Monday, 20 October 2014

Are women better decision makers? Forget the glass ceiling – think about the glass cliff.

  • Are Women Better Decision Makers? – “Credit Suisse examined almost 2,400 global corporations from 2005 to 2011 — including the years directly preceding and following the financial crisis — and found that large-cap companies with at least one woman on their boards outperformed comparable companies with all-male boards by 26 percent. … From 2005 to 2007, Credit Suisse also found, the stock performance of companies with women on their boards essentially matched performance of companies with all-male boards. Nothing lost, but much gained. If we want our organizations to make the best decisions, we need to notice who is deciding and how tightly they’re gritting their teeth.Unfortunately, what often happens is that women are asked to lead only during periods of intense stress. It’s called the glass cliff …”
  • No Consensus at Vatican as Synod Ends – “A closely watched Vatican assembly on the family ended on Saturday without consensus among the bishops in attendance on what to say about gays, and whether to give communion to divorced and remarried Catholics. … Pope Francis addressed the bishops in the final session, issuing a double-barreled warning against “hostile rigidity” by “so-called traditionalists,” but also cautioning “progressives” who would “bandage a wound before treating it.” The bishops responded with a four-minute standing ovation in the closed-door meeting, Vatican spokesmen said afterward.”
  • The Ebola Conspiracy Theories – “The spread of Ebola from western Africa to suburban Texas has brought with it another strain of contagion: conspiracy theories.”
  • Why Germany is so much better at training its workers
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  • Clive James: ‘I’d be lost without poetry’ – “Writer and broadcaster Clive James, who suffers from leukaemia and emphysema, has just had a new volume of essays published, called Poetry Notebook. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explains why the book means so much to him and how it is hard to have a serious literary reputation if you are on television regularly.”
  • This Age of Derp – “derp … is a determined belief in some economic doctrine that is completely unmovable by evidence.”
  • Inflation Derp Abides
  • “Inflation derps” are people from the concrete steppes
  • Regret and economic decision-making – “Regret can shape preferences and thus is an important part of the decision-making process. This column presents new findings on the theoretical and behavioural implications of regret. Anticipated regret can act like a surrogate for risk aversion and could deter investment. However, once people have invested, they become attached to their investment. This commitment is higher with better past performance.”
Figure 1 plots a simple transformation of the value of the unemployment rate, measured on the left axis, and the real value of the S&P, measured on the right axis, in log units. This graph shows a clear correlation between these series and a more careful investigation reveals that this correlation is causal in the sense in which Clive Granger defined that term: there is information in the stock market that helps to predict the future unemployment rate.
Figure 1 plots a simple transformation of the value of the unemployment rate, measured on the left axis, and the real value of the S&P, measured on the right axis, in log units. This graph shows a clear correlation between these series and a more careful investigation reveals that this correlation is causal in the sense in which Clive Granger defined that term: there is information in the stock market that helps to predict the future unemployment rate.
  • Don’t Panic — Yet! – “Volatility has returned to the stock market and most of the gains of 2014 were wiped out in the last week. Is it time to panic? Not yet! … For a market panic to have real effects on Main Street it must be sustained for at least three months. And there is no sign that that is happening: Yet.”

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Cruelty to pigs and other news and views for Sunday 19 October

