Monday, July 28, 2008

On conclusions and addictive thoughts

I'm working on a series of posts in which I seek new ways to talk to college writers about the nature of introductions and conclusions. Today, a first musing on conclusions.

David Carr recently published in the New York Times this astonishing bit of his new book The Night of the Gun. Carr's piece has from the beginning the advantage of ready-made biographical drama, as it recounts his recovery from addiction to become a successful journalist and father. It surpasses other, superficially similar narratives, however, by adding moments such as this one:

When a woman, any woman, has issues with substances, has kids out of wedlock and ends up struggling as a single parent, she is identified by many names: slut, loser, welfare mom, burden on society. Take those same circumstances and array them over a man, and he becomes a crown prince. See him doing that dad thing and, with a flick of the wrist, the mom thing too! Why is it that the same series of overt acts committed by a male becomes somehow ennobled?

Carr's ability to relate his own story but also step outside it and theorize it--and for all its engaging concreteness of word and image, this is a bit of unabashed theory--gives the reader a quick prompt to consider questions of gender, genre, and narrative structure that reach well beyond the essay's interesting but relatively ordinary musings on the uncertainty of memory. The passage strikes me as an example of what we teachers of writing have in mind when we tell students that an essay's conclusion should add something more, something that teases out the implications of an argument without simply changing the subject.

I feel the difficulty of describing the goals of critical essays using the example of a bit of memoir. If you would like to ponder the translation of similar subject matter into academic prose, have a gander at this review essay covering a number of new books on brain science. Let's ride this post out on a quotation:

Instead of recalling the experiences of both pleasure-filled high and painful withdrawal, the addict's memories may be overwhelmed by the powerful neural connections previously created by the drug. Only if memory is a matter of reconstruction of latent physical traces, not direct recall of past events, Changeux argues, could these kind of drug-induced long-term compulsions occur.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Friday Five: Links to take you to the weekend in style

I'm trying out a potential weekly feature: a set of five links gleaned from my internet readings. Here's installment 1 of X.

Beat box cook (ht Carolyn)

A fantastic probability quiz from the Wall Street Journal, and the answers

Steve Levitt on the economics of sounding black in the New York Times

50 commercial parodies

Name trends (ht Kottke)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Bundling on Amazon: better together?

On his fun and varied economics blog, Grinnell grad Seth Gitter writes an interesting post on the economics of the combo meal, from the starting point of a bundle that Amazon offers.

Gitter's explanation is right on, but regarding the Amazon promotions, I'd like to add one point that I find interesting. Those Amazon discounts are not actually discounts. Hence the brilliance of the Amazon scheme: the bundles convey the feeling of discounts without costing the seller any money.

I can't find the bundle Gitter references anymore, but I'll stick with his example of The Perfect Storm. Here is the bundling language from this DVD:

Better Together
Buy this DVD with U-571 (Collector's Edition) DVD ~ Bill Paxton today!

Total List Price: $24.97
Buy Together Today: $17.48

The cost of The Perfect Storm is $9.99, so the offer is to get the second item, U-571, for an additional $7.49. The Amazon price for U-571? Yup: $7.49. I've checked dozens of these bundles, and none of them has ever offered a genuine discount; they just let you buy two Amazon items instead of one.

Of course, the language never quite claims otherwise. The key to the promotion is that it a) presumably relies on Amazon's database to choose pairing that will attract the viewer, and b) it uses the language of the discount combo to reinforce the benchmark of the list price and to activate all our associations with other companies' bundled offers--these offers feel like McDonald's combo meals, even if they don't behave like them.

I do hope, reader, that you are now pondering the behavior of the combo meal in the most striking and graphic ways.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Zoo economics (bestseller codename: Zookonomics!)

How do you take the fun out of a zoo?

Yesterday, Pete and I went to the Niabi Zoo, just outside of the Quad Cities on the Illinois side. Niabi is a fairly small zoo and clearly geared to attracting families with small children; in many ways, it is a version of the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines on a slightly smaller scale. In fact, our Blank Park membership got us into Niabi for free.

(Incidentally, I didn't have a good time at Niabi, but I imagine a Niobe zoo would have been much more depressing. So there's that.)

The similarities to Blank Park made the differences in our emotional experience all the more striking. Nearly everything about the layout of Niabi seemed calculated to make a three-year-old child ask for something that required payment beyond the admission price. The entrance and exit routes required passing oodles of animal toys. Upon entering, we were hit with the boarding station for the train and the snack bar. Crossing the train tracks took us through the lorikeet cage (a dollar for a cup of nectar to feed them?) and on to the petting zoo, where you could pay to feed the fish or pay for a pony ride, or exit and confront the carousel.

