrowly missed the cutoff and basically threatened to sue ABC, which subsequently backed off. So ABC's threat wasn't so credible after all.

The examples in this post involve exposing yourself to peer pressure or the threat of public humiliation to inspire yourself to accomplish something. My previous posts, on enrolling in school and buying a Wii Fit, focused on committing money to something in order to guilt yourself into following through with it.

Feel free to send me more ideas if you have them.

Wii Fit as Accountability

In the same vein as what I wrote about yesterday:

My fiancee recently got herself a Wii Fit. I awoke (rather tardy) this morning to find her doing step aerobics.

Sharon: "I usually just switch it over to regular TV while I'm doing this."
Me: "Couldn't you have just done that without the Wii?"
Sharon: "Yeah, but I'd usually just be sitting there like you (sprawled lazily on the couch)."

The Wii remote has a built-in speaker, so the game can coach you along even if you've switched the TV to a different channel. The combination of hearing the remote's encouragement, knowing that the game is tracking your progress, and knowing that you would feel guilty if you spent money on the Wii Fit and never used it is enough to compel people to exercise instead of just sitting around.

Perhaps I'll write a longer series about this concept. If you have any ideas, feel free to e-mail me or leave a comment.