Feeding the poor: A sustainable contribution model


Give free rice to hungry people by playing a simple word game.

Posted in experiments. Comments Off on Feeding the poor: A sustainable contribution model

Genius factory: On sperm banking, nature v. nurture, & evolutionary psychology

About two years ago David Plotz’s Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank was published. I was reviewing books for an online A&E city guide at the time and pitched the book to my editor, who instead saddled me with the novel of one of her friends or acquaintances or something of the similar sort. So, it was with pent up anticipation and (after canvassing some of the recent literature on evolutionary psychology) much interest that I began reading this book after a fortuitous reminder of its existence landed in my inbox. This isn’t a review, but rather I’ll lay out the interesting points I encountered while reading.

First, background: In the book, Plotz chronicles the birth, life and subsequent demise of The Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank started by millionaire tinkerer Robert Graham (famous for inventing plastic-frames for eyeglasses just in time for the 60’s when glasses covering half of one’s face was all the rage). Graham, whose name was later tarnished somewhat through the bank’s association with eccentric Nobel laureate William Shockley (who publicly shared his beliefs that the poor and ‘dim-witted’ shouldn’t be allowed to procreate: “The government, he said, should pay anyone with an IQ of less than 100 to be permanently sterilized -$1000 for every IQ point under 100”), launched The Repository for Germinal Choice in a crusade to

save mankind from genetic catastrophe. In modern America, the millionaire complained, cradle-to-grave social welfare programs paid incompetents and imbeciles to reproduce. As a result, ‘retrograde humans’ were swamping the intelligent minority. This ‘dysgenic’ crisis would soon cause the evolutionary regression of mankind, as well as global communism.

And he believed that the only way to stop his fears from seeing the light of day was to help disseminate the sperm of, in his opinion, superior men. Graham’s intentions were fundamentally benevolent, he wrote:

The disappearance of genes for high intelligence is a defeat for the uniqueness of man, an erosion of the essence of the human condition. The childlessness of Isaac Newton or a George Washington, the extinction of the Lincoln family, the spinsterhood of the brightest girl in the class, are great biological tragedies. As a result, mankind is deprived of some of that essential quality which separates him from the apes.

Sperm banking: When suppliers refuse to cooperate
However, the problem was that in his quest for Nobel-laureate-quality sperm, Graham found few men of qualifying substance willing to donate. In the end, this lack of product led to lax requirements of specimen donors and weak, and in some cases no concern with fact-checking, so that a donor’s self reported history was taken as fact on his word of honor alone. Men whose IQs were unknown were passed off as men with IQs of 160, etc. Of the 200+ babies born from The Repository for Germinal Choice, none descended from Nobel-laureates. Nonetheless, most of the kids grew to be gifted, and if not, extremely well-rounded and well-adjusted individuals, which is no surprise considering they were raised by a self-selected sample of attentive women, all concerned with bringing up children with such qualities. Plotz notes that the mothers he met with all took an active interest in their children’s lives and provided stimulating environments to cater to the concert pianists and accomplished scientist’s written into their children’s genes at conception. Read the rest of this entry »

Now online: Your general practitioner

As the sibling of a surgeon, and having been forced into relations with other ‘doctors’ by the big black box in the sky, I often find myself in the middle of conversations about how tough it is to make a living these days. This group is invariably, in my experience, the one amongst the graduate/professionally-educated bunch that does the most complaining. The problem is not that a quarter million annual salary used to be a princely sum, but is now paltry in the neighborhood circles they’ve grown accustomed to but that are now populated with financiers and their peripheral support staffs (even the women employed solely for the purpose of answering phones and setting up conference calls in ‘these neighborhoods’ are better compensated than many a general practitioner –year-end bonus included, of course). Rather, the problem lies in the fact that this self-selected group (more often than not, and of course there are exceptions, those choosing this path do so because of the ease in which the life unfolds once accepted to a medical school –as in, life becomes about getting into medical school, every decision after that is determined by a lottery system or similar, and provided you don’t fall asleep during your boards and are open to changing to an easier specialty, your future can be set without your having to make decisions or exert much initiative), has never experienced the challenge of having to produce an original thought, which also applies to task of earning their living. You go where the system puts you. Period. But, if you’re one of those on the cultural fringe, you say ‘fuck the system’ and you make your own way; case in point: Jay Parkinson, M.D. Instead of complaining about the wealth being made from web revolutions, simply chocking it up to the stilted nature of medicine in the world upon us, and trudging back to his private practice in some New York suburb with his tail between his legs, Mr. Parkinson put his private practice online