The primatologist Jane Goodall writes that “farm animals feel pleasure and sadness, excitement and resentment, depression, fear and pain. They are far more aware and intelligent than we ever imagined ... they are individuals in their own right.” But when abnormally enclosed, their muscles and bones waste away, and they go insane from boredom. Just as you would if you couldn’t move.
The primatologist Jane Goodall writes that “farm animals feel pleasure and sadness, excitement and resentment, depression, fear and pain. They are far more aware and intelligent than we ever imagined … they are individuals in their own right.” But when abnormally enclosed, their muscles and bones waste away, and they go insane from boredom. Just as you would if you couldn’t move.
  • Free Pigs From the Abusive Crates – “Would you cram a dog into a crate for her entire life, never letting her out, until you took her to the pound to kill her? Of course you wouldn’t, and yet that’s effectively what happens to most mother pigs in this country. They spend their lives in what are called gestation crates, tiny stalls that house pregnant sows. They cannot even turn around, and are immobilized in these crates until they are taken to the slaughterhouse.”
  • The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons – “From 2004 to 2011, American and American-trained Iraqi troops repeatedly encountered, and on at least six occasions were wounded by, chemical weapons remaining from years earlier in Saddam Hussein’s rule. In all, American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs, according to interviews with dozens of participants, Iraqi and American officials, and heavily redacted intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.”
  • Uncle Sucker to the Rescue – Washington is making all its favorite mistakes in (another) Iraq war.
  • A Blunder Down Under – Waleed Aly in Foreign Policy argues: “Australia is trying to combat homegrown terrorism. Sending 800 police officers and a helicopter after suburban wannabes isn’t how to do it.”
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  • Dogs – ‘A Wolf Called Romeo,’ by Nick Jans, and More – Bronwen Dickey, who is writing a social history of pit bulls and their people, reviews three new titles.
  • What Markets Will – Paul Krugman explains how the financial turmoil of the past few days, especially in Europe, have policy crusaders again sure that they know what the markets are asking for. “It’s also instructive to look at interest rates on “inflation-protected” or “index” bonds, which are telling us two things. First, markets are practically begging governments to borrow and spend, say on infrastructure; interest rates on index bonds are barely above zero, so that financing for roads, bridges, and sewers would be almost free. Second, the difference between interest rates on index and ordinary bonds tells us how much inflation the market expects, and it turns out that expected inflation has fallen sharply over the past few months, so that it’s now far below the Fed’s target. In effect, the market is saying that the Fed isn’t printing nearly enough money.”
  • The bad news about the news – “People living through a time of revolutionary change usually fail to grasp what is going on around them. The American news business would get a C minus or worse from any fair-minded professor evaluating its performance in the first phase of the Digital Age. Big, slow-moving organizations steeped in their traditional ways of doing business could not accurately foresee the next stages of a technological whirlwind. Obviously, new technologies are radically altering the ways in which we learn, teach, communicate, and are entertained. It is impossible to know today where these upheavals may lead, but where they take us matters profoundly. How the digital revolution plays out over time will be particularly important for journalism, and therefore to the United States, because journalism is the craft that provides the lifeblood of a free, democratic society.”

Compost brings some climate change good news

The Los Angeles Times reports this morning on how  a compost experiment that began seven years ago on a Marin County ranch has uncovered a disarmingly simple and benign way to remove carbon dioxide from the air, holding the potential to turn the vast rangeland of California and the world into a weapon against climate change.
The concept grew out of a unique Bay Area alignment of a biotech fortune, a worldclass research institution and progressive-minded Marin ranchers. It has captured the attention of the White House, the Brown administration, the city of San Francisco, officials in Brazil and China, and even House Republicans, who may not believe in climate change but like the idea that “carbon farming” could mean profits for ranchers.
Experiments on grazing lands in Marin County and the Sierra foothills of Yuba County by UC Berkeley bio-geochemist Whendee Silver showed that a one-time dusting of compost substantially boosted the soil’s carbon storage. The effect has persisted over six years, and Silver believes the carbon will remain stored for at least several decades.
The experiments were instigated by John Wick and his wife, Peggy, heiress to the Amgen biotech fortune, on a 540-acre ranch they bought in Nicasio. What began as a search for an artist’s studio turned into a seven-year, $8 million journey through rangeland ecology that has produced results John Wick calls “the most exciting thing I can think of on the planet right now.”

