Dynamist Blog

PowerBook Personalization

PowerBooks are great-looking, but they also all look the same. In fact, the last time I went through LAX security, I almost stole Lee Ann Womack's PowerBook and wound up stuck with a bunch of country music files. (I only knew who she because I saw her driver's license, though the sunglasses and guitar should have been a tip-off to another LAX celebrity encounter.) I can only imagine what she would have done with all those NBER working papers on my hard drive.

If only we'd had one of these PowerBook tattoos. Maybe the Apple Stores should consider adding personalization. (Via Design Observer.)

Some of you may recall that I used an iBook. When it developed problems late last year, I bought a PowerBook for $850 on EBay, sent the iBook to the Apple hospital, and now have the iBook as a backup.

More on Those Brain Teasers

I'm still getting email about my last NYT column, specifically the question about bats and balls: "A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?" The answer if 5 cents. If you don't believe it, consider two equations: 1.05+.05=1.10 and 1.05-.05=1.00

In related news, here's a clarification from Shane Frederick, who raises the concern that some readers may misunderstand the article's ending. (I understood his point, but may not have qualified it sufficiently, especially for quick readers.)

One of the major findings of decision theorists is that subtle, normatively irrelevant, wording changes can dramatically influence preferences -- something often termed "framing effects." Postrel's article may be interpreted as suggesting that such effects can typically be explained by differences in intellectual ability. This is certainly false, since assignment to conditions is typically randomized. However, researchers do sometimes also attempt to account for "cross-study" framing effects, which arise when different researchers coincidentally or deliberately use different procedures or wordings or response formats. An issue raised, but not discussed, in the JEP article is that if those researchers are located at two universities whose students differ markedly in intellectual abilities, it could be this, rather than the difference in procedure, that accounts for the difference in results. To use a fanciful example, suppose two different researchers asked an identical question (e.g., How much would you be willing to pay for a coin flip which pays $100 if "HEADS" falls?) to students at the University of Toledo and at Princeton, but each happened to or chose to print them on different colored paper. Someone who noted the methodological details, but ignored the fact that they were conducted at different universities might conclude (probably falsely) that the color of paper somehow affects risk preferences. The interpretational confound could be easily eliminated by making paper color or whatever an experimental variable. But this, of course, is rarely done in practice, and, thus, the problem remains for those looking across multiple studies conducted at different institutions.

Now it's time to work on my next column, which will be published Thursday.

It's Not "Eminent Domain," But Is It Legal?

Southern Methodist University (where Prof. Postrel teaches) is the front-runner for the GW Bush presidential library, much to the chagrin of short-sighted faculty who don't like the president. In fact, a presidential library would be a huge research coup for the school, which is not exactly Stanford (which refused, foolishly IMHO, the Reagan library). The proximity to the Clinton Library in Little Rock would be a great help to scholars of the period.

Now comes word in the New York Sun that SMU is in trouble over trying to use eminent domain to obtain the library land. The headline on Meghan Clyne's article, which reflects the text, is "Lawsuit Over Eminent Domain Could Snarl Bush Library Plans." There is indeed a lawsuit, and it could indeed snarl those plans. But it has nothing to do with eminent domain. Clyne is missing a rather important public-private distinction.

What SMU did was buy up condos in a complex adjacent to the university. Over time, the university came to control the board. Disgruntled owners, some of whom are suing, alleged that the SMU-controlled board deliberately let the place run down so that owners would sell and give the university further control. (My memory of Dallas Morning News coverage is a little hazy, but I believe general expansion, not a presidential library, was the original reason for the university's alleged tactics.)

SMU's actions may or may not be legal, but they don't constitute "eminent domain" or justify a context paragraph about "increasing outrage among Republicans over the use of eminent domain and other coercive measures to obtain private property for public projects." The government is only involved here as an enforcer and interpreter of contracts. The real issue is what a private developer can do to acquire land currently occupied by condos, governed by a homeowners' association, rather than an apartment building or a bunch of independently controlled private homes.

Aside from my local connection, I find this question interesting because I sometimes wonder whether a bad condo complex--there are a few in my otherwise nice Dallas neighborhood--is, long-term, the worst aesthetic blight a neighborhood can have. An ugly house or apartment building will eventually get bought and torn down or remodeled, but condo complexes, because of their fragmented ownership, are much harder to change. When I originally read about SMU's tactics, I thought, Aha, there's the answer. You buy up condos in the complex until you have a controlling interest, in most cases a supermajority. But maybe that doesn't work. Interesting questions here. [Via D Magazine's FrontBurner.]

