Archive for September, 2006

Money Does Buy You Happiness. Maybe.

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 28, 2006 6:00 pm

People have been probably been wondering if money brings happiness ever since Croesus, a king in what is today Turkey, had a mixture of silver and gold pounded into bean-shaped ingots 4,000 years ago. Only over the past few years has the subject become a scientific hot topic. And the results, as far as I can tell, are… (drum roll)… somewhat muddled. One argument that has gained considerable prominence recently is that more money does make you significantly happier if you’re living in poverty, barely squeaking by, but additional income past that has negligible happiness benefits.

Not so, says a new study (pdf) that tracked ten thousand British people over the course of several years and focused especially on 116 who won big lottery payouts (over 1,000 pounds; mean of 4,300 pounds) during that time. One strength of the study is that it followed the winners themselves for two years after they won and also included data on the same people from the two years before the wheel of Fortuna rolled their way; the researchers may have avoided confounding factors that needle at other studies, such as those that compare people at different income levels (happiness might affect income), those that look at people who are given raises (change in status along with change in income), etc.

The study finds that big pay-offs increase people’s happiness by an average of 1.4 points on a 36-point scale, as measured by a standard questionnaire. By comparison, the most dramatic effect on someone’s happiness is being widowed, which on average produces a 5-point drop. Whether being widowed is 3.5 times more intense than winning the lottery — and therefore worth negative 15,000 pounds — is a question only an economist would address. (And the bonus is in no way enough to justify Terrell Owens’ heartless publicist saying he had “25 million reasons why he should be alive,” referring to his contract.)

Lest we think this ends the debate, there are some mysterioso findings in there, too:

• Lottery wins yield these happiness benefits only 2 years after the windfall.
• In the same year that people win, their happiness actually decreases by .6 points. The dreaded grabby-brother-in-law effect?
• High-income people got twice as many happy points from winning as did low-income people! Maybe that’s why they work high-income jobs.
• Big winners gained .7 happy points the year before they won. One wonders if this is a statistical fluke, but does that raise a red flag?

As a big believer in behavioral economics, I wonder if the effects have more to do with human idiosyncracies than the actual amount of money that is objectively gained. Is it possible that the happiness gains are due not to having more money but to the feeling of being someone who won money — someone that God and/or luck is smiling upon?

(Thanks to AB for the tip.)

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: What’s Inside Your Brain?

Au Naturale

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 27, 2006 6:00 pm

The journal Nature has joined the world of Internet peepshows: it’s offering an online sneak peek at a selection of papers that have been submitted but not yet peer reviewed or accepted for publication.

The early edition articles, which appear as posts on a blog, are open to the general public, but only scientists in a related field at an academic institution are allowed to reply with comments. Unlike traditional meaningless blog banter, however, these comments could actually influence whether an editor accepts or rejects the manuscript, according to the site.

A Wall Street Journal article (subscriber only) says this type of open intellectual forum could strengthen the papers that make it into the journal. Last year I sat down with Linda Miller, who is Nature’s U.S. executive editor, for an unrelated discussion on the peer review process. Based on her comments, I have a hard time seeing how beneficial the new system will actually be, at least in the short term.

For starters, said Miller, the normal peer review system is kept anonymous for good reason. Studies have shown that reviewers generate a bias toward authors they know, or labs they have heard of, whether they want to or not. In the regular system, reviewers don’t know who authored the report—but all authors are listed on the new site.

Also, while some authors are grateful to hear feedback, others aren’t, Miller told me. The new system lets researchers choose whether they would like their submitted paper to appear online. Guarded researchers, who are often the successful ones, might scoff at the new system, limiting the scope of scientific dialogue.

Finally, it remains unclear how much weight Nature’s editors will give these responses. “Good peer review relies on good editors making judicious assessments of the talents and skills of reviewers,” Miller said. “You send a paper to people whose guts you trust.”

Given the direction of research journals toward online formats, the idea behind the new system remains intriguing. But a brief glance at the site shows that, so far, many of the Nature posts have received no comments. Many other posts offer the message: “This paper is no longer available for commenting.” One post about a cooling effect in Saturn’s atmosphere did elicit five responses, but one suggests only that the authors check the spelling of their references.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Film: Profiles in Science

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 25, 2006 6:00 pm

Submitted for your appoval: A five-minute long science documentary by Wes Kim. I saw this over the summer at a little outdoor festival of high concept/lowbrow films put on by NYC’s Rooftop Films. I won’t say anything else about it. Okay, I will tell you that it is fake. And quite funny.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Flaming Waveforms

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 25, 2006 6:00 pm

No, that’s not the name of some new band. It’s a Ruben’s tube that “graphs” sound waves with fire:

Cool.

(Thanks to BC for the tip.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

Monty Hall of Fame

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 22, 2006 6:00 pm

Every month I receive dozens of letters about Fuzzy Math, many of them claiming I have made a mathematical error. I appreciate the interest in the articles, and I must say I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that so many folks feel strongly about math! In this blog I will attempt to address some of the comments, questions, and flat-out disses I have received.

