Blogs

The N-Effect

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 3:20 PM EST

THE N-EFFECT....Via Tyler Cowen, a couple of researchers have uncovered what they call the N-Effect: it turns out, they say, that people do better when competing against a small number of people than when competing against a large number.

At first, this seems unsurprising: you have a better chance of winning against a small group than a large group, a small group is less distracting than a large group, etc. There are also lots of confounding factors when you try to measure this, which makes me take their conclusions about SAT scores (they're supposedly higher in small groups) with a grain of salt. But what if you just tell people they're competing against a small group?

Experimenters asked potential participants if they would be willing to take part in a short experiment. One experimenter then handed participants a two-page packet (a cover page followed by a short quiz page) and explained they would be taking a timed quiz and their goal was to finish the quiz as fast as possible without compromising accuracy. Participants were told they were competing against either 10 or 100 other participants and that those scoring in the top 20 percent in completion time would receive $5. The short quiz contained four general knowledge multiple-choice questions (e.g. "Who is the Secretary General of the UN?") and four true-false statements (e.g., "Michigan is shaped like a shoe").

Once the first experimenter gave participants the packets and instructions, the second experimenter, blind to the experimental condition, informed participants he would begin timing them with a stopwatch. Afterwards, each participant wrote their e-mail address, in case they scored in the top 20th percentile. Participants in the top 20 percent were later paid $5.

There were no actual group dynamics at work here since the quiz was administered one-on-one. And both groups had a 20% chance of winning five bucks. But the first group finished the quiz in an average of 29 seconds, while the second took 33 seconds.

The authors do some further tests to demonstrate that this effect isn't due to mistaken ideas about odds being better in small groups, or to a decrease in motivation due to perceived task difficulty. Basically, it seems that people just feel more motivated to compete if they think they're competing against an indentifiable group rather than a large mob. The application of this conclusion to the blogosphere is left as an exercise for the reader.

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Prince to Release Three New Albums in 2009

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 3:10 PM EST

PrincePrince has announced he will be releasing two new albums under his own name and one by singer Bria Valente which he's apparently producing. All three will be released outside the traditional record label system. The notoriously reclusive singer revealed the details in an interview with the LA Times, who sent a reporter up to Prince's Mulholland Drive mansion for an experience that sounds even weirder than the movie of the same name, featuring plexiglass pianos, cars named Miles Davis, and why Jehovah's Witnesses don't vote:

The next five hours took me … to a car Prince referred to as "Miles Davis," where we listened to one set of songs; into a back room furnished with a round bed, faux-fur carpeting and a plexiglass Rhodes piano, where he played cuts by his new protege, the comely Bria Valente; and into that white limo, where the entirety of "Lotus Flower," the album previewed earlier this month on Indie 103.1, boomed through the speakers as we drove through Hollywood.

Jeez, did he take you to Club Silencio, as well? No hay banda! Actually, the new music sounds intriguing: Lotus Flower, befitting its Indie 103.1 premier, is guitar-based and appropriately rock-y, while MPLSOUND pays tribute to its namesake city with electronic beats and Pro Tools experiments. So when Prince thinks of the Minneapolis Sound, I guess he's thinking of Information Society, not The Replacements. The albums will be released both digitally and physically, via an "elaborate" web site as well as through an exclusive retailer, but no labels shall sully it with their logos.

After the jump: so did Prince vote for Prop 8?

Forestry: Where Bush's Midnight Regs Could Backfire

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 2:34 PM EST

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The Bush Administration is pushing two last-minute decisions that could double logging on more than 2 million acres of federal forestland and make it much easier for timber companies to convert forests into subdivisions. The moves are opposed by environmentalists even as the political upside for Republicans is less clear than it would have been in the '90s, when the GOP gained traction in the West by siding with loggers against the spotted owl.

Bush's move to increase logging, which would affect 2.6 million acres in southwest Oregon, comes at a time when some large private timber farms in that area have collapsed due to over-harvesting. As a result, the battle lines of the old timber wars are being redrawn. For example, before Charles Hurwitz sold his Pacific Lumber company in June, he'd closed three of his four mills and fired 80 percent of his workers. Most locals now blame Hurwitz for the layoffs, and the new owners of the company have won support from both loggers and environmentalists by pursuing a sustainable yield and preserving old growth trees. Increasingly, loggers no longer demand pillaging harvests, while enviros support logging as a preferable alternative to development. Bush's move ignores that trend.

