Wednesday, November 30, 2005

(madison) honestly?

I'm so happy to be back in Madison for a week. It's a wonderful place. (Nothing against Cambridge, of course.) I'm sort of surprised I haven't been back earlier.

An intriguing thing about Cambridge is that I think the way that I have developed my habits and haunts there has basically made it as Madison-like as possible. In other words, I've shrunk the Boston metropolitan area to where it is basically the walkable part of a college town. What this says about me and my ultimate geosocial preferences will be left as an exercise for the reader.

Not to say that back in Cambridge I don't enjoy taking Red Line to Green Line to various things in Boston proper, but doing so feels like an excursion to somewhere else, rather than really part of the place where I'm living.

(madison) the pole prevails

Tonight's riveting dispute to prompt the opening of the laptops: the proper pronunciation of banal. The proprietress of NinaNet said it rhymes with canal, she mentioned a fellow blogger friend who said it's just like "anal" only with a b on the front, and I've always pronounced it BUH-nahl. According to, all three are correct, but the tiebreaker of order goes to rhymes-with-canal.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

nominee, jfw award for dutch-iest citation ever

From Pricing the Priceless, page 160:
"A variety of an outlier scheme is the ceding ex ante of expected high-cost patients to a common pool (van Barneveld, van Vliet, and van de Ven 1986)."

Monday, November 28, 2005

2, 4, 6, 8, with what should you medicate! zoloft! zoloft! yay, zoloft!

Seriously, before you move on to the next blog you read, check out this story in the NYT on the recruiting of college cheerleaders as drug reps. It provokes so many different thoughts from different angles that I find myself unable to articulate anything specific about it.

Except that: Consider the question of why, given that there are many other lucrative careers in sales, there might be a particular premium in the pharmaceuticals industry. Especially since drug reps are not supposed to be selling at all, really, but just providing information so that physicians can make a better decision about which drugs to prescribe. I mean, isn't it interesting that there would be an especial premium for attractiveness in an industry where the "salesperson" in not interacting directly with the consumer, but rather with an agent who is supposed to be serving on behalf of the consumer but doesn't do any of the purchasing (or, for that matter, consuming) himself?*

Article highlight #1:
Mr. Reidy remembered a sales call with the "all-time most attractive, coolest woman in the history of drug repdom." At first, he said, the doctor "gave ten reasons not to use one of our drugs." But, Mr. Reidy added: "She gave a little hair toss and a tug on his sleeve and said, 'Come on, doctor, I need the scrips.' He said, 'O.K., how do I dose that thing?'."
Article highlight #2:
[P]harmaceutical companies deny that sex appeal has any bearing on hiring. "Obviously, people hired for the work have to be extroverts, a good conversationalist, a pleasant person to talk to; but that has nothing to do with looks, it's the personality," said Lamberto Andreotti, the president of worldwide pharmaceuticals for Bristol-Myers Squibb.
I mean, regarding the second remark, if companies offer statements like this about the people the hire, what should you think about the statements they make about the effectiveness and safety of the things you put in your body?

* Yes, this was a deliberate use of the gendered pronoun.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

we're running to the chapel and she's gonna get ma-a-arried

Still morose because you haven't found that special someone? Well, maybe I can help. See, apparently all you have to do is run a 1/2 with me, and, within three days, you'll be engaged! It's worked every time so far!

Indeed, there was another person who originally signed up to run the 1/2 marathon with Madame Simpleton and I, but then he backed out at the last minute. Apparently-- and I know you aren't going to believe this--he's also become engaged in the last three days. (Yes, really! I'm not making this up!) So perhaps all you need to do is sign up to run with me, as long as I go through with it.

In any case: Congratulations, Madame Simpleton and Mister Simpleton-Elect!!! (And you know I'm excited if I'm using multiple exclamation points, as normally I hate that.)


In my efforts to be a good citizen for public sociology, I just wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times. Because the NYT has a policy of not publishing letters if they have any appearance elsewhere, I can't post it so long as there's hope they might publish it. But it was in response to this part of today's editorial:
All elderly Americans can use software on the Medicare Web site to help pick the best plan for them. Beneficiaries can type in such data as the drugs and dosages they use, the pharmacies they patronize, and the premiums and deductibles they would prefer. Presto, they get a list of plans that meet their criteria, the estimated annual cost of those plans, and, with another click of the mouse, suggestions on how to cut costs further by picking cheaper drugs. The Web site may be daunting to those who are inexperienced with the Internet, but it should offer their computer-savvy friends and advisers a valuable tool to sort through the options.
I will leave it as an exercise for JFW readers as to what might irritate me about this paragraph. Those aware of certain recent directions of my research have an advantage.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


I got a course catalog today in the mail from the Cambridge Adult Education Center. I know a couple people here who have reported taking classes and finding them interesting, and so I thought about the idea of signing up for one myself. You know how I have this thing where I am otherwise wholly secular in my thinking, but I believe fate takes control of my hands and eyes and makes meaningful the first thing I see when I open up a book (example here). Anyway, I opened up this catalog full of enthusiasm and what do I see:

Ugh. I don't want to "Master the Art of Aloneness." I just thought maybe I could maybe learn how to paint watercolors or make bouillabaisse, okay? I'm still surly from looking at this famous New Yorker cartoon:

and being struck with the thought that basically the whole process by which people go about making connections to people in a new city has proven itself over the years to be My Own Personal Step Two. Double ugh.

Friday, November 25, 2005


I had two personal goals for the half marathon: finish without having to stop and without losing control of my bodily functions. Turns out this was setting the bar a little low. I think I could have run the entire marathon at the same leisurely pace that we ran the half. I know I could have run the whole marathon, and probably at a faster pace, if I would have kept to the running schedule I was on before the drastic reduction due to knee and cold disincentives. So now I'm contemplating signing up for the marathon in Madison on May 28th. Madame Simpleton?* Anyone else?