Thursday, 16 October 2014

So you think we are doing it tough. Well the figures say Australians continue to be the world’s wealthiest people

The annual survey by Credit Suisse continues to show that Australia has the world’s highest median wealth per capita adult. The Global Wealth Report 2014  shows Australia at the top of the list for the fifth consecutive year with wealth of $US 225,000, far above Belgium in second place. On the measure of average wealth Australia comes in second behind Switzerland.
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Credit Suisse says about Australia:
Household wealth in Australia grew at a fast pace between 2000 and 2014 in US dollar terms, except for a short interruption in 2008. The average annual growth rate has been 11%, with about a third of the rise due to exchange rate appreciation. Using constant exchange rates, wealth has grown on average by 4.4% per annum since 2007, compared with a 9.2% rate over 2000–2007. Despite this recent slowdown, Australia’s wealth per adult in 2014 is USD 430,800, the second highest in the world after Switzerland. Its median wealth of USD 225,400 is the highest in the world.
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Interestingly, the composition of household wealth in Australia is heavily skewed towards real assets, which averaged USD 319,700 and form 60% of gross household assets. This
average level of real assets is the second highest in the world after Norway. In part, it reflects a large endowment of land and natural resources relative to population, but it is also a result of high urban real estate prices.
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Only 6% of Australians have net worth below USD 10,000, which can be compared to 29% in the USA and 70% for the world as a whole. Average debt amounts to 20% of gross assets. The proportion of those with wealth above USD100,000 is the highest of any country – eight times the world average. With 1,783,000 people in the top 1% of global wealth holders, Australia accounts for 3.8% of this wealthy group, despite having just 0.4% of the world’s adult population.

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Chicken McNuggets? Have a little dimethylpolysiloxane with that

Don’t worry. The experts say it does no harm. Just an anti-foaming agent used to control the oil when they fry the McNuggets. But one of the frightening sounding substances that the McDonald’s spin-doctors have to deal with in their new ask-me-anything campaign.
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Time magazine revived the dimethylpolysiloxane matter this time in an article What McDonald’s New ‘Transparency’ Campaign Is Hiding.
Online, McDonald’s answers some questions about its products. So far, I didn’t see any questions (or answers) about antibiotic use or whether its eggs are cage-free, even in its section on “sourcing and sustainability.” Here’s what they do answer. On beef hormones: “Most of the cattle we get our beef from are treated with added hormones, a common practice in the U.S. that ranchers use to promote growth.” On feeding animals GMO feed: “Generally speaking, farmers feed their livestock a balanced diet that includes grains, like corn and soybeans. Over 90% of the U.S. corn and soybean crops are GMO, so cattle, chickens and pigs in our supply chain do eat some GMO crops.”
And while it says it no longer uses so-called “pink slime” in its burgers, it does use an anti-foaming agent, dimethylpolysiloxane, in the oil it uses to cook Chicken McNuggets. It also usesazodicarbonamide, AKA “the yoga mat ingredient,” in its buns and sandwiches, saying it has many uses: “Think of salt: the salt you use in your food at home is a variation of the salt you may use to de-ice your sidewalk.” As for why its U.S. menu contains items that are banned in Europe? “Every country has different food safety and regulatory standards and, because of this, ingredients will vary in our restaurants around the world. But no matter where you’re dining with us—in the U.S. or abroad—you can be assured of the quality and safety of our food.”
And the reason for the attempt to remake the McDonald’s image? Mother Jones explains it this way:
For McDonald’s, 2014 has been like a Happy Meal that’s missing a trinket: a major bummer. Its China operations (along with those other US fast-food firms) got caught up in an expired-meat scandal that pushed down Asian sales. Its US sales are down too, and its share price has fallen about 8 percent over the past three months. Strife among workers over low wages has lingered, and took a nasty turn for the company when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that it’s responsible for employment practices at its thousands of franchises, which it had been using as a shield to protect it from allegations of labor abuse. Insult to injury, a Consumer Reports survey named Mickey D’s signature burgers the “worst-tasting of all the major US burger chains.”