Which brings us to Bush's second midnight reg: allowing the Plum Creek Timber Company to pave roads through forest service land in Montana, which would open up much of the company's 1.2 million acres there to rural subdivisions. The move has incurred the ire of county governments, which worry that it could undo efforts to cluster housing in urban areas and create new burdens to provide services. During the presidential campaign, Obama shrewdly noted the the subdivisions could "cause prime hunting and fishing lands to be carved up and closed off." They'd also take the land out of timber production, reinforcing the common cause between enviros and loggers on urban sprawl.

If Bush really wanted to help out loggers, he would have curbed the housing bubble. The collapse in residential construction has slashed timber prices. But the Republicans, like Hurwitz, were more concerned with raking in the green than sustainably growing it.

DOMA

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 2:28 PM EST

DOMA....Bob Barr, the Georgia congressman who authored the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, writes in the LA Times today that it's time to get rid of it:

The first part of DOMA [] is a partial bow to principles of federalism, protecting the power of each state to determine its definition of marriage. The second part sets a legal definition of marriage only for purposes of federal law, but not for the states. That was the theory.

I've wrestled with this issue for the last several years and come to the conclusion that DOMA is not working out as planned....In effect, DOMA's language reflects one-way federalism: It protects only those states that don't want to accept a same-sex marriage granted by another state. Moreover, the heterosexual definition of marriage for purposes of federal laws — including, immigration, Social Security survivor rights and veteran's benefits — has become a de facto club used to limit, if not thwart, the ability of a state to choose to recognize same-sex unions.

Hopefully DOMA will end up on the ash heap of history, where it so richly deserves to be, before the year is out.

World Government Watch

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 1:57 PM EST

WORLD GOVERNMENT WATCH....John Bolton and John Yoo complain today in the New York Times that Barack Obama might be tempted to overstep his constitutional bounds by sidestepping the requirement that all treaties be approved by two-thirds of the Senate:

On a broad variety of issues — many of which sound more like domestic rather than foreign policy — the re-emergence of the benignly labeled "global governance" movement is well under way in the Obama transition.

Candidate Obama promised to "re-engage" and "work constructively within" the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Will the new president pass a new Kyoto climate accord through Congress by sidestepping the constitutional requirement to persuade two-thirds of the Senate?

Steve Benen notes the irony of hearing this argument from John Yoo, who, back when he worked in the Bush administration, was probably the biggest booster of unfettered executive power this side of Dick Cheney. Beyond that, though, I'm a little puzzled about what he and Bolton are even talking about here. Will Obama try to approve the Kyoto Treaty with only a majority vote of Congress? That's easy: no he won't. How about a followup treaty? Not likely. On the other hand, might Obama introduce climate legislation that binds the United States to goals that are similar to Kyoto? Sure, he might. But that's not a treaty, it's just domestic legislation.

Very odd. But toward the end of the piece Bolton and Yoo make it pretty clear that they aren't especially concerned with constitutional delicacies anyway. They just don't like treaties, full stop. But then, conservatives never have, have they?

FoPo Blogging

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 1:22 PM EST

FoPo BLOGGING....Lots of new foreign policy blogging over at Foreign Policy magazine today. They've rolled out a whole series of new blogs from Dan Drezner, Steven Walt, Tom Ricks, David Rothkopf, Marc Lynch, and Laura Rozen ("The Cable"). There's also — and no, I'm not making this up — Madam Secretary, "an obsessive blog about all things Hillary Clinton." There are also a few new group blogs, and of course, their current blog, Passport, continues as usual.

Dan, Marc, and Laura are old friends around here, and I wish them luck in their new home. The others, especially Ricks and Walt, will be worth keeping an eye on too. The official intro is here.

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Obama Nominates Dawn Johnsen, the Anti-Yoo, as Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 12:47 PM EST

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John Yoo, who worked in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the Bush administration's Justice Department, became famous for his memos in defense of torture and his theory that the Constitution grants the president almost unlimited power during times of war. (The OLC is the part of the Justice Department responsible for providing legal advice to the executive.) Dawn Johnsen, the woman whom Barack Obama selected on Monday to run Yoo's old office*, published an article in 2007 entitled "Faithfully Executing the Laws: Internal Legal Constraints on Executive Power." That's quite the contrast. In a 2008 paper, "What's a President to Do? Interpreting the Constitution in the Wake of the Bush Administration's Abuses," (PDF) she writes that the Bush administration's disregard for the law should be the exception, not the rule, going forward:

The lesson we should draw from the Bush administration is not that we should dramatically alter our understanding of longstanding presidential authorities. Rather, it is the urgent need for more effective safeguards and checks from both within and without the executive branch to preclude any future recurrence of the Bush administration's appalling abuses.