Strange. How does this work?
According to Dr. Parkinson’s website, patients sign up to receive his services by paying an annual fee (currently $500/annum). Dr. Parkinson then contacts the patient, and the two chat about the patient’s medical history. After that, you contact him (via phone, email, IM, or video chat) when you need him and he will respond by ‘getting you exactly what you need.’  Hypotheticals exhibiting how he might service you range from sprains requiring the assistance of specialist to the more frivolous.

Good for patients, bad for Dr. Parkinson?
This system provides obvious benefits to patients. First, care isn’t restricted to an eight-hour window –a window observed by most business, thereby increasing the opportunity cost of spending time in your physician’s office (lost wages, etc…). Second, the time normally lost to patients waiting around for the doctor to finish up with the last guy is reduced, or at least more pleasurable. Imagine you fracture your wrist in the park. You email Parkinson on your Blackberry, he texts you saying he’s busy, but can come down in a half hour. In the meantime, you take a picture of your arm and send it to Parkinson, then duck into a coffee shop. A quick look at the picture and he texts back saying you’ll need to do x, y and z, and he sends you along to a specialist who he has just called…

But, in order for Dr. Parkinson to make ends meet in the village, he’s going to need at least 200 patients (give or take some). With this business model, the doctor has every incentive to increase either the number of patients or the annual service fee…which raises a fundamental issue: moral hazard. When people pay a flat fee for a service, they tend feel the need to abuse it. Dr. Parkinson’s ‘examples’ includes a case in which he provides services to a woman who enlists his help because her boyfriend calls her fat. Patients might be more likely to bombard poor Dr. Parkinson with such requests than they would if they were forced to walk into an office or pay a premium for that visit. Does the service really allow Parkinson to service more patients if he’s receiving more requests but the marginal savings to time expended per patient is minimal? At some point, I imagine Parkinson will raise his fee in order to better serve patients if requests get out of hand. He might even apply a small premium per call received, so as to combat the frivolous requests that would never illicit demand for institutionalized medical services otherwise. The beauty of this business model is that Dr. Parkinson is in control of his fee structure, and can change it to meet his own and his patient demographics’ changing demands without the constraint of hefty fixed costs associated with the traditional system. HT: [Gawker]

Children are smarter than you think, especially those in post-communist Russia

In the spirit of running experiments that explore the evolution of capitalist systems on children [Why We Banned Legos, 2006], consider a Russian version:

Nikolaevena had run the Krupskaya Camp since 1969… Despite her obvious misgivings about the new order, Nikolaevna was an indoctrinator by profession and said it was now her duty to prepare children for the coming times. ‘We have to teach the young what a free-market system is’…In this remote region, they recreated the prevailing market conditions of any big Western city…‘Just like in New York. If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat.’  

For five days, the camp’s Red Square parade ground was transformed into a capitalist labor exchange where the 413 campers bid on work assignments. The children were paid in the camp’s own currency [ecus], redeemable at the cafeteria, confectionery, and entertainment center. Nikolaevna played mayor while Anrei put his economics training to use as head of the central bank. The remainder of the staff and counselors ran the labor shop. The oldest campers were appointed police officers…

On the second day of the exercise, Andrei noticed that there was more money in circulation than had originally been printed. After some inquiry, he discovered that a few of the kids had taken it upon themselves to set up their own little printing press and crank out ecus to satisfy their sweet tooth. The camp police were dispatched to apprehend the culprits, but the kids bought off the lawmen with a case of chocolate bars and continued to operate with impunity. Some other policemen, lured by the promise of Pepsi and chewing gum, threw in their lot with the counterfeits. This prepubescent mafia began to bully other campers and exacted payments for such offenses as profanity –either fifty ecus or two waffles.