* Also known as the Best Running Partner Ever. Not all that long ago, Madame Simpleton would go running with me when I could only run about a mile before having to stop. Later, she indulged me when I insisted on reciting lyrics from Kirsty MacColl's "Terry" as inspiration before we began the final push to the end of our runs. During the half marathon, she was patient in allowing me to engage in a near-constant commentary on how awesome we were, and she went along when I insisted on punctuating the sentiment with high-fives at regular intervals.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

champs like us, baby we were born to run

(official number, finisher's medal, and the "Life is Good" and "Everybody Loves a Country Boy" t-shirts worn during the race)

P.eS.zter: Note this is my first use of Flickr for a post. And I figured out how to do it all by myself. Certain flickr-flogging-bloggers would be so proud.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Writing this post from my phone. I'm on my way to Atlanta for the half marathon. I am desperately underprepared for this, and keep thinking that I feel like a grad student who is about to take a prelim after only studying for a couple days. I can either have a positive outcome or a just one, but not both. Fans of fairness, root for me to wheeze and fail.

This is as light as I have ever traveled by air before: one not very full backpack. The only clothes I've packed are what I plan to wear to the race. So, of course, I managed to accidentally spill Coke Zero all over my pants while getting on the subway. At least one advantage of looking incontinent while you travel is that other people give you a wide berth.

Madame Simpleton, her partner, and I are supposed to meet at 6:30am tomorrow. None of us are bringing our cel phones to the race but instead we are counting on having a foolproof plan for making sure we find each other amidst the 8000 other halfthoners. This feels weirdly risky. How did people ever coordinate with confidence before cel phones?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

your honor, my client is far too cute to incarcerate

From the AP:
TAMPA, Fla. - A female teacher pleaded guilty Tuesday to having sex with a 14-year-old student, avoiding prison as part of a plea agreement.
Debra Lafave, 25, will serve three years of house arrest and seven years' probation. She pleaded guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious battery. [...]

[Her lawyer] said in July that plea negotiations had broken off because prosecutors insisted on prison time, which he said would be too dangerous for someone as attractive as Lafave. He said then that she planned to plead insanity at trial, claiming emotional stress kept her from knowing right from wrong.
Three observations:

1. My guess is that it is not at all rare for 25-year-old teachers to get busted for sexual entanglements with 14-year old students. What is instead rare is for it to make national news. It's interesting that the reason that this particular case has made the national news is so plain: not just because it is a female teacher and a male student, but because it's a really attractive young female teacher and a male student. How often do you have a news story play so blatantly off the idea that there are all kinds of guys out there who will read this story and feel envious of the crime victim? I can only imagine the comments being made In The Company Of Men in bars across the country when this woman is shown on TV and the newscaster announces she's been "convicted of lewd and lascivious battery..." (No, I am not one of these men.)

I just Googled her name and see that, in addition to various fan sites, she also has her own Wikipedia entry.

2. My understanding is that there is already ample evidence suggesting that attractive people get off with lighter sentences for crimes, but it's refreshing to see someone trying try to make the argument directly as opposed to hoping that psychological/pheromonal biases go their way.

3. If she would have managed to get the insanity defense to fly with a jury for this, that would prove beyond all reasonable doubt that attractive people's lives follow entirely separate laws of social physics from those that govern the rest of us.

Monday, November 21, 2005

the continued oratorical misadventures of jeremy freese

I gave a talk today here in Orlando. When I finished the slides for the presentation, I figured that I really had about a 18 minute talk and would have to move at a good clip in order to get it done in the 15 minutes I was allotted. But, then, when I got there, I learned that a scheduling problem reduced my slot to 12 minutes, and then give some issues with the set-up after the preceding speaker had finished and some other matters, it was really maybe on the short side of 11.

In such contexts, I often turn out to give impressive presentations, but they are impressive not for their substance or insight but because of how fast I can speak and still manage to sound as though I'm saying things that, were they said slower, would be reasonable and perhaps even sporadically eloquent. And, lo, while I did also get some positive remarks on the substance, once again more than one spectator offered a reaction that was mainly a marvel at my vroom-vroom-volubility-velocity.

"I wish I could talk that fast and still make sense," was one person's comment. On other occasions, such a remark might be the highest praise I receive for a talk. Today, however, that honor went to another person's statement that the opening example I gave for my paper "grabbed the audience by the [spanish word for a part of the body where, had I actually grabbed even one audience member by it/them, I would be languishing in a squalid Disney jail right now.]

Sunday, November 20, 2005

the biggest disappointment of his presidency was not being able to convince it to join the league of foundations

Clarification: the nonprofit organization sponsoring the health care policy program that has brought me to Harvard is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It is not, as a certain person down here referred to it, the Woodrow Wood Wilson Foundation.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

(orlando) i got the some-day-my-prince-will-come-but-until-then-bibbiti-bobbiti blues

I'm in Orlando for the Gerontology Society of America meetings. Tonight I went with a group of people to the House Of Blues at "Downtown Disney." You might wonder how Disney goes about Disneyfying the already credibility-suspect House of Blues and tonight the secret was made plain as soon as we were seated: for, lo, there isn't actually blues at the Disney House of Blues. Instead, what's playing in background is neither blues nor loud enough for you to really hear ver well even though it was blues. According to our server, they do have live blues three times a week (Thursday through Saturday), but then only after 11pm. And, tonight, we stayed around 'til past 11 so we could hear the live blues at the House of Blues. But it wasn't blues at all; it was basically an especially well-meaning flavor of zydeco, with a woman whaling away at a wearable washboard as its main instrumental highlight.

The House of Blues does have a music venue next door which has various acts come play. The Christian-turned-crossover-turned-Christian-turned-autotribute metal band Stryper, for instance, is on their November schedule. As is Cyndi Lauper, and I shouted something at a man out front who said something mocking about her (yes, I really did this). Tonight, however, the featured act was Biz Markie, with tickets priced at $45. I told the server that while we weren't going to the show, I would gladly play at least twice that for a picture of myself with Mr. Markie. She expressed some skepticism of whether I was just making up my enthusiasm for Biz Markie, upon which I immediately provided an essentially perfect rendition of the chorus of "Just a Friend" (yes, I really did this). Unfortunately, she came back and told us that Biz Markie had apparently cancelled his performance for this evening, so no photo opportunity would be available.

Friday, November 18, 2005


I found this in one of my books this evening. The handwriting is mine. It used to be that everything that mattered happened recently.

