The Washington Post reports today on problems with an iPhone game for children called Smurfs' Village, which allows kids to "build a complete Smurfs village from scratch":

Over the winter break from school, 8-year-old Madison worked to dress up her simple mushroom home on the iPhone game Smurfs' Village. In doing so, she also amassed a $1,400 bill from Apple....But like a growing number of parents, Madison's mom, Stephanie Kay, was shocked to find very real charges from iTunes show up in her e-mail box days later.

....The practice is troubling parents and public interest groups, who say $99 for a wagon of Smurfberries or $19 for a bucket of snowflakes doesn't have any business in a children's game. Though a password is needed to make a purchase, critics say that the safeguards aren't strong enough and that there are loopholes.

Loopholes? You've got to be kidding. What possible justification can a game developer (Capcom in this case) have for charging real money for virtual objects under any circumstances? If you can sucker adults into doing this, that's one thing. But these are games for kids. Of course they think the charges are just play money. So would most parents. What person in his right mind would even consider the possibility that a corporation would charge a hundred real dollars for a wagon of virtual Smurfberries?

Come to think of it, this actually sounds fairly predatory even for adult games, though I suppose I'm being hopelessly naive and elderly on that score. But kids? Somebody please tell me I'm not crazy to be genuinely shocked over this.

Bad News for Charter Schools

The New York Times reports today that not everyone who graduates from high school in New York is ready for college. That's no surprise. But the news for charter schools was pretty grim:

Statewide, 77 percent of students graduate from high school....A state committee determined last year that a 75 on the English Regents and a 80 on the math Regents roughly predicted that students would get at least a C in a college-level course in the same subject. Scores below that meant students had to often take remediation classes before they could do college-level work. Only 41 percent of New York State graduates in 2009 achieved those scores.

....The data also cast new doubt on the ability of charter schools to outperform their traditional school peers. Statewide, only 10 percent of students at charters graduated in 2009 at college-ready standards, though 49 percent received diplomas.

Statewide in New York, about 50% of high school graduates are college ready. In charter schools, about 20% of graduates are college ready. This isn't an apples-to-apples comparison, since we don't know whether the charter schools had the same quality of incoming students as the public schools. Most likely they didn't, as the lower graduation rate shows. Still, that's a helluva gap. It's not good news for the charter school movement.

A tweet from the editor of National Review:

Wait a second. This can't possibly come as a surprise, can it? Has Lowry watched Fox or listened to some of his, um, less inhibited fellow righties at all lately? Hell, it's a miracle there are still a few conservatives left who don't believe Obama is a Muslim.

Both Lowry and Bill Kristol1 have gone after Glenn Beck for his nutball conspiracy theorizing over the past week about caliphates and the Muslim Brotherhood. That's good news, because someone on the right needs to do this. Now it's time for them to do the same to anyone who helps prolong the maybe-Obama-is-a-Muslim-maybe-he's-not-it's-kinda-hard-to-know meme. Then they can work up to disowning Sarah Palin.

1It was sort of amusing this afternoon to watch Beck take shots at Kristol on his show, immediately followed by a commercial break extolling the virtues of the Weekly Standard.

From Steve Tribble, the county judge executive of Kentucky's Christian County, where a planned road project is now at risk thanks to the tea party-inspired ban on earmarks:

I do agree we have to cut from somewhere. I am against some earmarks [But] not the good ones. I can promise you this is not a road to nowhere.

Well, yeah, nobody wants their earmarks cut, do they? As the story goes on to explain, "Scores of lawmakers are going to find themselves explaining to the people back home why their bridges will not be finished, their rape victim programs canceled before they started, their federal requirements ignored." Have fun, folks!

Why Do Men Write All the Book Reviews?

VIDA informed us last week that most major magazines publish a lot more book reviews by men than by women, as well as a lot more reviews of books by men than by women. Why? Ruth Franklin tallied up the books published by a sample of major publishers and concluded that the problem probably isn't with the magazines themselves:

Only one of the houses we investigated—the boutique Penguin imprint Riverhead—came close to parity, with 55 percent of its books by men and 45 percent by women. Random House came in second, with 37 percent by women. It was downhill from there, with three publishers scoring around 30 percent—Norton, Little Brown, and Harper—and the rest 25 percent and below.

....I speculated that independents—more iconoclastic, publishing more work in translation, and perhaps less focused on the bottom line—would turn out to be more equitable than the big commercial houses. Boy, was I wrong....Graywolf, with 25 percent female authors, was our highest-scoring independent....Melville House came in at 20 percent....Verso was second-to-last at 11 percent.