Images of Muhammad

Contrary to what many Muslims believe, Islam has not universally prohibited portraits of Muhammed. In fact, classic art from the Muslim world includes respectful portraits of the prophet. Unlike the devotional images of Christian, Buddhist, or Hindu art, however, these images weren't intended for public display. Many were book illustrations, available only to the courtly elite. Today, many of these works are in Western museums. In a nicely detailed article, the LAT's Christopher Reynold reports on the dilemmas faced by curators of Islamic art:

While lethal riots persist in the Middle East and American cartoonists and editors wring their hands over what it means to publish pictures of Muhammad, the Western world's curators of Islamic art whisper and wonder.

As they understand it, the Koran does not forbid representations of Muhammad, though other revered texts have led millions of Muslims to scorn the idea. They know that many Islamic artists have taken on the subject. And they know that pictures of Muhammad — not caricatures, but respectful representations, executed by and for Muslims, sometimes with the prophet's face shrouded by a veil, sometimes not — can be found in museums throughout Europe and North America.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's collection includes two portrayals of Muhammad and one "verbal portrait" full of ornate calligraphy and rich colors. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has three. The Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art has four. The largest collection of such images, experts say, is probably that of the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul.

By happenstance, curators say, none of the artworks at LACMA, the Freer or the Met were on public display when protests erupted late last year following publication in Denmark of a dozen newspaper cartoons lampooning Muhammad. But most of the museum-held portrayals of Muhammad can be accessed through the museums' Internet sites, along with some explanatory text.

This, curators acknowledge, could be a "teachable moment," a chance for museums to help visitors better understand the history and variety of Islamic culture and Muhammad's role in it. But as the toll of dead and wounded in the Middle East, Asia and Africa continues to mount, who wants to stand before the blackboard? And how will this lesson go?

There's much more, including a couple of photos, here.

Progress As Far as the Eye Can See

In The Future and Its Enemies, I use contact lenses to exemplify open-ended progress. By the 1950s, the basic problem had been solved: to correct vision without damaging the eye. But that wasn't the end of innovation. Instead we got soft lenses, extended wear lenses, bifocal lenses, lenses to block UV rays, lenses to change eye color, and a host of incremental improvements. There's no such thing as a perfect contact lens, and the same lens won't suit everyone. "The future perfect can only be a tense, not a thing," to quote the great Henry Petroski

But what happens when a competing technology--laser surgery--makes your product obsolete, or at least seriously cuts into its market? For contact lenses (as for dentistry when cavities were largely defeated), the obvious strategy is to go for cosmetic enhancement, whether extreme or more subtle. Next comes performance enhancement, as Wired.com's Gretchen Cuda reports:

[Nike] has teamed up with contact lens maker Bausch and Lomb to create performance-enhancing contact lenses called MaxSight. They're a tinted version of daily disposal lenses for athletes that reduce glare and improve visual acuity.

They block nearly all the sun's damaging UVA and UVB rays just like sunglasses, but their optics can also give athletic performance a boost....

The lenses come in amber for sports like baseball and tennis where the wearer must separate fast moving objects from the background, and grey-green for sports like golf, where the background environment is what's visually important. Both colors filter out a significant amount of overall light, but they also sharpen and improve contrast, so they have a brightening effect, says Alan Reichow, who invented the lenses and is a sports vision consultant for Nike.

The amber lenses also turn the wearer's eye's an unsettling shade of red. But when Nike asked players if they'd like to create a version that created less of an evil eye, the answer was an overwhelming "no."

"They felt it gave them a more intimidating look," Reichow said, "and thus an edge over the competition."

Also on the optical beat, Wired.com's Sam Jaffe reports on an opthamologist-turned-inventor/entrepreneur's plans for "supervision," (that's super vision, not oversight) using adaptive optics techniques borrowed from astronomy:

PixelOptics of Roanoke, Virginia, just won a $3.5 million Department of Defense grant to refine its "supervision" technology, which Blum claims could double the quality of a person's eyesight. "Theoretically, this should be able to double the distance that a person can see clearly," he says.

At the heart of PixelOptics' technology are tiny, electronically-controlled pixels embedded within a traditional eyeglass lens. Technicians scan the eyeball with an aberrometer -- a device that measures aberrations that can impede vision -- and then the pixels are programmed to correct the irregularities.