It's true statement, really, or at least true for me for over the last few years. It used to be everything that happened either happened not that long ago or happened when I was, to greater or lesser degree, still a kid. Now I say things like "Oh, that was 10 years ago" or "I haven't seen so-and-so in 7 or 8 years," with no sense of irony, because there is none.

Even so, when did I write this? Did I make it up, or did I take it from somewhere? And why did I write it on a sheet of memo pad that says "We were just friends who had sex"? Where did that come from? When in my life was I writing with a gold pen?

It used to be that I would only write something like this down if it struck me as especially interesting. When would I have thought this observation was interesting enough to write down?

And when would I have used it as a bookmark? It used to be that I was so absent-minded that everything that mattered would end up getting used as a bookmark: paychecks, my phone card, ketchup packets, kleenex.

It used to be that everything I'd written I'd remember having written. Now I keep getting confronted with random instantiations of my thoughts and having no idea of their provenance, or even if they were my thoughts or just my transcribing someone else's. It used to be that I knew when I was stealing material from other people. It used to be that I knew when I was repeating myself. For that matter, it used to be that I knew when I was repeating myself.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

ask not for whom the bus stops

One morning a few weeks ago, a woman here was hit by a bus as she was crossing the street at a perfectly ordinary intersection near where I live. Supposedly it was completely her fault--she just stepped out in front of it. I don't know how badly she was injured, or even if she survived. Regardless, my thought was: what kind of moron gets hit by a bus? Buses are, after all, quite conspicuous and travel more slowly than the median motor vehicle. I wondered if maybe she was mentally ill, or maybe it was a suicide attempt, or maybe she was a highly-driven Harvard supergenius who was so absorbed in her ideas about making nuclear fusion from maple syrup that she was just oblivious.

Late this afternoon, during my run, I almost got hit by a bus. Same freaking intersection, maybe, or no more than a block away from it. I looked to my right, and I saw a bus coming but not too close. I looked to my left, and there was a car coming but not too close. So, still looking to the left, I took a couple strides to bound through the intersection. Then I glanced back to the right, and the bus was RIGHT THERE. It's like somebody put the bus on superfastforward while I was looking to my left. So now I'm wondering if there's some kind of optical illusion under which the Cambridge buses look farther away than they are.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

jfwwe smackdown!

So, Tom has written a critique of my post about Krugman's column about the doughnut hole. Some things to keep in mind: Tom (a) has approximately the same basic values about the socially just and good as I do, (b) knows more about the general issues about insurance pricing than I do, (c) knows more about the specific issues about the plan than I do, and (d) has thought more about all this than I have. For that matter, he also (e) has more money than I do, (f) is married, (g) has ridiculously adorable kids, and (h) is taller. At some point, one has to recognize when one is probably arguing the Flying Spaghetti Monster side in a debate, even if one doesn't understand quite how.

Still, given that history has proven amply that I am no lover, I might as well be a fighter. However, I don't want to offer a counterargument. That would, after all, require considerable contemplation and, worse, work. Instead, I want to offer a bet. A beer, say, to be settled five years from now.

Understand that there are basically four parts to the "template" of the Medicare prescription drug plan:
(1) the first deductible (to $250)
(2) the first coverage ($251-$2850, 75% coverage)
(3) the second deductible ("the doughnut hole," $2851-$5100)
(4) the second coverage ($5101+, 95% coverage)
My wager is that when people of the Rational Liberal stripe are talking about this bill five years from now, one part will be regarded as a bigger mistake than the others. And it won't be (3). It will be (4).

(No, this is not me just choosing a number other than 3 at random. This is based on my belief that, at the end of the day, I may well have underestimated the pathology of the doughnut hole, but the greater pathology remains the American refusal to discipline drug prices through any of the means other countries do. I could be wrong about what implications this will ultimately have for the Medicare plan, but, spiritedly, I'm willing to bet on it.)

gender curiosities in the two main democracies of my life, revisited

If you flip a coin 18 times, the chances of getting either >15 heads or >15 tails is less than one in a hundred. By the astrological standards that govern publication in the social sciences, this means the result is divergent enough from what is expected by chance to be worthy of two stars.

Nonetheless, a few months ago some people were annoyed with me for noting that in the most recent election of the American Sociological Association, 15 of the 18 elections were won by women (including all of the top 6). I posted it mainly I was struck by the point that I participate in two democracies, both with relatively equal proportions of male and females, but one (my government) elects overwhelmingly men and the other (my professional association) had just elected overwhelmingly women.

Yesterday, I spent a couple minutes at the Harvard Coop leafing through Dick "Dick" Morris's book speculating about a forthcoming electoral showdown of Condi vs. Hillary. After a streak of forty-three consecutive XYs in the Yte house, he proposes the streak would be broken by having two women face off.

Today, I was looking up something on the ASA website, and I've noticed that next year's ASA slate of candidates is out. Check it out:
Arne L. Kalleberg, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
Victor Nee, Cornell University

Vice President-Elect
Randall Collins, University of Pennsylvania
Douglas McAdam, Stanford University

N. Jay Demerath III, University of Massachusetts
Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, University of Massachusetts – Amherst

Council Members-at-Large
Dalton Conley, New York University
Mary Pattillo, Northwestern University
Brian Powell, Indiana University
Mary Romero, Arizona State University
Ruben Rumbaut, University of California - Irvine
Rogelio Saenz, Texas A&M University
Thomas M. Shapiro, Brandeis University
C. Matthew Snipp, Stanford University

Committee on Publications
Ronald Aminzade, University of Minnesota
Amy S. Wharton, Washington State University
Howard Winant, University of California – Santa Barbara
Yu Xie, University of Michigan
15 men, 3 women. And 6 men and 0 women running against each other in the 3 head-to-head elections.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

every generation has its own vicious cycle

Public service announcement from the 1980s:

Conversations I have had with more than one person in the 2000s:

the amazing adventures of larry, the guy who can only take in one new piece of information at a time

Author's note: My favorite edible discovery in Cambridge so far has been a modified version of the Magnolia sandwich at Darwin's Ltd..

"I'll have a Magnolia please, with cheese but without tomatoes or sprouts."
[vacantly] "One Magnolia. Cheese?"
"Yes. No tomatoes or sprouts."
"No tomatoes."
"Or sprouts."
"No sprouts."