Many of these things are routine components of zoos. I understand the business model: get families to come by offering cheap memberships and fairly cheap admission, then see whether they will spend a little more on high-margin products one they've arrived. I knew roughly what I was getting into.

In this zoo, however, it became clear that by cranking up the intensity of the hawking two or three notches, the zoo fundamentally changed our experience. We seemed to have passed a tipping point at which incremental increases in available stuff caused a dramatic behavioral shift. Our Niabi visit became an unrelenting bargaining session. Every new situation required me to make a call: no to the train (let's see the place first), no to nectar, yes to fish food, no to donkey food, maybe to pony ride, no to carousel--but OK, yes to the pony ride, no to the toys next to the ticket booth for the pony ride. The details didn't matter; the spurs to negotiation turned a zoo trip--usually the very easiest way to spend a couple of outdoor hours with Pete--into a high-stress headache. This time, my animal-loving boy didn't even see most of the regular exhibits; after his pony ride, both of us needed a nap.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Book review: Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko, The Millionaire Next Door

The Millionaire Next Door is one of the most interesting books about money you'll ever read, partly for the reasons the authors intend and partly for reasons they unwittingly reveal.

The book's primary insight involves the separation of income and wealth ("wealth" meaning net worth over a million dollars, a standard that may now be out of date). When people speak of the wealthy, they almost always define that category in terms of annual income, which we often infer from the visible signs of wealth, but Stanley and Danko reveal the limitations of that approach. Most millionaires, it turns out, are people who don't have the cars or houses or clothes we associate with rich people. Instead, they tend to be people with medium-high to high incomes whose habitual frugality lets them accumulate a lot of money. The book presents a series of case studies comparing people of similar ages and incomes who have different net worths: on one side are PAWs (prodigious accumulators of wealth), and on the other are UAWs (under-accumulators of wealth). Often, these differences come down to professional lifestyles: lawyers and doctors tend to be in communities where financial showiness is valued, for instance, while owners of blue-collar businesses actively avoid that showiness.

I had heard the broad outlines of this argument from a friend, so it was fascinating but not surprising to read the details. What really got my attention, however, was one of the case studies that compares two doctors, one saver and one spender, who have similar (very high, in this case) incomes. In a departure from the usual concerns of the book, the authors suddenly mention that the spender is very concerned about federal income tax rates, whereas the saver is not. The reasoning: the saver has a great deal of wealth separate from his annual income, and he lives well within his mean. The spender, on the other hand, regards extreme consumption as the sign of wealth, and he has so much debt from houses and cars that he needs almost every dollar of his huge income to keep pace with his consumption.

The book is written by anti-tax conservatives, as is sometimes explicit and routinely implicit in their framing of issues, so they don't dwell on this point. The implications, however, are clear. When people on the left talk about tax rates for "the wealthy," they equate wealth with income. That equation leads to the assumption that "the wealthy" aren't affected by an increase of a percentage point or two in the top marginal tax rate. What the book makes clear is that the wealthy in terms of net worth are almost entirely unaffected by small changes in the marginal tax rate, but there are a lot of wealthy people in terms of income who perceive themselves, at least, as facing fairly dramatic lifestyle changes based on those changes. And that's why--in addition to principled arguments--so many people who appear to be above economic worry are so passionately and personally opposed to even small marginal increases in tax rates.

The valuable thing about the book for liberals is that it's an analysis only conservatives would think to undertake: it examines only medium-high to high income earners to see how income does or does not become wealth. The results are sometimes mind-blowing, no matter your initial perspective.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Margins of error

Almost exactly four years ago--not coincidentally, during the last Presidential campaign--Kevin Drum wrote this piece about margins of error in polling and how to read them. It's well worth revisiting now and often.

This is a case where the obvious, common-sense reading of the data (a 2% lead in a poll must be a little better than a 1% lead, right?) is more accurate than the common journalistic presentation that purports to correct the obvious reading (a lead only becomes meaningful when it's bigger than the margin of error, and then it is magically superdupermeaningful).

Looking back at Drum's post, I am reminded again how Nate Silver at has created a new level of statistical political analysis. Whenever I find myself at a public computer with a few minutes to kill, I go to Nate first.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A new name for waterboarding: framing the torture debate

I've heard a number of people comment that the public might be more upset about waterboarding if it didn't have a name that made it sound like an X-Games event combining the skills of snowboarding and tubing. Christopher Hitchens's unequivocal declaration that his waterbording experience was one of torture called this issue to mind again.

I propose that we call the practice partial drowning. This name has the advantages of vividness and, even better, accuracy. Who's with me?