Congestion Tolling at the Supermarket

To help explain why toll lanes might not be the great solution to traffic congestion many believe them to be, Timothy Lee goes to an unexpected place to draw parallels: your local supermarket.

Supermarkets are a good analogy, suggests Lee, because they operate in a free market, are ruthlessly efficient, intensely competitive, and employ ‘lanes’ (checkout queues)… but they don’t use congestion pricing. The reasons why they don’t, he says, can also be applied to traffic congestion:

First, we have strong and sophisticated social norms, cultivated since we were young children, for waiting in lines. This bit of self-organization is extremely important for the smooth functioning of civil society. We see waiting your turn as an obligation we have to one another, and therefore not as an obligation that a supermarket or transportation agency can waive in exchange for a cash payment. I suspect customers would see people using a tolled checkout lane as breaking an implicit social contract.

More importantly, customers would be suspicious that the supermarket was deliberately under-staffing the free lanes to gin up demand for the express ones. […] In the low-margin grocery business, it would be a pretty effective way for a manager to pump up his short-term profits, while the long-term harm to the store’s reputation would be hard […] to quantify.

This latter concern seems particularly relevant to the case of toll roads. The revenue-maximizing pricing schedule is not the same as the congestion-minimizing schedule. An effective congestion-pricing scheme might generate relatively little revenue if people shift their driving to off-peak times (which is the whole point). The operator of a monopolistic toll road will face a constant temptation to boost revenues by limiting throughput on free lanes and jacking up the off-peak toll rates. The widespread voter perception that they’ve “already paid for” many tolled roads through other taxes isn’t exactly right as a matter of fiscal policy, but I think it’s based on a sound intuition: there’s no reason to think the political process will set tolls in a way that’s either fair or economically efficient.

The Statistics on Link Rot

By sampling 4,200 random URLs spanning a 14 year period, Maciej Cegłowski, the creator of bookmarking website Pinboard.in, decided to gather statistics on the extent of link rot and how it progressed across time. Interested in finding out if there is some sort of ‘half life of links’, he found instead that it is a fairly linear, fast deterioration:

Links appear to die at a steady rate (they don’t have a half life), and you can expect to lose about a quarter of them every seven years.

And even that is an optimistic result, says Maciej, as not all dead links were able to be discovered programmatically. There are also several unanswered questions:

  • How many of these dead URLs are findable on archive.org?
  • What is the attrition rate for shortened links?
  • Is there a simple programmatic way to detect parked domains?
  • Given just a URL, can we make any intelligent guesses about its vulnerability to  link rot?

Interestingly, link rot is what inspired the creation of Pinboard.in (it features page archiving funcitonality). This is similar to why I started Lone Gunman: I was losing track of interesting links and articles, and wanted a way to easily find them again as well as help me build connections between disparate articles and topics.

Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Tips and Rules: An Economist’s Take on Eating Out

When it comes to finding, ordering, and eating at ethnic restaurants there’s only one place to look for advice: economist Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide. I’ve mentioned Cowen’s guide before (if only in passing), but it’s time I dedicated a post to this treasure trove of dining advice and, especially, the tips from Cowen’s General Remarks.

From an article in The Washington Post, four strategies for finding good restaurants and ordering well (click through for details):

  1. For good value, avoid high-rent areas (those will be expensive or chains).
  2. Look for competition (possibly a sign of a large immigrant population, providing expertise).
  3. Know how to order ‘strategically’  from waiters.
  4. Be aware of the restaurant cycle (from opening, to accolades, to mass production).

Four rules-of-thumb for choosing from the menu (be aware of the exceptions):

  1. Avoid “ingredients-intensive” dishes, opt for “composition-intensive” instead (i.e. contains sauces or complex ingredient mixes).
  2. Appetizers are superior to main courses in some cuisines; be willing to have a ‘side-dishes-only’ meal.
  3. Avoid desserts, especially Asian ones.
  4. Order for variety, not quantity (order more than you think necessary).

And finally, from a recent article by Cowen in The Atlantic, six rules for dining out:

  1. In the fanciest restaurants, order what sounds least appetising.
  2. Beware the beautiful, laughing women (you’re there for food, not the scene/drinks).
  3. Get out of the city.
  4. Admit what you don’t know, and search/ask intelligently.
  5. Exploit restaurant workers (if you see expensive labour, think about what your return is… family-run restaurants may offer the best return).
  6. Prefer Vietnamese to Thai, Pakistani to Indian.

Cowen can be a bit outspoken on the topic of food, so bear in mind this comment:

It all makes perfect sense if you like what Cowen likes, which is interesting food for a reasonable price without much ambiance. Which is not what everyone likes.

Whether that’s what you like or not, you’ll still definitely like Cowen’s book on the subject, An Economist Gets Lunch.

Misunderstood Salt: The Facts About Limiting Intake

For decades we have been told, with certainty, to limit our salt intake or risk heart disease and high blood pressure—but is this advice based on sound scientific findings? The short answer is No.

The evidence is inconsistent, inconclusive and contradictory, says prominent cardiologist Jeremiah Stamler (who used to be an advocate for the eat-less-salt campaign back in the 60s and 80s), and therefore the “eat-less-salt” message is premature and may even be harmful.

Last year, two [meta-analyses] were published by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international nonprofit organization founded to conduct unbiased reviews of medical evidence. The first of the two reviews concluded that cutting back “the amount of salt eaten reduces blood pressure, but there is insufficient evidence to confirm the predicted reductions in people dying prematurely or suffering cardiovascular disease.” The second concluded that “we do not know if low salt diets improve or worsen health outcomes.”The idea that eating less salt can worsen health outcomes may sound bizarre, but it also has biological plausibility and is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, too. A 1972 paper in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that the less salt people ate, the higher their levels of a substance secreted by the kidneys, called renin, which set off a physiological cascade of events that seemed to end with an increased risk of heart disease. In this scenario: eat less salt, secrete more renin, get heart disease, die prematurely. […]

[Four studies] involving Type 1 diabetics, Type 2 diabetics, healthy Europeans and patients with chronic heart failure — reported that the people eating salt at the lower limit of normal were more likely to have heart disease than those eating smack in the middle of the normal range.

via The Browser

Equipping for Emergencies: What Items Disappear First?

As someone who lives in an economically, climatically and politically stable Western country, the chances are somewhat remote that I’ll ever encounter an emergency that requires forethought and careful planning1. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop me from enjoying this list of the 100 most in-demand goods during an emergency.

This list apparently originates from someone called Joseph Almond who created it in 1999 after observing the behaviour of consumers preparing for Y2K-related problems. I say “apparently” because I can’t find any suggestion that this is actually true.

Neverthless, there’s something about this list that is inherently intriguing, even though I’m far from a member of the survivalism movement. Oh, and feel free to share this with the more voguish title: How to prepare for the zombie apocalypse. Now that will get you some of them precious retweets.

via Ask MetaFilter

1 Although I’m not know for my futurism.