[proceeds to make sandwich, omitting cheese. wraps and tries to hand to customer.]
"Did you put cheese on this?"
[polite stare, but stare nonetheless]
"No." [takes sandwich back]

Incidentally, so far as I can tell, it's not that Larry's dumb. Or that he's surly, alienated, oppressed, malingering labor. Instead, the most plausible hypothesis seems just that he's stoned out of his mind. I wouldn't begrudge him this, if he could just remember the cheese. And keep his controlled substances away from my sandwich, of course.

Monday, November 14, 2005

an avuncular moment regarding article titles

I received received a paper to review. In the interests of discretion, I am not going to say what its title is here. But it's something analogous to "Forty Dependent Variables." Please, please, please, PLEASE, anyone who reads this blog and submits research articles for publication, do NOT do this. Your article can be titled "Forty Dependent Variables: [something indicating what the paper is about]." You can put anything you want in front of the colon--I'm probably more a fan of precious stuff in front of the colon than I should be--so long as the part of the title after the colon gives some idea what the paper is about. But don't give your manuscript a title that provides absolutely no indication as to its substantive content.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

dispatch from the ministry of unusually apt surnames

"BROOKLYN CENTER, Minnesota (AP) -- Police shut down a suburban shopping mall Saturday after screaming fans of the boy band B5 rushed the stage during a free concert, grabbing at the band members' clothing and overwhelming the small team of security guards.

'Things were falling off the stage, girls were falling off the stage, girls started fighting,' said Theresa Curtis, who was working at a store near the stage. [...]

'It just seemed like a girl frenzy,' said Christopher Taykalo of Radio Disney. [...]

B5 is a group of five brothers from Atlanta -- Dustin, Patrick, Kelly, Bryan and Carnell Breeding -- ages 10 to 17...

i mean, if one can take down os/2, netscape, and almost apple, why should one be intimidated by a little mosquito?

It just blows my mind how little money has been spent on malaria research. What has prevented the rich world from attempting this? I just keep asking myself, Do we really not care because it doesn't affect us? Is that what it is? Human suffering as a result of malaria is incomparable. By many measures, it's easily the worst thing on the planet. I refuse to accept it. I refuse to sit there and say, O.K., next problem, this one doesn't bother me. It does bother me. Very much. And the only way for that to change is to stop malaria. So that is what we are going to have to do.*
You know, if somebody has to be the richest person in the world, we could certainly do worse than Bill Gates. I mean, I do understand that he could be spending his money even better--like building a museum to celebrate Jimi Hendrix, or building Madison an acoustically awesome cultural center--but trying to singlehandedly make up for the market perversity that makes erectile dysfunction drugs more attractive to pharmaceutical manufacturers than malaria medicine does seem a more laudable expenditure than, say, spending tens of millions of dollars to buy your name onto a building at an already overendowed university.

* Bill Gates, as quoted in 10/24/2005 New Yorker.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

yo, man, it was either that or join a synth pop band, and stuffed animals are way cheaper than a synthesizer

From today's NYT:
"Robert Marbury, an artist who photographed dozens of Manhattan bumper fauna for a project in 2000 (see, said he had once asked a trash hauler why he had a family of three mismatched bears strapped to his rig.

'He said: 'Yo, man, I drive a garbage truck. How am I going to get the ladies to look at me?' ' Mr. Marbury recalled."

Friday, November 11, 2005

moment of liberal shame

I know that a lot of people are unhappy that the NYT has started requiring people to have subscriptions in order to read its columnists. For those of you who are Liberal Like Me but (unlike me) do not have a Times Select subscription, all I can say is that you are better off today for not being able to read Paul Krugman's column. It's about the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which is something I've come to know something about, and, wow, at least in my view it's really misleading. And misleading in ways that Krugman is definitely smart enough to know better, which makes it disingenuous.

Anyway, I'll reproduce the way he describes the drug benefit below:
Before we turn to the larger issue, let's look at how the Medicare drug benefit will work over the course of next year.

At first, the benefit will look like a normal insurance plan, with a deductible and co-payments.

But if your cumulative drug expenses reach $2,250, a very strange thing will happen: you'll suddenly be on your own. The Medicare benefit won't kick in again unless your costs reach $5,100. This gap in coverage has come to be known as the "doughnut hole." ...

One way to see the bizarre effect of this hole is to notice that if you are a retiree and spend $2,000 on drugs next year, Medicare will cover 66 percent of your expenses. But if you spend $5,000 - which means that you're much more likely to need help paying those expenses - Medicare will cover only 30 percent of your bills.

[...] The people who are actually likely to need a lot of help paying their drug expenses were deliberately offered a very poor benefit. According to a report issued along with the final version of the bill, people are prohibited from buying supplemental insurance to cover the doughnut hole to keep beneficiaries from becoming "insensitive to costs" - that is, buying too much medicine because they don't pay the price.

A more likely motive is that Congressional leaders didn't want a drug bill that really worked for middle-class retirees.
Don't get me wrong, I have much to argue with the prescription drug bill as well. In particular, I don't like the part where Medicare is legally prohibited from having any role in negotiating the price in drugs (and Krugman mentions this), which is basically a gift to the pharmaceuticals industry and also important to explaining the doughnut hole.

Because the doughnut hole can be so easily described in ways that make it seem strange, everybody seems to have fixed on it as though it was some kind of crazed (and, by Krugman's insinuation, deliberate) irrationality. While it's not the way I would designed things, the doughnut hole--and even prohibiting people from buying insurance to fill it--does make sense when you understand that the prescription drug benefit is really two separate benefits stapled together. It's really less an insurance program than a "discount" program for seniors with average drug costs, and then it is an actual "insurance" program for seniors with catastrophic drug costs. Part of the reason the "discount" program is needed is that, so long as you are going to make the program optional, you need to get these relatively healthy people to enroll in it to make the "insurance" part of the program an actual insurance program, as opposed to just something people sign up for when they know they are going to have huge drug expenses.

