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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Blogging Break

I have decided to take a month and a half of break from blogging to try to up my focus on all things summer which for me mainly means work (getting these research projects up and running!) and then on the side: swimming, reading, and catching up with people in real life - things that I do not get to enjoy as much during the school year. It's not as if I've been writing much anyway, but still. The thought of not having to post something is peace of mind. I want to try this out and see how it goes but I hope you guys reading this stay tuned!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

There are Three Deaths

There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.
That is from David Eagleman's Sum, a surprisingly imaginative book I have stumbled upon about the afterlife. It offers 40 fictitious tales of what life after death could be like: For example, in one, we relive all the moments of our life not in chronological order but arranged by type. So we spend two months driving in the street in front our house, seven months having sex, then thirty years asleep, three months doing laundry, etc. In another, the afterlife is composed of only the people we've ever met. How wonderful that is, except as one realizes, it could be hell.

I am in the middle of it and expect to like it even more. Recommended. And here's Ben Casnocha's book review which eventually led me to grabbing a copy of the book.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Why Hotels Don't Provide Toothpaste

And the answer is not cost. Daniel Engberg from Slate writes:
I asked this question of executives at 18 North American hotel chains, and most provided the same pair of explanations. First, they said their in-room amenities are chosen based on extensive consumer research. In other words, if the hotels aren’t giving you toothpaste, it’s because you don’t really want toothpaste. ... (Update, July 3: There is at least one major exception to the rule. A Hyatt spokesperson reports that all of that company's hotels in North America offer in-room tubes of Aquafresh toothpaste.) 
The second explanation took the form of an appeal to hospitality norms. Several sources said that their company takes its cues from rivals. “Many of our competitors do not include toothpaste as a standard amenity,” pleaded brand director Debbie Grant of InterContinental Hotels & Resorts. Others shrugged and pointed to the independent companies that assign standard ratings for quality of service. If the ratings don’t require it, the hotels won’t acquire it. 
Sure enough, the hotel-ratings firms make very precise toiletry demands, yet as a rule omit any reference to dental care products. ... 
“The diamond ratings come from what we typically see,” a AAA employee told me. “Toothpaste is not something they typically put out.” 
“So you don’t give ratings based on toothpaste because hotels don’t give toothpaste to their guests?” I asked. 
“Yes,” she said. 
“But the hotels told me the same thing—they said they don’t give toothpaste because of your ratings.” ... 
Hotel executives assured me that the price of toothpaste is generally “in line” with those of other amenities. “Toothpaste is not a cost-prohibitive addition,” said Sweeting of the Four Seasons. ... 
So if we can’t blame the missing toothpaste on the stinginess of hotel executives, the dereliction of the ratings firms, or the finicky tastes of travelers, then what’s left? Only the gloomy notion that we might all be equally to blame. Hotels could give us toothpaste but they don’t. No one knows why, and no one cares. It’s how things have always been, and how they’ll always be.
Correspondingly, I think one can extend this example to ask, why do governments fail to provide certain public goods even when they are affordable. And sometimes the answer is not as simple as cost, or even corruption.

A classic case of market failure. Also, from a development economics standpoint, this is probably how poverty traps work.

HT to James Choi's blog, where I first saw this.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Hillary Rodham’s 1969 commencement speech

I was hoping for a video but I suppose this account by Robert Pinsky would do:
For some people the event has become legendary. Many others may never have heard of it. The commencement speaker was U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke. Brooke was— now here's a period detail—a Republican moderate. Smooth, handsome, a World War II combat veteran, he was also the first African-American popularly elected to the United States Senate. He co-authored the Fair Housing Act, and he was actively pro-choice. In other words, with the eyes of 2013, Brooke can be seen as a heroic fantasy of courage and wisdom. In the eyes of 1969, he was seen as blandly complacent.
...In his Wellesley talk, Brooke stressed his conviction that things had been getting better: “When all is said and done,” he said (quoted in the Fitchburg Sentinel of June 2, 1969), “I believe the overwhelming majority of Americans will stand firm on one principle: coercive protest is wrong, and one reason that it is wrong is that it is unnecessary.”

The senator accepted polite applause. Next, Wellesley's alumna-shocking innovation of a student speaker was briefly explained by Ruth Adams, the college president—a job made difficult by turbulent times, even on a genteel campus as pacific as Wellesley's...
Hillary Rodham came to the microphone and explained to the assembly of seniors, families, alumnae, faculty, trustees, and reporters that before her prepared remarks she would respond briefly to Brooke. What I recall vividly about her impromptu remarks is less what the 21-year-old student politician had to say than the shrewdly controlled way she formulated her objection to Brooke's performance. How could somebody so young have improvised a devastatingly courteous, even courtly critique of the senatorial bromides?

I remember a rhetoric of respectful regret, along the lines of: “Senator, we hoped you might have said something about conditions in our cities,” and “Senator, we need you to speak about the escalation of war in Southeast Asia.” She expressed sadness at her need to say that empathy was not enough, that she and the other students needed Brooke's guidance, not empty generalities. The “art of the possible” was not enough. Brooke had mentioned as good news that the percentage of Americans below the poverty line had decreased to 13.3 percent. “That's a percentage” she said, with polite disdain.

Her remarks worked, though the present Hillary Clinton might wince at young Hillary's scorn for percentages, her telling the senator he owed his audience something better than “a lot of rhetoric.” The poise, good manners, and fearless cogency of those improvised remarks gave them not just rhetorical power, but authority. Hillary Rodham's speech—the first ever given by a graduating senior at Wellesley—was interrupted by frequent applause and followed by a standing ovation that lasted (says the Fitchburg Sentinel, confirming my memory) for seven minutes.
--from Slate on the birth of a politician.