Discriminating Software

The Economist takes a look at the software that big companies are using to sort through job applicants. It finds that people who use Chrome and Firefox browsers are better employees, and people with criminal records are suited to work in call centers. One drawback to having a computer sort potential employees is that its algorithms may treat some variables as proxies for race, as discussed in our "How Much Does Your Name Matter?" podcast, in which the Harvard computer scientist Latanya Sweeney found that distinctively black names are more likely to draw ads that offer arrest records. 

Why Cell Phone Networks Crash During an Emergency

Maggie Koerth-Baker of BoingBoing interviews Brough Turner, a phone system expert, about why it's hard to make cell phone calls during an emergency. Turner addresses the mechanics and limitations of cell phone networks and points out that, nostalgia notwithstanding, the pre-cell phone era faced its own technical problems:

Well, say you'd have an earthquake in California. This was for the old Bell system. The national long distance routing has a set of standard, predefined routes and it had network control centers in New Jersey and other places. Things would get overloaded and they would manually intervene by putting access restrictions on new calls coming into the area that was congested. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s they would let through one out of every five call attempts. They were doing that manually and just arbitrarily to reduce congestion.

(HT: The Big Picture)

Parking Isn't Always Hell

On the heels of our "Parking Is Hell" podcast, we received an email from Alicia Hickey -- a data analyst at ParkatmyHouse.com, a website that matches drivers with homeowners who have unused parking spaces in their driveways or garages. According to Hickey, ParkatmyHouse gets more than 10,000  visits a day and has 15,000 spots worldwide, the majority in the U.K. She  explained the pricing model to us:

If you look at parking near, say, Harvard University, a ParkatmyHouse space costs as little as $2/hour or $24/day. One-hour parking at a nearby garage costs $9 for the first hour. Three hours parking at that garage will cost you $24 (the 12-hour rate). That's $18 more than what the ParkatmyHouse space would cost for that same amount of time. It's difficult to give the average price of a parking space; it depends on the location and the property owner, but parking with ParkatmyHouse will always be cheaper than parking with a meter or in a commercial car park.

Hickey also told us about a few big success stories:

The History of Taxes

If you're still fuming over taxes this year, take a look at Mike Duncan and Jason Novak's (slightly biased) cartoon explanation of the history of taxes. The income tax really got its start in 1913:

Congress immediately passes the Revenue Act of 1913, creating the first permanent income tax.  No one really notices because the vast majority of incomes are taxed at just 1%.  The mustache twirling robber barons get pretty grumpy, though.  Then Wilson plunges us into WWI and unleashes the awesome potential of the new income tax.  The top end rate jumps to 77% and revenue increases 635%.

(HT: The Big Picture)

FREAK-est Links

1. First-year medical residents made more mistakes when they were required to work fewer hours.

2. Automated education: EdX offers classes online, marks essays and tests.

3. Telemedicine has doctors in Texas treating patients in Antarctica.

4. The history of capitalism is all the rage in history departments.

5. More Nutella thieving: this time it's not Columbia University students.

The Cost of Hunting Witches

We've blogged before about witches -- mainly with respect to how economic conditions affect witch hunting. Writing for Worldcrunch, Rodrigue Mangwa investigates the practice and explains the economics of witch trials in the Congo:

It should be noted that the witchcraft trials are not free, and are an important source of revenue for the tribal chiefBefore the dispute can be brought to the court, each party has to pay a mandatory fee of $200 – the price of a cow – whether they can afford it or not.

The headmaster of a primary school situated in Rubanga, 10 kilometers from the village of Lemera, says the witchcraft trials are just a way to exploit the local poor farmers in order to generate revenue for the tribal chief. “It would be naïve to think this is a real test of witchcraft. The tribal judges, who are pawns of the Mwami, are bribed to hand out false verdicts,” he says.

(HT: Marginal Revolution)

Pay Your Weight to Fly

Our recent Freakonomics Radio podcast “100 Ways to Fight Obesity” looked at some of the social costs of America's increasing rate of obesity. One airline in Samoa is experimenting with defraying some of those costs. It will soon start charging passengers by the kilogram. From The Sydney Morning Herald

Samoa Air has become the world's first airline to implement "pay as you weigh" flights, meaning overweight passengers pay more for their seats.

"This is the fairest way of travelling," chief executive of Samoa Air, Chris Langton, told ABC Radio. "There are no extra fees in terms of excess baggage or anything – it is just a kilo is a kilo is a kilo."

Mourning Thatcher in Estonia

An Estonian Public Broadcasting news article about the death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher noted her efforts to help Estonia's early independent government break with Soviet-era policies. It also included the following:

Of the three, it was Thatcher's economic policies in particular that were often cited by Mart Laar, the country's prime minister who came to power after the first post-independence parliamentary elections, as the blueprint for his free-market reforms.

In 2010, Laar told the Freakonomics Radio podcast: "The flat tax I got on my first meeting with Margaret Thatcher, who I admired very much and who was a great admirer of Milton Friedman. I met her first when I had been prime minister I think for some months and so on, and when I told her what I am planning to do, she looked at me with these big eyes and said 'you are one brave young man.' And then a little bit introduced me on the realities of the Western world on which I was not very well informed. But I didn’t stop."

Freakonomics podcast listeners may recall that Laar appeared on one of our earliest podcasts "What Would the World Look Like if Economists Were in Charge?"

Pay After You Go?

We've blogged extensively about pay-as-you wish pricing schemes. Springwise reports that a Spanish concert promoter is now experimenting with post-concert pay-as-you-wish pricing:

Spanish promoters Caravana de Emerxencia have recognized this problem and addressed it through their upcoming gig, where attendees can decide the price of the ticket when they leave.

The concert is taking place on April 4 at Sala Capitol in Santiago, northern Spain. Four bands will be playing on the night – SkarallaosChotokoeuSkarnivals and Swingdigentes. At the end of the evening attendees can pay whatever price they think the event deserves.

How do you like this plan? How do you think you would respond?

Coming Up: The Sapphire iPhone?

Kevin Bullis of the MIT Technology Review looks at manufactured sapphire, which is currently used for armor on military vehicles and may be coming soon to an iPhone screen near you:

Sapphire is harder than any other natural material except diamond; by some measures, it’s three times stronger than Gorilla Glass, and it is also about three times more scratch resistant. That’s why Apple uses it now to protect the camera on its iPhone 5. [Eric] Virey says that all major mobile-phone makers are considering using sapphire to replace glass. “I’m convinced that some will start testing the water and release some high-end smartphones using sapphire in 2013,” he says.

(HT: The Big Picture)