For starters, here is a typical response about a column on the famous Monty Hall scenario:

The reasoning behind “Fuzzy Math: The Monty Hall Scenario” (July 2006) sounds plausible enough, but is in fact fallacious. When a door is picked the odds are 1 in 3 that it’s the one with the prize behind it, the same as the odds for each of the other doors. After Monty eliminates one of them, the odds become fifty-fifty not just for the door left that you didn’t choose, but also for the door you chose. This can be clearly borne out by running a simple computer simulation a few thousand times. Sticking with your original choice is correct 50% of the time, and switching doesn’t increase your success rate one iota. –M. S.

The Monty Hall scenario is a classic problem in probability, and the error that M.S. makes is very common. One might say that it is the “intuitive” answer, and many smart people have mistakenly thought it to be correct. The key point is that switching is tantamount to betting that you initially chose an empty door, the odds of which are always 2/3, even after one of the (empty) doors is eliminated.

One helpful way of looking at it is to use a “decision-tree” analysis. Let’s label the doors with the numbers 1, 2, and 3; with the prize behind door #2. We now analyze what happens after each of the three possible initial choices. If you initially pick door #1 (empty), then door #3 (empty) is eliminated, and switching lands you on door #2 (you win!). If you initially pick door #2 (prize), door #1 or #3 is eliminated (both empty), and either way switching lands you on an empty door (you lose!). Lastly, if you pick door #3 (empty), then door #1 (empty) is eliminated and switching lands you on door #2 (you win!). Conclusion: switching wins in TWO OUT OF THREE trials.

Another way of thinking about this problem is to consider limiting cases. (This is a useful technique is a great many math and physics problems!) What if instead of 3 doors there were 1000 doors (it’s a big room, ok?) and the prize is hidden behind just one of them. You make your initial selection, the host then eliminates 998 empty doors and offers you the chance to keep your initial choice or swap for the one remaining door. Are the odds fifty-fifty that you picked the prize out of 1000 possible locations on your first try? Or is it more likely that you were wrong initially and the host, constrained to open only empty doors, revealed the most probable location of the prize by process of elimination? Think about it.

Of course you don’t have to take my word for it. One can do an experiment to find out for sure. It is a simple matter to write a computer program to execute millions of trials and tally the results. Such programs can be found online; here is one with the corresponding results for 100,000 trials. As you can see, in 100,000 games, swapping won 66,676 times. Here is another, more interactive version. Finally, for those who are sill unconvinced, I suggest playing the game on this website.

It’s a cool, deceptive little problem. Thanks to all those who wrote in, and I look forward to your future comments.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Help! My Ears Are Ringing

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 21, 2006 6:00 pm

For most of us, the phrase “music technology” probably conjures up images of synthesizers, samplers, mixers, and other gizmos that can create and manipulate sound. But apparently these options didn’t quite cut it for composer David Baker at Indiana University. He’s turning to a new source of electronic music: cell phones.

Baker’s new composition, Concertino for Cellular Phones and Orchestra, will premiere at the opening of the Chicago Sinfonietta’s 20th anniversary season. The orchestra’s percussionists will contribute a few ring tones from the stage while audience members are invited to turn their phones on and off, adjust the volume, and of course, allow them to ring at random. No word yet on whether concertgoers will earn dirty looks for carrying on a phone conversation during the piece.

The music of ambient noise follows a tradition dating back to John Cage, whose 1952 work 4’33” requires the performer to clock out four minutes and thirty-three seconds’ worth of nothing while the audience listens intently to the unscripted background soundscape. Legend has it that Cage was inspired to write the piece after visiting Harvard’s anechoic chamber, designed to eliminate all external noise and minimize sound reflection within the space. Even there, the story goes, he couldn’t find complete silence: his darned circulatory and nervous systems kept right on humming. (While others have been able to hear their own heartbeats in anechoic chambers, the claim that it’s possible to hear the nervous system is more dubious. It has been suggested that Cage may have suffered from mild tinnitus.)

And now, if you’ll pardon the interruption, I have to take this call.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

Health News Is Unhealthy

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 20, 2006 6:00 pm

Do you like Chocolate? Booze? Microwaveable pork rinds? If so you must be pretty robust, for they are all on the Men’s Health list of “6 formerly forbidden snacks that are actually good for you,” though I’ve already spoiled half the surprise (sorry). MH says, for example, that although coconut has lots of saturated fat, most of it is lauric acid, which actually raises HDL (“good” cholesterol) even more than it raises LDL (“bad” cholesterol).

Of course, Men’s Health is not necessarily the most authoritative font of health knowledge (maybe try the FDA). But I think this does represent a broader fallacy in how America thinks about and communicates health information — each time a researcher finds some health implication of one food component, that gets swatted all over the mediaverse, and boom, a new rule has been added to the Great Unwritten Codex on Health. All too often, though, new rules cancel or confuse old rules. Fats bad; no, saturated fats bad, unsaturated fats good; no, some saturated fats bad, lauric acid good, trans-fatty acids bad. Tomatoes for lycopene, sea buckthorn for Vitamin C, and supplements for coenzyme Q10. Each revelation tends to sound like it’s the final answer.