....Now we can better understand why fewer books by women than men are getting reviewed. In fact, these numbers we found show that the magazines are reviewing female authors in something close to the proportion of books by women published each year. The question now becomes why more books by women are not getting published.

I remember a few years ago reading a piece by an op-ed page editor — Gail Collins? — saying that her submissions ran something like 10:1 in favor of men. She wanted to publish more stuff by women, she said, but just didn't have much to choose from. In the case of op-eds, one obvious answer is simply to try harder: solicit pieces from good women and try to improve the balance that way. This has a good chance of success, since op-eds only take a few hours to write. But I don't know enough about the industry to know if that would work in book publishing. Books, after all, need a lot more than a couple of phone calls to solicit. Any publishing pros care to weigh in on this?

Why Zombies Matter

MoJo copy editor Adam Weinstein on Daniel Drezner's Theories of International Politics and Zombies:

Drezner's real genius is that he's written a stinging postmodern critique of IR theorists themselves, applying the full force of their structured reasoning to topics as diverse as Michael Jackson's breakdancing zombies, Peter Jackson's lesser film canon (Dead Alive, a splendid Kiwi undead gorefest), and romantic zombie comedy flicks—"rom zom coms," as he puts it. It's both a pedagogical text and a lampoon of pedagogy.

TIPZ is a pretty good book. As Adam says, it's part mockery ("postmodern critique" wouldn't have occurred to me, but maybe it's that too) and part serious primer about the insights and weaknesses of various IR theories. If you're looking for something to get you up to speed for cocktail parties in an hour or two, this is just the ticket. If you like lame zombie jokes, so much the better.

Which reminds me: Personally speaking, this has been a remarkably good year for books so far. Looking over at my pile o' discarded books, I see that I've read eight so far and every single one of them has been pretty good. That's just coincidence, but it's a nice coincidence.

(Aside from TIPZ, this year's reading material so far has been: Robert A. Heinlein, by William Patterson, Supreme Conflict, by Jan Crawford Greenburg, Invisible Hands, by Kim Phillips-Fein, Capitalizing on Crisis, by Greta Krippner, Burr, by Gore Vidal, A Terrible Splendor, by Marshall Jon Fisher, and Our Hero: Superman on Earth, by Tom De Haven. All recommended if you happen to be interested in the subject material.)

Obama's Sucker Play for Republican Governors

OMB Director Jack Lew, speaking for the Obama administration, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times this weekend reiterating Obama's dedication to fiscal prudence and providing three examples of programs that Obama is willing to cut. All three are programs that benefit states, and Stan Collender thinks this isn't a coincidence:

The proposals are going to put a lot of Republican governors and mayors on the spot. I suspect the administration wants to force these GOP officials to be seen lobbying against the spending cut proposals. Look for them to be invited to some high profile meetings at the White House with heavy media coverage.

It's possible that Republican governors will decide not to take the bait, but Stan is certainly right that this is our first look at how the budget battles are going to unfold. Republicans are going to propose cuts to programs liberals like and Democrats are going to propose cuts to programs that include conservatives as at least part of their constituency. Then they can fight it out and decide not to cut all that much out of the federal budget after all. Should be loads of fun.

Why You Hate Air Travel Less Than You Think

How much technological progress have we made since 1973? I don't want to drive this question into the ground, but Matt Yglesias makes a point about air travel that bears scrutiny:

Today’s planes are, in fact, technologically superior to the planes of yore. But the travel experience has been made much worse by massive over-investment in airplane security. Inefficient pricing of runway space leads to lots of problems.

True. And yet, which would you take, 1973 or 2011? It's 2011 by a landslide. Fifty years ago, the technological improvement we all expected was faster airplanes. We didn't get that. What we got instead was way cheaper and more abundant flights thanks to deregulation and the computer revolution, which made capacity management far more effective than in the past. One of the results of all this has been crowded flights and crowded airports, and of course increased security has made the flying experience less pleasant too. Still, taken as a whole, I'd say that the airline industry has made tremendous progress since 1973. It just hasn't been where we expected it to be.

Also of interest: the contribution of the airline industry to GDP probably hasn't changed an awful lot since 1973. But its contribution to the increased wellbeing of the median person has increased tremendously. In 1973, the average schmoe simply never flew: it was too expensive and flights weren't always very convenient. Today, nearly anyone can afford to fly at least occasionally. So this is one area where pure measures of GDP probably understate the benefit to the median person. People who are already rich would prefer faster planes, but people who aren't would simply prefer planes they can afford. And that's what we got.

