The Unusual Suspects: A Good Cryptographer Is Hard to Find

Earlier this year, the structure of an enzyme in an HIV-related monkey virus was solved in three weeks by internet gamers. It was a feel-good victory of human intelligence over disease, and a reminder of the awesome power of the internet.

The New York Times published a similar article a few days ago. In a slightly controversial move, British spy agency Government Communications Headquarters posted a puzzle online and directed people who solved it to apply for a job at GCHQ. It’s reminiscent of the Bruce Willis movie Mercury Rising and seems like an elegant solution to a hiring problem - the GCHQ can't offer as much money to their cryptographers as private firms. Also, code breaking skills can't be that easy to find. The Times reports on what happens after you break the code:

“So you did it,” says the congratulatory message. “Now this is where it gets interesting. Could you use your skills and ingenuity to combat terrorism and cyberthreats? As one of our experts, you’ll help protect our nation’s security and the lives of thousands.” Those interested are then invited to submit a formal job application, leading to interviews for a total of 35 jobs next spring.

Roland Fryer Identifies Five Habits of Successful Charter Schools

Harvard economist (and Freakonomics friend) Roland Fryer has a new paper out (full version here) that takes a look at the specific successful habits of charter schools. Along with co-author Will Dobbie, Fryer collected “unparalleled data” on 35 elementary and middle charter schools in New York City by conducting extensive interviews and videotaping classrooms.

Their results are fairly counter-intuitive. They showed that traditional solutions like class size, per-pupil expenditure, and the number of teachers with advanced degrees are not correlated with effectiveness, and in fact, "resource-based solutions" actually lowered school effectiveness.

Instead, they found five qualities that made up about 50 percent of a charter school's effectiveness. These are:

1. Frequent teacher feedback
2. Data driven instruction
3. High-dosage tutoring
4. Increased instructional time
5. Relentless focus on academic achievement.

The Violent Legacy of Africa's Arbitrary Borders

Even if they haven’t heard the term Scramble for Africa, most people know that something went wrong when the continent was divided into nation states by European colonial powers.

Some economists, however, have taken the time to quantify the destructive nature of Africa's national borders. Authors Stelios Michalopoulos and Elias Papaioannou have released a new working paper showing how arbitrary border decisions have affected war and civil unrest in Africa, particularly among split ethnic groups and their neighbors. Not surprisingly, the length of a conflict and its casualty rate is 25 percent higher in areas where an ethnicity is divided by a national border as opposed to areas where ethnicities have a united homeland. Examples of divided (and conflicted) groups are the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, and the Anyi of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The conflict rate is also higher for people living in areas close to ethnic-partitioned hot-spots.

Changing Youth Migration Patterns: So Long New York, Hello… Portland?

A new blog post from William H. Frey, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, takes a look at the migration patterns of American youth, and the cities that attract the "cool" crowd. In the last few years, the rough economy has put the brakes on mobility, which has declined to its lowest levels since World War II. Young adults in particular have stopped moving around. Still, like always, there are those 20 and 30 somethings who remain mobile. But, in recent years their list of destinations has begun to change. Frey writes:

While young people are moving less than before, it is interesting to see where those who did move went. Heading the list are Denver, Houston, Dallas, Seattle, Austin, Washington D.C., and Portland. The top three areas and our nation’s capital, arguably, fared relatively well economically during the recession. But all seven are places where young people can feel connected and have attachments to colleges or universities among highly educated residents.

Should Mexican Drug Cartels Be Labeled as Insurgents?

A few weeks ago, Freakonomics received an email from a man in Mexico City describing the effects of Mexican drug cartel violence on daily life and asking for our solutions to his country's seemingly endless crime problems. This week, The New York Times ran a piece on Mexican drug cartels and growing American infiltration of criminal organizations. Now, a new report from RAND on drug-trafficking violence in Mexico analyzes the situation in the context of an insurgency, bringing to bear research on defense-sector reform.

What's clear is that the drug-fueled violence in Mexico has diversified over the last decade into several other underworld activities: human trafficking, weapon trafficking, and assassinations, just to name a few. In other words, the cartels are no longer just cartels -- they are something larger.