New genetically engineered corn and soybeans approved and other news and views for Thursday 16 October

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  • New GMOs Get A Regulatory Green Light, With A Hint Of Yellow – “Government regulators have approved a new generation of genetically engineered corn and soybeans. They’re the latest weapon in an arms race between farmers and weeds, and the government’s green light is provoking angry opposition from environmentalists. The actual decision, at first glance, seems narrow and technical. The Environmental Protection Agency has announced it had “registered” a new weedkiller formula that contains two older herbicides: glyphosate (better known as Roundup) and 2, 4-D. Versions of these weedkillers have been around for decades. But farmers in six Midwestern states will be allowed to use the new formula, called Enlist Duo, on their corn and soybeans. And that counts as big news. Farmers will now be able to plant new types of corn and soybeans that have been genetically engineered by the biotech company Dow Agrosciences to tolerate doses of those two weedkillers. (The beauty of herbicide-resistant crops is that they make the herbicides exquisitely selective: They kill the weeds but not the crop.) So farmers can spray either glyphosate or 2, 4-D (or both) to wipe out weeds without harming their corn or soybeans.”
  • Tony Abbott’s own side may put paid to parental leave
  • Is the Pope a Communist? – “At the height of the economic crisis, the appearance of the modestly dressed and humble Pope Francis seemed a statement in itself. His relatively non-judgmental approach to homosexuality surprised conservatives and perplexed liberals. His criticisms of capitalism soon after had the Christian world talking again, with many commentators on the left grudgingly welcoming his comments while some figures on the right, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh, were less than impressed.”
  • Freedom vs. Stability: Are Dictators Worse than Anarchy? – “Although there is always reason to celebrate the toppling of an autocrat, the outcome of the Iraq war and the rise of Islamic State have demonstrated in horrific terms that the alternative can be even worse.”
  • Thailand’s Leader Hints At Putting Off Return To Democracy
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  • Forget Facebook, Abandon Instagram, Move To A Village – “People who live in a traditional village — that means a community of about 150 people — are far better off than the rest of us. The author of a new book explains ‘the village effect’.”
  • To G-20 Leaders: Urgent Need to Boost Demand in the Eurozone – “No doubt, under their powerful communication weapons, the G-20 Leaders will give the impression that a vast armada is being marshalled to attack the global growth problem. It will look impressive. … But besides the communication strategy success, the truth remains that, in the absence of a major reconsideration of macroeconomic policies, the G-20 meeting in Australia in November will be another non-event.”
  • Do Plastic Bag Bans Work?
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Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A whale of a yarn about noise

The stress that noise can cause is known to most of us but what about the impact on whales? Not a subject of general discussion but made fascinating by Peter Brannen writing in that wonderful journal Aeon.
An example:
The march of commercial shipping had come to a halt as the world recoiled from the dreadful spectacle of crumbling skyscrapers and plane-shaped earthen scars. But underwater, the acoustic fog that had settled on the oceans for decades had lifted. The researchers found themselves in the middle of an unprecedented, if tragic, experiment. The melancholy days after 9/11 on the Bay of Fundy were a brief return to life in the pre-industrial oceans. As Parks’s team was recording the marine soundscape, Rosalind Rolland of the New England Aquarium was collecting faecal samples – floating whale poop – and measuring them for stress hormones. While Parks’s recordings testified to an ocean silenced by tragedy, Rolland found that the whales’ stress hormones had plummeted as well. The whales, it seemed, had finally relaxed.
Maybe it is the years I spent gazing at migrating whales in the sea below my home in Eden but these whale stories fascinate me. One other thing I learned from this beautifully offbeat article concerns the number of years a whale can live. Writing how hydrophones anchored to the continental slope off California have recorded a doubling of background noise in the ocean every two decades since the 1960s, Brannen notes:
For whales, whose lives can be measured in centuries, the dramatic change to the environment is one that could be covered in the biography of a single whale. As a testament to that longevity, in 2007, during a traditional whale hunt, indigenous Alaskans pulled a bowhead whale out of the water with a harpoon embedded in its blubber that had been made in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the 1800s – a type of weapon that might have been familiar to Herman Melville.
‘It’s very likely that the individuals that were being recorded in 1956 were the same ones being recorded in 2000,’ Parks said. ‘Some of these whales were born before there were motorised vessels in the water at all.’