Arianna Huffington: The $315 Million Woman

Last night I saw a tweet saying that AOL was going to buy the Huffington Post for $31.5 million. Yowza, I thought. That's a pretty rich valuation. Maybe 20x forward earnings? Who knows?

But no! AOL actually bought HuffPo for $315 million. I mentally put in a decimal place where there wasn't one. I don't even know what to think about this. It sounds completely crazy to me. The odds of this being a good deal for AOL stockholders seem astronomical.

Still, maybe I'm the one who's crazy. After all, I haven't paid a lot of attention to either HuffPo or AOL lately. I'm a huge skeptic of synergy arguments of all kinds, but maybe Arianna is right when she says that in this deal, 1+1=11. Anybody in comments want to make the case in favor of this being the deal of the century?

UPDATE: Felix Salmon puts some numbers to the deal and defends it as a good one:

The $315 million that AOL is paying for the Huffington Post is roughly 3X the valuation seen at its last capital raise two years ago, is 10X its 2010 revenues and is roughly 5X estimated forward 2011 revenues. Those are all big numbers, but not insanely so....My feeling, then, is that this deal is a good one for both sides. AOL gets something it desperately needs: a voice and a clear editorial vision. It’s smart, and bold, to put Arianna in charge of all AOL’s editorial content, since she is one of the precious few people who has managed to create a mass-market general-interest online publication which isn’t bland and which has an instantly identifiable personality. That’s a rare skill and one which AOL desperately needs to apply to its broad yet inchoate suite of websites.

Maybe so.

Is 2011 Really Better Than 1973?

Here's the thought experiment of the day: If you could be transported back to 1900 with your current income, would you take the deal? The answer is almost certainly no. Sure, your current income would go a hell of a long way in 1900, but you'd still swelter in the summer because all the money in the world couldn't buy you an air conditioner. Ditto for plane travel, penicillin, automobiles, etc. etc. Even with a lot of money, 1900 looks pretty crappy.

But change it up: would you take the same deal if you could be transported back to 1973? Again, your income would go a lot further (about 5x further, in fact), which means you'd be pretty well off, but you'd....

Well, you'd what? Obviously you'd miss your cell phone and the internet and your HD television with 300 channels. But a car would still basically be a car, and interstate highways are about the same as now. Ditto for plane travel, antibiotics, air conditioners, etc. etc. So what do you say? Would you take the 1973 version of this deal? Scott Sumner says he would. Bryan Caplan, and Arnold Kling say they wouldn't.

In my case, I almost certainly wouldn't take the deal. Partly that's because I've never been much of a money hound and I already lead an upper middle class life, so having 5x my current income just doesn't appeal to me all that much. Also, the biggest difference between 1973 and 2011 — personal computers and the internet — are really, really important to me. It would take a lot of other stuff to make me give that up.

Still, unlike the 1900 deal, it's not a slam dunk. If a big house in a nice location means a lot to you, and traditional entertainment (film, books, theater, etc.) could easily take the place of the internet in your life, then maybe 1973 on a big income starts to look pretty good.

But it depends a lot on circumstances, doesn't it? If you suffer from chronic depression and Prozac has turned your life around, then 1973 doesn't look very appealing. If you like dining out on good ethnic food, 1973 would be something of a wasteland in most parts of the country. If you're a woman who wants a career as a corporate lawyer or a business executive, 1973 probably looks a little grim. If you're gay, you'd be insane for wanting to go back no matter how much they paid you.

(This conversation was originally kicked off by a discussion of how impressive productivity gains have been since 1973, something that this thought experiment is meant to help us get a handle on. So you might object that social inequities really shouldn't count. But I say they should. Progress is progress, and the utility of a person's life depends on a lot of things, not just material wealth. So this stuff counts for everyone who's not a straight, white, WASPy male.)

Of course, we're all so used to our current goodies that it's hard to imagine that we'd be happy without them. That's loss aversion for you. But what if you'd never experienced them before? Would they sound all that great? Or would you be happy with your current stuff? Things probably look a little different from 1973 looking forward than from 2011 looking back.

And income level matters too. If you choose a middle-class 2011 income level, then 1973 gets you an upper class lifestyle. But the difference between middle class and upper class isn't all that big, so you'd take 2011 because of all the goodies we have. But if you choose a poverty-level 2011 income, then 1973 would turn that into an upper middle class income — and that makes things look a lot different because the difference between middle class and abject poverty is huge. All the goodies in the world probably don't make up for it.

POSTSCRIPT: Alternatively, this just means that nominal dollars are a lousy way of comparing eras. It would be pretty easy to convince me of that, in fact.

UPDATE: Edited considerably a few minutes after posting to remove some fairly dumb stuff.