Taking one counselor’s words (‘there is no higher law than money’) to heart, a group of overly enthusiastic kid-capitalists stormed Andrei’s office (the central bank), and in the ensuing melee made off with the labor exchange’s payroll. Andrei was forced to print extra money, which caused the campers to increase the price of chocolates and services. Just as in the real post-Soviet world, hyperinflation was born…

On the third day of the Economic Game, the Krupskaya camp suffered a spectacular bankruptcy. A would be Donald Trump had bought the rights to the dormitory and demanded rent from all the campers. Unfortunately, the kids started sneaking in through the back window to sleep, and the budding landlord ended up owing more ecus to the labor exchange for rental rights than he was receiving from the campers. He abandoned his property deal and joined the police-force-cum-mafia.

By the afternoon of the fourth day, chaos reigned. Zhanna Nikolaevna, in her role as mayor, called a general meeting to resore order. When she proposed firing the corrupt police force and replacing it with a newly formed ‘national guard’ composed of camp counselors, the police staged a coup d’état and threatened to hold her for ransom. The coup d’état proved to be the coup de grace. The game was called off…

‘If this is how people act in capitalism,’ [Zhanna Nikolaevna] said softly, ‘then I fear for the future of Russia.’

Casino Moscow, Matthew Brzezinski

Exercise: the story of how endorphins made me (un)happy/changed my disposition…


Yesterday a friend and I got into a long conversation about atoms, which ventured through some loop to finally end with the following: “its been more of a headache than a pleasure to make its (the world’s) acquaintance…”

His/her suggestion: get thee to a gym;  “Everything makes sense when you exercise and even when things aren’t good it is impossible to get to a place of feeling hopeless.”  Apparently, he/she offered a thesis shared by at least a few medical researchers. According to Sarah Frayne* from the Center of Applied Research,

Phenylethylamine [also found in chocolate] had previously been found to relieve depression in two thirds of depression cases. There are theories that relate a low level of phenylethylamine with the presence of depression making it a natural candidate for possible chemicals surrounding the anti-depressant effects of exercise… It is also notable that phenylethylamine has been able to boost moods as quickly as amphetamines, but without side effects or creating a tolerance to the chemical.

Ellen Billet of Nottingham Trent University studied the levels of phenylethylamine in 20 young men before and after exercising on a treadmill at 70 percent maximum heart-rate capacity. The men were asked to rate the level of exercise level they felt, and then were tested for phenylethylamine. Rise in the level of the chemical was around 77 percent with huge variances in levels between individuals.

It has become accepted in the scientific community that there is some sort of “runner’s high” or general mood elation associated with exercise on a physical level. The research to find the processes behind this phenomenon have all shown the immediate chemical levels of people after exercise. However, the lasting ability of these effects are largely important to depression treatment and an overall healthy happy lifestyle. Donna Kritz-Silverstein from UCSD, found that exercise must be done on a regular basis to maintain the positive effects. She found that those who exercised had a lower Beck Deppression Inventory (BDI) meaning they were generally in a better mood. Ten years later, those who had stopped exercising had BDIs similar to those who had never exercised, while those who continued to exercise were able to maintain a low BDI.

So, I decided to run a tad bit more than a thought experiment, myself being the subject.  

Thesis: Regimented exercise will, by way of downsizing my feelings of hopelessness, make me happier than I was two weeks ago. 

Method (of course its completely biased in all sorts of ways; for one, the subject of the study is the entity commissioning the study, so take the following with a grain of salt): I will jog for about 45 minutes every other day, while cutting off contact with this friend (rater #1) and a another (rater #2) for three full weeks, aside from a weekly recap, during which we will rehash some topic that is bound to leave me depressed. These two people were made aware of the fact that I would a) be exercising (as described) and b) offsetting each hour spent basking in my endorphins with something stressful like studying for the GRE, because its never too late to get a PhD in something useless.

I had one farewell conversation with each. Rater #1 and I left it at the atom discussion. Rater #2 and I discussed whether or not things we originally wanted to happen that happened during the recent past should be construed as evidence in favor of humans being in control of events or as merely coincidences. Both rated me on a scale from 1-10 in terms of how optimistic my thoughts on each respective subject tended to be. Each rater, coincidentally, gave me a 5.