The RAND paper reiterates many points that have become familiar to us about the situation in Mexico: corruption is rife, policing is weak. It also looks at how high unemployment and a "youth bulge" have helped fuel Violent Drug Trafficking Organizations (VDTO). For many young unemployed people, joining a crime syndicate is often the best job option. But the most jarring part of the paper is the discussion and comparison of Mexican drug violence to other insurgency trends around the world. Rather than a war on crime, what if the battle with cartels is really a battle with different insurgent groups?

Horizontal vs. Vertical: An International Comparison of Teaching Methods

A new study released by NBER from authors Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc and Andrei Shleifer takes a look at how teaching practices affect social capital. It's long and detailed, so we’ll only give you the highlights: in a nutshell, there are major differences between societies that teach vertically (like a teacher lecturing) and societies that teach horizontally (with students working together in groups.)

And because everyone loves international comparisons, the difference between horizontal and vertical countries breaks down as follows:

Students work in groups more in Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden) and Anglo-Saxon countries (Australia, United States and to a lesser extent Great Britain). This teaching practice is less common in East European countries and the Mediterranean (Greece, Cyprus, Portugal and, to a lesser extent, Italy). In contrast, in East European and Mediterranean countries, teachers spend more timing lecturing.

Why Does the Likelihood of Terrorism Increase After Natural Disasters?

In a new RAND working paper, authors Claude Berrebi and Jordan Ostwald use international data to argue that countries which experience a major natural disaster are more likely to have an increase in terrorism activity afterward. In the abstract they write:

...Using a structured methodology and detailed data on terrorism, disasters, and other relevant controls for 167 countries between 1970 and 2007, we find a strong positive impact of disaster-related deaths on subsequent terrorism deaths and incidence. We find that, on average, an increase in deaths from natural disasters of 25,000 leads to an increase in the following year of approximately 33 percent in the number of deaths from terrorism, an increase of approximately 22 percent in the number of terrorist attacks, and an increase of approximately 16 percent in the number wounded in terrorist attacks, holding all other factors constant.

Did Risk of Divorce Drive Boomer Women to Increase Their Education?

A new working paper from authors Raquel Fernandez and Joyce Cheng Wong highlights the stark differences in the lives of two generations of American women: those born in 1935 and those born just 20 years later in 1955. The authors found that education, wage structure and divorce were the main causes to changes in labor force participation.

From the abstract:

Women born in 1935 went to college significantly less than their male counterparts and married women’s labor force participation (LFP) averaged 40% between the ages of thirty and forty. The cohort born twenty years later behaved very differently. The education gender gap was eliminated and married women’s LFP averaged 70% over the same ages... We find that the higher probability of divorce and the changes in wage structure faced by the 1955 cohort are each able to explain, in isolation, a large proportion (about 60%) of the observed changes in female LFP.

Call It a Comeback: Why Performance Increases When We're Losing

If you were a New York Knicks fan in the mid 1990's, you surely remember a certain 1995 playoff game in which Reggie Miller scored 8 points in under 9 seconds (two back-to-back three pointers, and two foul shots) to rally the Indiana Pacers to a last-second win over the stunned Knicks. It was a truly sad moment for New Yorkers, made all the worse when the Knicks lost the series in seven games. For whatever reason, some players seem to play better from behind. Reggie Miller certainly did.

A recent study by Jonah Berger of Wharton and Devin Pope of the University of Chicago highlights how being slightly behind is often an advantage. The authors devote a large part of their research to studying 18,000 NBA and 45,000 college basketball games. They also conducted an experiment in which people played competitive games and were given feedback halfway through.

Does Fingerprinting Food Stamp Recipients Save Money?

What do New York City and Arizona have in common? No, this is not a trick question; there is one thing: currently, they are the only jurisdictions in the country that require food stamp recipients to register their fingerprints in an electronic database. California and Texas recently lifted their fingerprinting requirements.

Not surprisingly, this has touched off a debate over social utility and costs in New York. Proponents say that the resulting fingerprint database saves the city millions of dollars a year in duplicate fraud. Last year, the Human Resources Administration said it found 1,900 cases of duplicate applications for 2010, with savings of nearly $5.3 million.

Detractors claim this estimate is unproven and that fingerprinting keeps a certain amount of needy people out of the system through intimidation.