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HLG Notebook | March 2015

1. The Successful Eccentricities of Lee Kuan Yew

The Economist‘s obituary of Singapore’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew, is full of great anecdotes, including this one:

In some ways, Mr. Lee was a bit of a crank. Among a number of 20th-century luminaries asked by the Wall Street Journal in 1999 to pick the most influential invention of the millennium, he alone shunned the printing press, electricity, the internal combustion engine and the internet and chose the air-conditioner. He explained that, before air-con, people living in the tropics were at a disadvantage because the heat and humidity damaged the quality of their work.


For more on Lee, this twenty-year old interview in Foreign Affairs remains both relevant and prescient. And Tyler Cowen has posted dozens of facts about the economic miracle Lee created.


 2. Wearable Myth-Making at the Times

The Verge offers an unrelenting takedown of Nick Bilton’s poorly sourced and alarmist New York Timesarticle in which he suggests that the next generation of smart watches might be linked to cancer. Interestingly, the current link to the original article contains a lengthy Times editorial note that is just shy of a full retraction. By contrast, The Verge has links to a slew of studies debunking the cell-phones-cause-cancer hysteria. Bravo!

[Bilton’s piece] is a spectacularly ungenerous reading of the scientific literature. To start, Bilton quotes a single qualified physician before moving on to an osteopathic physician named Dr. Joseph Mercola who “focuses on alternative medicine.” Mercola has been outspoken on the link between cell phones and cancer, occasionally as a guest on theDr. Oz show, and has a lucrative side business selling homeopathic products on his website. He has also been the subject of four separate letters from the FDA for mislabeling products.


 3. Travel: Where the Wisdom of Crowds Is Everything 

fascinating look in Outside magazine at how powerful TripAdvisor has become in shaping travel decisions:

What begins as a simple search-engine query for travelers becomes an epic fact-finding mission that leaves no moldy shower curtain unturned; it’s a labyrinthine choose-your-own-adventure – do you read the one-bubble rant? – in which the perfect hotel always seems just one more click away. For all the power of the service, it raises deep questions about travel itself, including, most pressingly, who do we want – who do wetrust – to tell us where to go?


4. Yeah, but Are Their Fans Any Good?

Forget the coach, the 7-foot players, or the tearful band members. When picking your Final Four, pay attention to how good the fans are at distracting players as they step to the free throw line:

On average, the sixth man’s ability to distract opposing free throwers is worth about 0.2 points per game…Our analysis reveals that there appear to be some fan sections that are particularly effective. The best remain the Arizona State fans, at least since their introduction of the Curtain of Distraction. Teams playing in front of the curtain shoot about nine percentage points worse than they do at home.

5. The Economics of the Robot Society

John Lanchester’s review essay about how robots could decimate the need for work is full of foreboding and dystopian visions. There is much to disagree with here – but also plenty of informative thought experiments about what a society might look like with technology and without jobs. Consider the impact of driverless cars on the labor force:

An entire economy of drivers would disappear. The UK has 231,000 licensed cabs and minicabs alone – and there are far, far more people whose work is driving, and more still for whom driving is not their whole job, but a big part of what they are paid to do. I suspect we’re talking about a total well into the millions of jobs.

6. What the Country Reads: Twentieth-Century Version 

A list-lovers dream: every best selling and influential fiction and non-fiction book in the US from 1900 to 1999. Filled with interesting facts. In the first decade of the twentieth-century, for example, the most popular fiction author was the now-largely-forgotten Winston Churchill (no relation to British PM). In the 1990s, it was the soon-to-be-forgotten John Grisham.


This article first appeared on High Lantern Group.