Anyway, nowhere in his column does Krugman mention that once you get past $5,100, the government picks up 95% of your drug costs. If you are going to say that the program provides a "very poor benefit" for those who need "a lot of help" with their drug costs, it seems dishonest not to mention this. It gets worse, and I don't have time to get into it, but Krugman knows full well that once the government legislated itself out of any capacity to control or negotiate prices, something had to be done to keep the response of drug companies (who, granted, helped a lot in writing the bill) from simply multiplying the price of their drugs in response to the benefit. Drug prices are the problem, not the doughnut hole.

thus spoke colathustra

Remember the time the Dalai Lama called and said, "Dude, I've been watching the DVD of Natural Born Killers, and you know what: senseless violence rocks." Well, this is sort of like that, only more unexpected. For lately, I have found myself walking past the Diet Pepsi--even when Diet Pepsi Twist is available--and buying Coke Zero instead. Yes, me, the foremost proponent of Pepsi products of his generation, is now opting for a cola made by Coke.* It astonishes me each and every time I do it, and makes me wonder if perhaps now we are living in a world out of equilibrium, maybe even one on borrowed time.

* I know, I know, I shouldn't be drinking cola at all, or soda at all, it is destroying my bones and turning my brain into caulk, etc., etc..

Thursday, November 10, 2005

my god, i've been so naive. the gap makes ugly shirts on purpose, don't they?


1. I shop at the Gap sometimes. I'm sure others have various reasons for regarding this as objectionable, but, for the purposes of this post, whatever.

2. In my experience, the Gap always has some really ugly button-down shirts on sale at a much cheaper price (say $15) than its regularly priced shirts (say $35).

3. The really ugly shirts are usually really ugly because they have some displeasingly unorthodox combination of colors in some displeasingly unorthodox arrangement.

4. All else being equal, orthodoxy has to be as cheap to make as unorthodoxy. In other words, it's not like it costs the Gap less to make non-ugly shirts, and might even cost more.

5. I've always imagined that the really ugly shirts at the Gap originally sold for a much higher price ($35), didn't sell because they were so ugly, and now the Gap is trying to unload them more cheaply ($15).

6. But, while the Gap has some selections I don't like at all prices, the $35 shirts are never quite as ugly as the $15 shirts. If the really ugly shirts languished $35 and then, only because they languished, the Gap decided it needed to move them by slashing the price to $15, you'd think I'd see them at the higher price more often than I ever do.

7. Upon reflection, it probably makes more sense to presume that the Gap knows more than I do about making shirts and especially about making money from selling shirts.

8. Say the really ugly shirts are being sold at a loss. It could be to the Gap's advantage to have some relatively inexpensive shirts to affect the overall perception that there are good deals to be had the Gap. After all, it is one more big red SALE sign. But, if they were willing to offer some shirts at a loss just for the perception of having SALE values around, it'd still be in their interest in selling as few of those shirts as possible. So, make them really ugly.

9. The Gap might be making money even when it the really ugly shirts at the sale price (say $5). But they make way more money when they sell less ugly shirts at a higher price (say, $5 vs. $25).

10. Even if they do make money on the really ugly shirts, it could be like a bait-and-switch. The existence of sale shirts gets you in the store, the ugliness of the shirts discourages their actual purchase, but now that you are in the store you can be subjected to the ministrations of their sales clerks to buy something else.

11. When I see ugly shirts in stores, my inclination is to marvel at the variation that exists in people's aesthetic preferences. But when I see those ugly shirts on the sale rack, maybe what I should be marveling at is the variation in people's preferences about prices.

12. People come into the Gap with all kinds of variation on how much they are willing to pay for a shirt. But the Gap cannot charge different prices in the same store for the same shirt.

13. Consider somebody who gives some premium to the Gap brand, but otherwise values price much more than they value aesthetics. They buy the ugly shirt and the Gap makes money on them. As opposed to offering a shirt that is low-priced because it is shoddily made, the ugly shirt does not Gap's reputation for how well-made their clothes are. It's just ugly. It could even be regarded as "daring."

14. It wouldn't make sense for the Gap to offer shirts at the lower-price point if it cost them sales at the higher-price point. If people didn't much prefer higher-price point shirts to the lower-price point shirts, even people who could otherwise be persuaded to pay $35 for a shirt would pay $15. So the $15/shirt racky is a risky one, and so the shirts at better be really ugly. Which they are.

[Okay, I'm going to stop now. But this actually gets weirder and more sinister, because now I realize that the whole reason I've been to the Gap more lately than I'd ever gone in Madison is that there are not a lot of men's clothing stores in the Porter Square area anyway. I'm sure the Gap is paying a premium rent for that exclusivity, and now they have male customers in a position of a much larger convenience trade-off than Gaps in malls have. For reasons to complicated for me to try to articulate now, I think this provides the Gap with an even stronger incentive to serve up objectively ugly shirts.

But, seriously, maybe all this is obvious to everyone else, but this is an epiphany for me. (Granted, sort of one of those I've-been-a-moron-all-this-time epiphanies, but still.) The ugly shirts are intentionally ugly. They could just as easily make non-ugly shirts, but if they put those non-ugly shirts on that sale rack, they would sell fewer of their higher-priced shirts.]

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

i think if the president ever got to know me, he'd like me. maybe he'd even give me a nickname and say i was doing a heckuva job here at harvard.

[Virginia gubernatorial candidate] Jerry Kilgore got a boost Monday from President Bush, who made a last-minute dash into Virginia to urge die-hard conservatives to help turn out voters for the former attorney general.

"The thing I like about this fellow is he grew up on a farm," Bush said in a brief stop on his return from a South American trade mission. "He doesn't have a lot of fancy airs."
Reading In Cold Blood the other night had been reminiscing a lot about growing up on a farm. [Spoiler warning not for In Cold Blood and Capote] The book is about a farm family that is murdered by two men who believed (erroneously) that there was $10,000 in a safe in the house. A nice thing about my family and our little house on the prairie, I suppose, is that no one ever would have had any delusions that we had a bunch of money in a safe somewhere. Which doesn't mean that my mother is free from worries about criminal victimization, much of which seems to be the result of a knack she has for being able to adapt on-the-fly the things she sees in urban crime dramas to sinister scenarios that could unfold in middle-of-nowhere Iowa.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

intelligibility is in the eye of the beholder

When a manuscript is sent out for peer review, the reviewers will usually later receive a copy of the editor's decision as well as the other reviews. Today I received others' reviews of a manuscript for which I was Reviewer C.