Traditional glasses correct lower-order aberrations like nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatisms. PixelOptics' lenses handle higher-order aberrations that are much more difficult to detect and correct.

Thanks to technologies created for astronomical telescopes and spy satellites, aberrometers can map a person's eye with extreme accuracy. Lasers bounce off the back of the eyeball, and structures in the eye scatter the resulting beam of light.

Now that Lasik has cured my near-sightedness, could someone do something about my growing need for reading glasses?

Should Cheney Resign?

I've never been a Cheney hater. In fact, back before he disappeared from public view, I actually liked the guy. Unlike his boss, he was both straight-talking and articulate, and he had small-government instincts on social and economic policy.

But, honestly, shooting your elderly hunting buddy in the chest? It's not a crime (not paying a $7 quail-hunting stamp fee is less serious than speeding), but it's an embarrassment: to the office, the administration, and the United States. The vice president should be more careful with guns. I can't make a rational policy case for it, but my gut says he should resign.

UPDATE: A reader raises an interesting question: "Why should you consider your gut a reliable guide in this case? Is it because guns are a hot-button issue? Guns can kill, but so can cars, and I wouldn't trust my gut if it told me that resignation was the appropriate penalty in an auto accident unless I knew recklessness or drunkeness was involved. And we don't know if either are a factor here. The assumption seems to be that any firearm mishap is a result of wanton recklessness, but you being the sensible libertarian that you are know better. Right?"

The car accident hypothetical is a good one. I assume presidents and vice presidents don't actually drive themselves anywhere, but suppose Dick Cheney had hit a jaywalking pedestrian, causing serious injuries. Assume the vice president was neither reckless nor impaired but could have been paying closer attention. Yes, I'd probably have the same reaction. Guns aren't the issue. Life-threatening mistakes are. Mistakes have consequences, including professional ones. Unfortunately, the vice president of the United States can't simply take a discrete but official leave of absence. It's all or nothing.

Good Books: February Edition

After my January post on what I'd been reading, a lot of readers asked for more. Some people read science fiction to immerse themselves in other worlds. I read history and old books (and, occasionally, science fiction too). Here are some recent selections:

Theodore Dreiser's The Color of a Great City is a collection of sketches--short essays and actual drawings--of New York City life between 1900 and around 1915. To Dreiser, the essays demonstrate that "the city...was more varied and arresting and, after its fashion, poetic and even idealistic than it is now," where "now" is 1923. Since the young Dreiser had little money, he spent most of his time wandering around the city's poorer quarters and observing the lives not only of struggling immigrants but of "beggars and bums and idlers and crooks in the Bowery and elsewhere." The book provides a lively reminder of a point William Easterly makes in The Elusive Quest for Growth, which I highlighted last month: "When those of us from rich countries look at poor countires today, we see our own past poverty. We are all the descendents of poverty. In the long run, we all come from the lower class." New York City at the turn of the last century was as squalid and crowded and dangerous and dynamic as any Third World City today.

At the other end of the social spectrum, Sally Bedell Smith's Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House demonstrates just how different, and by bourgeois standards decadent, the lives of the rich and powerful were in the early 1960s. Forget the heavy drinking, the secret medical treatments, and the compulsive adultery. Can you imagine a First Lady today jetting off to Europe to spend the summer with her titled sister on a Greek shipping tycoon's yacht? A First Lady who publicly modeled herself on Madame de Pompadour and aspired "to do Versailles in America."

In late January, I ran a Liberty Fund conference on "Liberty, Responsibility, and Luxury," with readings ranging from Aquinas to The New Yorker on Viking ranges--and lots of David Hume, Adam Smith, and Grant McCracken (that's pretty heady company, Grant). A number of the readings came from Commerce, Culture, and Liberty: Readings on Capitalism Before Adam Smith, edited by Hank Clark, the conference's discussion leader. Many of the book's selections seem extremely contemporary in their concerns, if not their language. Indeed, the selection we read from Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1905, felt far more dated than the 18th-century readings. Many selections from CC&L can be downloaded from this Liberty Fund page. Here's a podcast interview with Hank about the book.

"Dark Matter" and the Standard of Living

I've long believed that economic statistics dramatically mismeasure actual well-being, understating real gains in the standard of living. (Examples here, here, and here.) For understandable reasons, government statisticians put a premium on consistency over time. But the economy has an annoying habit of changing.

Dan Drezner has a bunch of recent posts on the problem of "dark matter" in measuring how well the economy is doing.

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