Due to the fact that I plan to throw in some curveballs, and that this is not an anonymous site to the raters… I will post the results on Friday of week #3.

*Frayne, Sarah. Exercise and the “Runner’s High”: can it really make you happy?

Piggybacking: 2Q07 results

So, a little hand-waving shows our piggyback portfolio’s performance: 5.63% for the quarter, assuming equal weighting for each holding in the portfolio. For some perspective, 2Q07 returns for relevant benchmarks:
S&P500 index: 5.68%
Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (AMEX:VTI): 5.53% 



Ticker Symbol 5-15-07 6-29-07 return
HYPERCOM NYSE HYC 5.58 5.91 6%
MDS NYSE MDS 22 22.67 3%
SYNOVUS FINL NYSE SNV 32.09 30.70 -4%
ATP OIL & GAS NASDAQ ATPG 42.29 48.64 15%
TEMPLE INLAND NYSE TIN 62.31 61.53 -1%

Remember, one data point does not a valid study make. Join us next quarter as we journey to extract our second data point. 

The way this will work: we will continue to move forward with the current portfolio, making minor changes. The first is that as a rule of thumb we will sell any holding that produces a return at or above 25% at any point during the quarter (this means that moving forward we will toss OmniVision, NASDAQ:OVTI). As having hypothetically sold the security our portfolio’s return will be calculated as having locked in the 28%+ return for that holding. 

Second, any holding that the hedge funds ditched –as per the 2Q07 13F– will be removed from the mock portfolio and instead replaced with a new holding picked using the same methodology as we used in constructing the original portfolio (i.e. random number generator, etc…) 

Third, we kind of have a thing for backing somewhat involved (debatable) philosophical theses with our investing dollars (requires serious hedging and sometimes hurts –we’re just trying to kill the philosopher inside), and for this reason have decided to more closely follow, or explore the holdings of a few global macro funds. Consequently, we will track a second mock portfolio (same rules apply). 

Note: we are not recommending this as an investment strategy. We would much rather have you buy art.

Piggybacking: a pseudo-study

Though we aren’t of the camp in die-hard support of the activist investor guild, we do think shareholder activism is sometimes necessary –anyone who’s dealt with an idiot running a company with a market cap of $500m+ will understand– and consequently applaud these guys’ moxie in communicating with management at a level (perhaps, the only) they can understand: hurled insults.  

But, we’d like to put a little rigor into forming an opinion (i.e. find out what activism can do for us), so we’re running an extremely biased (sample size negligible) and elusive (we will reveal neither n, nor the components of n, but will say that 2 ≤ n ≤ 10) experiment: tracking a mock activist portfolio over the last week of this quarter to see how we might have performed had we piggybacked during 2Q07.  

Method: Our mock portfolio contains random long-only holdings of n activist funds. Using 13F documents filed with the SEC, we compiled a list of all positions added during 1Q07, assigned each holding a number, then used a random-number generator to pick 14 holdings, which now form the mock portfolio whose performance we will track through the end of 2Q07 (Friday) as if the each of the 14 holdings were purchased the day after the 13F form was filed with the SEC.  The portfolio (options and positions associated w/ options strategies not included; cost basis reflects closing price of the security on the day that the fund’s 13F was filed with the SEC: May 15, 2007):


Ticker Symbol 5-15-07 6-25-07 return

HYPERCOM NYSE HYC 5.58 5.74 3%





MDS NYSE MDS 22 23.13 5%




SYNOVUS FINL NYSE SNV 32.09 31.03 -3%



ATP OIL & GAS NASDAQ ATPG 42.29 46.84 11%


It is not our intention that the reader should go out and purchase any of these securities. In fact, we provide reasons for why you should NOT purchase these securities:

  1. your cost basis would most likely be much higher than that of our experiment’s portfolio, and as a result we expect that your performance would substantially lag our experiment portfolio’s
  2. the turnover rate for individual holdings in any of these funds’ portfolios is generally high, and 13F’s are available to the public 15 days after the last quarter ends, so you would be acting after a considerable lag-time during which the holdings may have already been sold by the respective fund manager(s)
  3. We’re telling you not to; this is our third and final warning