Reviewer A begins:
Before you submit your paper to scientific journals and ask their editors and reviewers to invest considerable time and effort in evaluating it, please have your colleagues read it over, to make sure that it makes sense to other people. It is part of the professional courtesy. Unfortunately, you have failed to do this most fundamental task. As a result, your paper is very unfocused and makes very little sense to other readers...
Reviewer B begins:
This paper is clearly written...

Monday, November 07, 2005

a brief and slightly exasperated statement on conjunctural evidence

Okay, I'm way behind today on work and trying to catch up. And, for that matter, I have no particular opinion on whether Truman Capote wrote some/much/most/all of To Kill A Mockingbird (see previous post), or whatever. I do know that Capote supposedly had repeatedly hinted as much to others, but I also know that Capote also supposedly claimed to be friends with celebrities that he had never, in fact, met. But, my having broached the topic in yesterday's blog post notwithstanding, I have no especial opinion on the matter or even any real interest, beyond just thinking the idea intriguing.

BUT, I do care about clear thinking about the evaluation of evidence. The reason I am intrigued by the idea of Capote's participation in To Kill A Mockingbird is co-existence of two separate facts that had earlier circulated independently in my head:

(1) that Capote and Lee were neighbors from the same small Alabama town. Start counting on your fingers: Capote, Lee, and other Alabama writers who have the same level of public recognition as Capote and Lee. Did you even get to your second hand? Now think of how remarkable it is that two of those fingers were neighbors growing up.

(2) Find a list of the top 100 American novels of the 20th century. If you were going to choose the one novel on that list for which there was the least independent evidence of the talent of the author outside that novel, you'd likely decide on Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird. I mean, if I'm wrong about this, please correct me: but doesn't the rest of her published oeuvre consist of like a handful of short and indistinguished magazine articles? Even if you look at people who wrote one great novel and killed themselves promptly thereafter (Confederacy of Dunces, Raintree County), you probably have a longer independent paper trail than Lee's.

Either of these facts, alone, wouldn't lead me to be especially intrigued by the Capote-TKAM theory. But, put them together, and the pair is greater than the sum of its parts. So, counterarguments like "Jason Williams and Randy Moss went to the same high school," even if it wasn't a bad argument-by-analogy for other reasons, not only misses the point but does so in a rather frustrating way. It's the combination of the almost-uniquely-weird lack of independent evidence of Lee's authorial gifts AND her having this close-friend-since-childhood who had indisputably forbidable authorial gifts, that makes the idea intriguing to me.

Again, the true answer about the authorship of To Kill A Mockingbird isn't very important to me. I'd much rather know if Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. But, please, try to understand that when the conjunction of facts A and B can be offered as evidence suggestive of a hypothesis, the counterargument that A isn't much evidence on its own for the hypothesis should not be regarded as very compelling.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

have you seen capote yet? it's very good.

I don't have to, like, provide "specifics" or a "review" or anything, do I? You'll just go see it, right? Or not, but you'll be missing out.

BTW, Harper Lee is a character in the movie. She was a childhood friend of Capote's from Alabama and accompanied him on the first research trip for In Cold Blood. Isn't it statistically remarkable to have such literary talent growing up as neighbors in some southern small town? And to have them be both particularly great short story writers to boot? (To Kill a Mockingbird was originally submitted for publication as a collection of short stories.) And isn't it strange that Harper Lee never wrote another book?

Or, um, well:

Saturday, November 05, 2005

________ in, ________ out

I remember that I first heard the phrase "desperate people do desperate things" in some made-for-TV movie when I was in junior high. It was said by a high school coach of a team that was losing miserably to explain why he was putting this uncoordinated-freak-always-sits-at-the-end-of-the-bench-loser into the game. I think the kid turned out to have supernatural powers or something, I don't remember.

Anyway, ever since, the phrase has been one of my mental slogans. When I see someone take some drastic action, my first explanatory impulse is to presume they were desperate and then think why they might have been so. It's been especially helpful in understanding some of the weird things I've seen people do in the name of romance, incidentally. Why does [X] keep pursuing [Y] even though it's clear s/he's not interested? It's never going to happen, and it just makes [X] look so desperate. To which I think: but [X] is desperate, so what do you expect her/him to do?

In the past few years, the slogan has morphed into a sequel: "mentally ill people do mentally ill things." The slogan arose from my weariness about hearing people complain about the crazy things done by crazy friends of theirs; or, more specifically, crazy things done by crazy people who had been crazy ever since their friendship began and who perhaps in the first place had been befriended precisely because their craziness made them interesting. But then I would have to listen complain and ask why their crazy friend had to do this particular crazy thing that annoyed them when any normal person would do the normal thing instead. So "mentally ill people do mentally ill things" became a stock reply, intended to reject the idea of speculating about why a person is engaging in some particular instance of abnormal behavior when they have never given any reason to think that they ever approach the world or apprehend reality in anything like a normal way.

Seriously, it's like moving to Antarctica and then whining about how you don't understand why it can't ever just have normal weather.

More recently, as I've been doing all this reading about health care, a third version of the slogan has been forming in my mind. It's current incarnation is "perverse incentives produce perverse results." (Yes! My economist friends would be so proud!) But, really, you see a system that seems altogether twisted in its outcomes, it really is helpful to think: what are the incentives for the people in this system. And, lo, they are often twisted incentives, or at least twisted incentives from the point of view of wanting a nontwisted system as a result.

Of course they're acting desperately, they are desperate. Of course they're acting crazy, they are crazy. Of course the outcomes are perverse, the incentives are perverse. Pathological conditions produce pathological consequences. The pathological conditions are the thing to be puzzled over an explained, rather than acting like the consequences themselves are otherwise genuinely surprising or puzzling. Which isn't to say there aren't real surprises or puzzles: desperate actions by those who have no reason to be desperate, strange behaviors by those who have given no previous reason to expect it, or perverse outcomes from institutions that seem like they should yield better. Or, for that matter: desperate people who do nothing; crazy people who have their moments of complete togetherness; perverse incentives that yield systems that are not nearly so screwed up as one might expect.

