FREAK-est Links

1. Al Gore is sued over sale of Current TV to Al Jazeera. (HT: Romenesko)

2. Economic reasons to become a vegetarian, graphs included.

3. The scientists and psychologists of the junk-food business reveal their secrets.

4. Columbia students can't resist stealing Nutella. (HT: AL)

5. How prevalent was famine cannibalism? (HT: JH)

6. First, traffic mimes in Bogota; now Lucha Libre in Mexico City doing the same.

Are All Research Participants Outliers?

A Pacific Standard profile of noted social psychologist Joe Henrich has some staggering information about how social scientists conduct their research:

Economists and psychologists, for their part, did an end run around the issue with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects. A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners—with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.

How Good Groupon Leads to Bad Yelp

A paper by Georgios Zervas, John Byers, and Michael Mitzenmacher explores the relationship between a Groupon surge (like when a small bakery has to make 100,000 cupcakes) and a drop in Yelp ratings. Tim Worstall at Forbes explains:

Imagine that you are an enthusiastic and regular consumer of the finest chimichangas that you can find. You’ll likely have scoped out your neighbourhood, tested the chimichangas on offer and zeroed in on those places that make excellent ones. You might even provide reviews on Yelp pointing other enthusiasts for the comestible so as to guide them to the good places.

Investing in a Warmer Future

Bloomberg Businessweek explores how firms are adapting to a future climate:

Investing in climate change used to mean putting money into efforts to stop global warming. Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and other firms took stakes in wind farms and tidal-energy projects, and set up carbon-trading desks. The appeal of cleantech has dimmed as efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions have faltered: Venture capital and private equity investments fell 34 percent last year, to $5.8 billion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Now some investors are taking another approach. Working under the assumption that climate change is inevitable, they’re investing in businesses that will profit as the planet gets hotter. (The World Bank says the earth could warm by 4C by the end of the century.) Their strategies include buying water treatment companies, brokering deals for Australian farmland, and backing a startup that has engineered a mosquito to fight dengue, a disease that’s spreading as the mercury climbs.

Piet Dircke of the Dutch engineering and flood-prevention firm Arcadis says he was besieged with calls after Hurricane Sandy: “The climate is changing. Sea level is rising. That’s quite obvious. At the same time, the cities that are close to the waterline continue to grow and have more money and need for protection. It’s almost a natural growth market.”

One University That Isn't Cutting Costs

A Washington Post profile of Liberty University, founded in 1971 by Jerry Falwell, says that Liberty has doubled its enrollment in the last six years:

The surging enrollment for a bastion of Christian conservatism in the central Virginia foothills highlights the school as a market leader at the crossroads of religion and higher education. Liberty figured out how to recruit masses of students via the Internet years before elite universities began ballyhooed experiments with free online courses.

Turbocharged growth inevitably raises questions about quality, and Liberty’s academic reputation has not risen as fast as its enrollment. About 47 percent of its first-time, full-time students graduate within six years, federal data show, below the national average of 58 percent. Liberty officials say such statistics reflect an admissions policy geared more toward opportunity than exclusivity.

And Liberty is doing well on the finance front too: "The university ended 2012 with more than $1 billion in net assets for the first time, counting cash, property, investments and other holdings. That is 10 times what the school had in 2006."

(HT: Marginal Revolution)

Ray Dalio on the Upside of Negative Feedback

Our recent podcast “When Is a Negative a Positive?” is about the productive use of feedback. It argues that, while positive feedback has its place, especially for beginners, it is negative feedback that drives improvement.

This belief is firmly held by Ray Dalio, the founder of the Bridgewater Associates, which has been called (in a fine New Yorker profile by John Cassidy) "the world's richest and strangest hedge fund." Bridgewater's "principles" argue for constant, ruthless feedback, and Dalio attributes Bridgewater's success to this culture.

Here are some excerpts from an interview with Dalio that, unfortunately, didn't make it into our podcast:

"Learning about what you’re doing wrong and your mistakes is so much more productive to making improvement because you develop a means for dealing with that -- learning about what you’re doing right."

"Nobody knows what others are doing wrong. It’s a discovery process. So if I think you’re doing something wrong, I convey that to you in a forthright way. You’re an equal partner in that. But the people around us all then are partners in that. And we go through a process of experimenting, because the same things come up over, and over, and over again. So if you’re doing something wrong, it’s going to come up over and over and over again. And pretty soon, when you’re paying attention to it, it then becomes more apparent. So there’s really very little disagreement concerning each person’s strengths and weaknesses. And then of course, everybody sees that converted into productivity, because once they embrace the standing of what they’re doing wrong and have a strategy to not let that stand in their way -- to create a compensating mechanism -- it’s no longer a barrier to their effectiveness. ...

A New Website on Electoral Systems

Joshua Tucker of the Monkey Cage points to a new website designed to collect information on voter behavior in various electoral systems and educate the public about different systems. Here's the rundown, from University of Montreal political scientist André Blais:

A team of scientists has launched the website voteforpope.net. The website has two objectives: inform the public about the various electoral systems that exist in the world to elect state leaders, and collect data on voters’ behaviour under these systems.  We provide information about four electoral systems: one round plurality, two round runoff, alternative vote, and approval vote. The electoral system that is used for the election of the Pope is also described. The visitor is invited to imagine how he/she would vote if the pope was elected under each of these four electoral systems. The study is part of a larger international project designed to better understand the functioning of electoral democracy (Making Electoral Democracy Work). For an example of how such data can help us understand how electoral rules affect vote choice, see Blais et al. 2012. "Assessing the psychological and mechanical impact of electoral rules : A quasi-experiment." Electoral Studies 31 :829-837.

A Better Way to Think About Sustainability

In a recent TED talk for TED2013, design consultant Leyla Acaroglu tackles some persistent sustainability myths and advocates a new way of thinking about sustainability. From the TED blog:

Acaroglu wants you to think beyond choosing a material for your grocery tote. Instead, she encourages us to think about the entire life of a finished product, to think hard about the net impact a product has on the environment. This is life-cycle thinking, not just whether a product can be recycled, but all the parts of its existence: material extraction, manufacturing, packaging and transportation, product use, and end of life.

Electric tea kettles, for example, are an unlikely drain on the environment:

In the UK, 97 percent of households have an electric tea kettle, and 65 percent of tea drinkers admit to overfilling their kettles, boiling way more water than they need for a cuppa. One day of extra energy use from these kettles is enough to light all the streetlights in London for a night. What we need, Acaroglu says, is not better materials for the tea kettle, but a behavior-changing kettle that helps you boil just what you need.

Freakonomics Radio Hits No. 1

It may not last long but as of this writing, Freakonomics Radio is the No. 1 podcast on iTunes. Thanks to everyone for listening!

Would You Eat Steak From a Printer?

We've talked before about one possible future of food production: food printers.  Andras Forgacs is the CEO of a company called Modern Meadow, which is working on printing leather and meat products. He recently took questions on reddit.com; here's his take on his company's progress with replicating hamburger and steak:

Real steak is a big stretch. It won't be the first product since steak is very hard to make for now. Instead, the first wave of meat products to be made with this approach will likely be minced meats (burgers, sausages, etc.) and pates (goose liver pate, etc.). Also seafood is an early possibility since the texture requires may be easier to achieve than premium cuts.

While I doubt anyone will make commercial quantities of premium steak within 10 years, we will eventually get there but it will be an Nth generation product.