Gaza Crisis: Israelis Echoing Bush on Regime Change?

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 12:41 PM EST

The Israelis appear to have learned from the Bush-Cheney administration.

On Monday morning, NPR ran an interview with Michael Oren, an American-Israeli best-selling military historian and Israeli reservist who is a spokesperson for the Israeli military. (He has also been a contributing editor for The New Republic.) Asked if the goal of the current Israeli operation in Gaza is regime change--that is, the expulsion of Hamas from power--he replied that Israelis "do not want to see continuation of Hamas rule in Gaza," but added, "It is not Israel's explicit goal to topple the Hamas government....That is not the stated goal of this operation. If it happens...there will be many people happy about it...The stated goal is to restore security to the southern part of Israel."

This line echoes the rhetoric used by Bush-Cheney officials in 2002 and 2003. They repeatedly noted that the United States officially favored regime change in Iraq but that the invasion to come was about WMDs and security. If it took regime change to neutralize that supposed dire WMD threat posed by Saddam Hussein, so be it.

Smile!

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 12:38 PM EST

SMILE!....I missed posting about this over the weekend, but the Washington Post ran a fascinating article yesterday about a multi-year effort by the Maryland State Police to spy on a wide variety of liberal activist groups. It all started with the infiltration of a group protesting a planned execution, and then spiraled out of control:

Meanwhile, the intelligence-gathering expanded in other directions, to activists in New York, Missouri, San Francisco and at the University of Maryland. Shane Dillingham's primary crime, according to the six-page file classifying him as a terrorist, was "anarchism." Police opened a file on the doctoral student in history a week after an undercover officer attended a College Park forum featuring a jailhouse phone conversation with Evans.

Investigators also tracked activists protesting weapons manufactured by defense contractor Lockheed Martin. They watched two pacifist Catholic nuns from Baltimore. Environmental activists made it into the database, as did three leaders of Code Pink, a national women's antiwar group, who do not live in Maryland.

PETA was labeled a "security threat group" in April 2005, and by July police were looking into a tip that the group had learned about a failing chicken farm in Kent County and planned on "protesting or stealing the chickens."

This all started in 2005 and went on until 2007, so it wasn't some kind of panicked reaction to 9/11. It's been stopped since, and according to the Post, the Maryland State Police "plan to solicit advice from the ACLU, the General Assembly, prosecutors and police about regulations that would raise the bar for intelligence-gathering to 'reasonable suspicion' of a crime." Good to know.

How to Rebuild the SEC

| Mon Jan. 5, 2009 12:17 PM EST

The portions of Michael Lewis and David Einhorn's NYT op-ed that Noam Scheiber highlights are really worth sharing. On the campaign trail, Obama made it appear that he was going to use the financial crisis to bring back regulation to our financial markets. Lewis and Einhorn have an easy way for him to start. Let's hope our President-elect doesn't go weak in the knees.

It's not hard to see why the S.E.C. behaves as it does. If you work for the enforcement division of the S.E.C. you probably know in the back of your mind, and in the front too, that if you maintain good relations with Wall Street you might soon be paid huge sums of money to be employed by it.
The commission's most recent director of enforcement is the general counsel at JPMorgan Chase; the enforcement chief before him became general counsel at Deutsche Bank; and one of his predecessors became a managing director for Credit Suisse before moving on to Morgan Stanley. A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the whole point of landing the job as the S.E.C.'s director of enforcement is to position oneself for the better paying one on Wall Street....

The key suggestion:

If the S.E.C. is to restore its credibility as an investor protection agency, it should have some experienced, respected investors (which is not the same thing as investment bankers) as commissioners. President-elect Barack Obama should nominate at least one with a notable career investing capital, and another with experience uncovering corporate misconduct. As it happens, the most critical job, chief of enforcement, now has a perfect candidate, a civic-minded former investor with firsthand experience of the S.E.C.'s ineptitude: Harry Markopolos [the investor who spent years trying to alert the SEC to Bernie Madoff].