* I've also invoked the phrase to explain instances of myself taking drastic action (see here for an example that didn't work or see here for an example that, well, also didn't work). Indeed, I almost see it as a normative theory: if you feel desperate, you should first wait awhile and ponder whether your desperation is truly justified, but then, if you are still desperate, why aren't you taking drastic action?

Friday, November 04, 2005

bitter pills are better pills

Occam's Razor encompasses the idea that if you have a simpler and more complicated explanation for the same phenomenon, your default should be to favor the simpler one and you should only prefer the more complicated one if there is good reason to do so. Let me articulate a general principle about pills that I call Pharmaccam's Razor: if you can get through life taking less pills or more pills, your default should be to take less pills, and you should only take more if there is good reason to do so. This isn't an anti-pill position; it's just a pro-pill-parsimony position.

I don't know if Pharmaccam's Razor sounds immediately reasonable to you or if it is something you need to be persuaded about. If the latter, too bad for now, as I'm not writing this post to defend the idea. Instead, what I'm thinking about are its implications.

The main one being: if you believe that taking fewer pills is preferable to taking more pills, you are probably better served by a policy where adding a pill to your life hurts a bit. Note that I am NOT AT ALL saying a policy that keeps you from being able to afford pills you need, but a policy that forces at least some contemplation before adding a prescription.

I mean, if I believe in the basic idea of Pharmaccam's Razor, then why should I be happy to have a health insurance policy in which I pay next-to-nothing for a prescription drug? My plan is basically $5 for a generic drug and $10 for a brand-name drug. I'm not going to present an embarrassing expose here of my spending patterns, but suffice it to say that there is ample evidence that $5 does not provide much of an economic disincentive to me.

The thing is, of course, I'm actually paying extra to have the pricing plan that I do. Given that employers never tire of pointing out that their contribution to your health insurance is part of your total compensation--for example, the chair of my department recently sent an e-mail to graduate student employees reminding them, correctly, of this--I am basically paying some amount of money each month so that I only have to pay $5-10/month per prescription, where what I'm arguing here is that my personal health interests would actually be better served if I had to pay $50 for a prescription, even if that meant just entering into some binding agreement where I would pay $5 for a prescription to the pharmacist and gave the other $45 to Dorotha to subsidize her stuffed-monster-making-hobby.

This leads me to wonder why I am paying for prescription drug coverage at all, or at least why I'm not just paying for some plan that protects me from the possibility of a health problem that prompts sufficiently expensive treatment that I wouldn't be able to afford pills I really needed. A problem here, though, is that if I gave up drug coverage, it would mean the extra money I paid for prescriptions would go to pharmaceutical companies, since they sell drugs to my insurer for less than they would sell drugs to me if I was uninsured. Plus I don't even know if I have the option of opting out of prescription drug coverage.

So, I guess this provides an opportunity for you, JFW reader, to make a zillion dollars and improve public health. I presume I don't have to connect the dots. Well, okay, the first dot is you have convince a bunch of people with employer-provided health coverage of the wisdom of Pharmaccam's Razor, and the last one involves people making a binding agreement to give you the difference between what they have to pay to a pharmacy to fill a prescription under their insurance plan and what would be a genuine but not constraining disincentive for filling a prescription.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

i ama fashion god. isn't that enough?

These are my own favorites among the Michael Brown FEMA e-mails that have been put online. Katrina's landfall was around 8am EDT on August 29.

Something I find fascinating about Michael Brown is that idea of having one's moment American history come and then being revealed to be comprehensively inadequate for it.

dick tracy

"People are finally catching on to your lying."
"Lying about what?"
"Your blog. And how something rhen you say that you've posted something on Wednesday, you really post it on Tuesday."
"I'm not lying. It's Wednesday's post. I just happen to put it up on Tuesday night because you can't set things to publish later in Blogger and I don't feel like waiting until the next morning to post it."
"But you're lying, because it's not Wednesday's post. You wrote it on Tuesday."
"Comic strips have dates on them. When you see a comic strip on Wednesday, is the person who draws it 'lying' because he didn't draw it that morning?"
"A comic strip is totally different. Comic strips have characters."
"When I came back from my blogging hiatus, I said I wanted it to be like a comic strip I doodled in my spare time."
"But it's not a comic strip."
"Which is why I said 'like' a comic strip."
"A comic strip is totally different. Comic strips are drawn."
"I like posting one thing a day. I don't want to post more than that. So if I've already got something for a Tuesday, I save the next one to be Wednesday's post."
"But you don't, you post it on Tuesday and then lie about it."
"How is it lying? People who see my blog on Tuesday night and see something posted for Wednesday, do you think I've deceived them into thinking that I've actually written the post on Wednesday and then somehow warped space-time so they could read it on Tuesday?"
"It's still lying, just like you're lying when you say your blog is a comic strip. Comic strips are funny."
"Besides, if I've posted something the night before, I always stamp it 12:01am. So anybody who actually cares can know it's something I've written the day before because the time will say 12:01am."
"What if you actually write a post at 12:01am?"
"I don't. 12:01am is sacrosanct. If I were to ever write a post at 12:01am, I would wait a minute before publishing it."

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

excerpted from my causalist manifesto

Chris! I spent my whole walk to work this morning thinking about the question of whether restoring voting rights would decrease the likelihood of an ex-felon returning to crime after being released. This, despite not actually reading your paper, and despite not knowing anything about the larger literature in the area. And now, despite all this ignorance, I'm going to write a long post about it!

Readers who are not Chris should keep in mind, I have had two separate institutional occasions to familiarize myself with the Uggen oeuvre, and I have enormous respect for the work he's done and what he's trying to do. I'm sure he's thought about most/all the same issues as I have and in more depth to boot. So this isn't a directed criticism at him or at others at all. Indeed, in writing down my thoughts, I considered changing the example to something entirely different just to make plain that I wasn't pretending to offer informed commentary on the work of Chris and others in this area, but then I decided not to, partly because this rumination has already taken up enough of my morning.

Instead, as is usual for this blog, it's All About Me. Specifically, it's about me thinking through why I am such a causal pessimist. So, allow me a morning stroll through how I think about things in terms of imagining the question of whether voting rights reduce recidivism in stylized terms mostly innocent of knowledge of the actually available data and evidence.

