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Brief and amazing obituary of market research pioneer Harry Henry in this week’s Financial Times. Here are some of Mr Henry’s multiple achievements:
“In 1949, he was the first to use a punch-card system to work out how the country was covered by the press…”
“Mr Henry invented methods of calculating the time people spent looking at advertisements…”
“He used punch card systems for a variety of military purposes, including collecting data on the spread of venereal disease in soldiers that allowed him to draw conclusions about incubation periods several decades before doctors did.”
“Mr Henry returned to his employers after demobilisation, where he devised a methodology called “motivation research” to find out how consumers behaved without using direct questions about their habits.”
“Mr Henry worked with the Thomson Organisation from 1961 to 1970 as director of marketing and later deputy managing director, introducing “yellow pages” directories to the UK.” (from “Pioneer dragged newspapers into the modern era”)
See another obituary of this amazing man in The Guardian.
With the rise of ethical regulations for research involving ‘human subjects’, the tradition of social scientific inquiry that relied on deception and the ‘psychologically exploitive’ manipulation of participants came to an end. Or, rather, it was transplated into reality television. Stanley Milgram would have a hard time today getting his experimental protocols past his university’s ethics committee, but he could be making a fortune writing ideas and scripts for TV.
Now finally the format of reality TV shows is being integrated back into real science. UK scientists have announced a study that will use the setting and social dynamics of ‘Big Brother’ to study the impact of co-habitation on flu transmission (“Scientists plan ‘Big Brother’ flu experiment”):
“British researchers plan to recruit 200 volunteers to be infected with flu while living together during week-long experiments, in order to deepen understanding of how to tackle a pandemic. In a groundbreaking Big Brother -style trial, recruits will be divided into groups of half a dozen. They will spend their time sleeping, eating and socialising in specially adapted hotels under constant camera observation and medical supervision.”
Hmmm, “socialising”… it sounds like fun. Hopefully the tapes of the experiment will find their way to general public. Science is too interesting to be watched only by scientists.
One traditional way of occupying the time between Election Day and the Inauguration of a new American President is to discuss the books the President-Elect might be reading in preparation for the New Job. Reports of books Obama is said to be reading abound. Doris Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is maybe the best known one (lesson: keep your enemies close by appointing them to the cabinet). Obama himself is fond of pointing out how much time he is currently spending reading Lincoln’s own writings. Another two books often mentioned on Obama’s reading list are Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (the symbiosis between text and politician is so perfect here that one suspects Alter wrote his book in anticipation of Obama’s victory), and Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World.
Yet one book that is less often mentioned but that could perhaps provide a better insight into Obama’s presidency is Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Thaler is a famous behavioral economist (other readers of this blog could probably comment on his intellectual Weltanschauung), and Cass Sunstein is a well-known American legal scholar. A couple of decades ago Sunstein developed the concept of the “incompletely theorized agreement,” as a way of addressing the conflict of incommensurable political positions (In his 1988 book Legal Reasoning and Political Judgment, one of the intellectual sources of what came to be knownas new “legal pragmatism”).
Perhaps Obama will adopt a version of the legal minimalism that Susstain and others have advocated? How would this relate to a claim that is often heard, and that has been most philosophically formulated by Simon Critchley: namely, that at the center of Obama’s thought and self-definition there is nothing more (and nothing less!) than a fathomless Void?
P.S. What books was George W. Bush reading in the winter of 2000-2001, while he was preparing to transmutate from barely elected President-Elect to Commander in Chief (also known as “The Decider”)?
We thought we were witnessing the nationalization of financial institutions, when in fact what is actually taking place is the financialization of the state. Last week George Osborne, Tory politician and still the likeliest candidate for Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2010, called for the state to act as a bank, directly offering loans and guarantees to businesses. Using three adjectives not often heard on the lips of British conservatives, he demanded that the state take “big, radical, activist steps”. “I’m a monetary policy radical in the circumstances we are in at the moment,” he argued.
This idea of “radicalizing” the state and its role in the economy, by turning it into a de facto financial institution, seems to be one of the key themes in the politicians’ response to the crisis. It resonates with Ernesto Zedillo‘s saying, that when the markets overreact, policy-makers must overreact too (Zedillo was President of Mexico from 1994 to 2000, and knows a little bit about overreactions).
Adding another fine term to this bizarre dictionary of politico-financial terms, today’s New York Times announces that the US government is about to bail-out Citigroup, and will in the process “soak up” billions of dollars in losses. The verb conjures a truly Sloterdijkian image: the state as a sponge.
(OK, let’s not talk about that other thing today…) Count the West Nile virus among the few beneficiaries of the downturn in the housing market. According to a recent article in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases (“Delinquent Mortgages, Neglected Swimming Pools, and West Nile Virus, California”, by William K. Reisen, Richard M. Takahashi, Brian D. Carroll and Rob Quiring), the burst of the housing bubble is behind the recent upsurge in the numbers of of virus-carrying mosquitoes detected in California: the pools and jacuzzies of foreclosed houses are providing the perfect breeding ground for the Culex tarsalis mosquito, the vector-of-choice of the virus. In Barksdale, near Los Angeles, the 300% increase in the number of delinquent mortgages correlates nicely with a 276% increase in the number of human West Nile virus cases detected in 2007. (Thanks to AK for this amazing piece of news)
The entomologists responsible for the study draw an important conclusion: the growing population of the mosquito-borne virus is linked to the rise in the number of adjustable rate mortgages. Here one begins to feel a certain interdisciplinary vertigo: a symbiotic relationship between Alan Greenspan and the West Nile virus? Suspiciously, the first case of WNV in the United States was reported in New York in 1999, soon after the end of the dot.com bubble…
It must be difficult enough to incorporate entomological predictions in the financial models that shape monetary policy or banking behavior, but what about the poor entomologists now forced to calculate the policy of the Federal Reserve, the rate of florecosures and the water behavior of suburbanites in their studies of insect behavior?