But how important is each rule compared to the others? How many times will each be superseded? How many coenzymes are there left to find? How do these chemicals work — or fail to work — when consumed together? And most importantly, where can I get some coenzyme Q10?

We Need a Kinky X Prize

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 19, 2006 1:00 pm

The Washington Post reports on the mad scramble among big companies to get a few billion dollars from the Department of Homeland Security to watch the U.S.-Mexico border and prevent illegal immigration. It seems DHS will soon decide between the players, each of which offers up its own we’ve-got-the-hammer-for-this-nail solution: Northrup-Grumman’s got drones, Ericsson has PDAs, and Lockheed Martin’s boasting (yes) blimps.

It wouldn’t take a cynic to think that in 20 years this might be a cautionary example studied in intro-government classes around the country — literally a textbook boondoggle. (“It’s a little bit scary when the government throws up its hands and says, ‘We have no idea how to do this. Please tell us,'” Deborah W. Meyers with the Migration Policy Institute tells the Post.)

Couldn’t the federal government learn from recent lessons about better ways to spend money on hard-to-plan projects? When the X Prize made NASA look dumb by showing how prize money was worth more than government pork, NASA launched its own prize program, Centennial Challenges. Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman proposed (facetiously, I think) tasking each of five Mexican generals with a chunk of the border, setting each up with a plush retirement fund, and deducting $5,000 from a general’s account for every illegal immigrant that scores within his goal.

How about combining the best parts of these two ideas: DHS could fund every solid proposal enough to cover a part of the border for the duration of a trial period. The one that does the best during the trial wins the whole dang border. Down with pork barrels, up with evidence-based funding.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

You Think It’s Bad? It’s Worse.

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 18, 2006 6:00 pm

On Friday I attended a climate change symposium organized by the New York Botanical Garden and conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy. The message of the program, it seemed to me, was that even those already convinced to the point of horrification that global warming will soon destroy our planet (if nothing changes) do not understand the severity of the problem. Tragedy is on the horizon, and it will rock our world in a way that hominids have never had to reckon with before.

Scientists presented some of the latest evidence of global warming (obviously), and a panel answered questions from the audience, most of which went something like, “What in God’s name can we do?” Journalist Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, answered: “The work of the scientists is done, much of it done seven or eight or nine years ago. We know more than enough to understand what we need to be doing. The mobilization of people to demand change is what we need.” (I was scribbling this down, so the quote may be inexact.)

Al Gore was the keynote speaker, and the angle of his speech was largely a psychological one. He implied that we (citizens of Earth) need a psychic overhaul to really grapple with the severity of our future with global warming, understand that we are addicted to our destructive behaviors, and do something radical to change the course of history. The solution to the problem of global warming, he said, “is at the outer boundary of what we are capable of doing, but it is within our capacity.” He mentioned that he is donating 100% of the revenues of his current book and movie An Inconvenient Truth to the newly formed Alliance for Climate Protection, an organization keen on propaganda that plans to run television commercials alerting the public to the problems of global warming. I think propaganda for the good is an underutilized tool and am happy to hear it.

Eating Helmets

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 14, 2006 6:00 pm

The University of Bath put out a press release about some research suggesting that motorists leave less berth for cyclists with helmets than those without, which presumably increases the chances of a crash. “This study suggests wearing a helmet might make a collision more likely in the first place,” says the researcher, traffic psychologist Ian Walker, who was in two crashes while doing the research, both during the half when he was wearing a helmet. Helmet boosters didn’t like these dirty lies from Bath, and predictably — perhaps accurately — said the things are still worth it.

As for why drivers give the helmeted less room, Walker says it’s because they think bicyclists wearing helmets are more experienced, skilled, and predictable, so they can get closer without hitting them. At the risk of crossing a real traffic psychologist (I’ve heard they can trick people into driving into trees), I’d suggest a different explanation: drivers are consuming the safety that bicyclists gain by wearing helmets. I.e., they feel that the bicyclists with helmets are relatively safe in the event of an accident, so they don’t need to worry much about hitting them.

This “risk compensation” is often seen in people who get access to new safety measures and then start doing more dangerous things, e.g., better skydiving gear -> more dangerous dives, seat belts -> more dangerous driving, better AIDS drugs -> more unsafe sex, sunscreen -> more sun exposure and potentially more skin cancer, etc. The bicycle example is a little different in that in the other cases, people “consume” their own safety benefits, whereas motorists are consuming someone else’s increased safety — a rare case of risk compensation/moral hazard. (Which is particularly galling considering that decent road bicyclists only need helmets to protect themselves from cars.) Of course, judging by how people sometimes change when they get into a driver’s seat, it might not be that surprising.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: What’s Inside Your Brain?
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