Consider: Frankie and Johnny are both ex-felons. In terms of the measures we have on them, Frankie and Johnny are identical. Frankie votes, Johnny doesn't. A year later, Frankie hasn't had any further trouble with the law, while Johnny knocked over a liquor store and is back in jail. If Johnny had voted instead of Frankie, would their positions be reversed?

Aggregate to: Frankie and Johnny are just two members of a large sample of ex-felons. In the whole sample, though, everybody can be divided into pairs like Frankie and Johnny, where they are alike on all other pre-election-day measures, except that the Frankies voted and the Johnnies did not. A year later, 20% of the Frankies are back in jail, as opposed to 30% of the Johnnies. If the Johnnies had voted and the Frankies had not, would these percentages be reversed? (Or, more fairly, if the Johnnies had the reintegrative experience manifested in voted and the Frankies had not, would the percentages be reversed?)

In a nutshell: the whole inference that there is something causal about voting turns on the idea that Frankie and Johnny really were otherwise alike, just that one voted and the other didn't. (If you know from the start that the Frankies and Johnnies are different, we can engage in strategies of "covariance adjustment" to attempt to account for these differences, but this results in an even weaker inference than the hypothetical matched-pairs scenario, so if you are already a causal pessimist in the matched-pairs scenario, you are necessarily even more of a pessimist when covariance adjustment is required.)

The problem: If they were so alike, why did Frankie vote and Johnny not? I mean, isn't Frankie practically screaming, "Yo! Don't treat me like I'm identical to Johnny! He spent election day watching TV, and I went out and voted!" Fundamentally, it doesn't matter how many different ways (as manifested in variables) that you have showing how Frankie and Johnny are alike. Perversely even, to some extent, more measures can be misleading, to whatever extent they can foster the illusion that Frankie and Johnny really were alike, except that one voted and the other didn't. So long as the decision to vote is highly nonrandom and says something about the person who chooses to vote, Frankie and Johnny are revealing an important difference between the two of them by the very fact that one voted and the other didn't.

A digression: In a different-but-analogous scenario, this is the closest I've come to lapsing into profanity in my graduate methods class. We were looking at a paper on neighborhood effects, where the whole inference turned on the idea that two kids entering junior high were otherwise identical (or adjustedly identical), except that one lived in a bad neighboorhood and the other lived in a good neighborhood. To which I said, animatedly, "If they are so freaking alike, why do they live in different neighborhoods?" And then, even more loudly and slowly: "If they are so freaking alike, why do they live in different neighborhoods?"

The situation would be more promising if: You had two groups of Frankies and Johnnies who were otherwise identical, and the Frankies could vote and the Johnnies couldn't. If you have reason to think the Johnnies would have voted in the same proportion if only they could vote--which, if they were really otherwise identical, they would--then a lower recidivism rate for the Frankies vs. the Johnnies is possibly compelling. (It depends on how well one can make the "otherwise identical" case, especially since, for example, if the Frankies live in one state and the Johnnies live in another, you have to start worrying about the ways in which the state affects their probability of re-imprisonment, etc., etc.)

Barring that, the situation is not so bleak if: You had two groups of Frankies and Johnnies who were otherwise identical, except the Frankies happened to be in a circumstance that exerted an effect on their probability of voting (or, really, their average level of electoral-related civic integration) without at all affecting their probability of recidivism. And so, the Hunt For Exogenous Variation is on. Say the Frankies were released in the year preceding various presidential elections, and the Johnnies were released in the year after various presidential elections. It might be compelling to see that the Frankies had lower recidivism rates than the Johnnies. (One problem here is that elections are also known affect the probability of recidivism, as when mayors increase policing in their own election years to appeal to crime-antsy voters.)

Additionally, there may be the opportunity to Disaggregate And Conquer: Frankies and Johnnies are otherwise identical. Imagine that there are Class A felonies and Class B felonies. Frankies can only vote if they have committed a Class A felony, not if they've committed a Class B felony. Johnnies cannot vote regardless. We compare the recidivism rates for Class A and Class B felons. Whatever the relative difference in recidivism rates for Class A felons vs. Class B felons among the Johnnies, the relative rate among the Frankies should be even lower. In other words, if recidivism rates were 30% for both Class A and Class B felons among the Johnnies, then we might be persuaded that voting matters if the rates among the Frankies were 20% for the Class A felons and 30% for the Class B felons.

And, all the while, the question has actually shifted: The larger animating question for policy is, "Does restoring voting rights to felons affect the recidivism rate?" That question depends actually on comparisons across states, so instead of Frankie and Johnny you have Frankansas and Johnnisota. You can imagine how hard that is, i.e., "If the two states are so freaking alike, why does one allow ex-felons to vote and the other doesn't?" So you pretty much have to change the question. The story of Frankie and Johnny begins with the mutation of the question to something like: "Does voting reduce the probability of recidivism?" or perhaps more elaborately "Does the sense of civic reintegration made possible by and manifested essentially in the act of voting reduce the probability of recidivism?" But it could be that restoring the voting rights to felons decreases recidivism by decreasing stigma or increasing reintegration regardless of whether ex-felons take advantage of the franchise by actually voting. This is especially scary because we could get results that show that voting doesn't matter for recidivism when restoring the right to vote (the real matter of policy) does matter. In other words, problems of causal inference can force us into addressing causal questions that are different from the ultimate questions of policy interest, and the questions can have discrepant answers.

A final irony of all this being: For my own beliefs about whether ex-felons should be allowed to vote, the answer to the question about recidivism doesn't matter on way or the other. I would probably even support restoring the right to vote to ex-felons if it increased their probability of recidivism. But, of course, there are people out there who might be persuaded to agree with the policy change if it was shown that restoring voting rights reduced recidivism rates. And what I ultimately care about is the policy change, not whether the reason the policy change gets enacted coincides with my own beliefs about the reasons the policy change is desirable. So I'm invested in the answer even though it's irrelevant to my own position.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

on iTrocities of the eighties: theory and a personal list

Worst songs have been a topic of conversation among Madison Bloggers in recent days (here and here), which got me thinking about how I would expand my recent mention of my feelings regarding the worst song of the 80's.

Namely: what would be my 10 worst songs of the 80's? But then this got me thinking about how something gets to be a worst song in the first place.

So you only get to be a worst song if you've reached some level of visibility in the popular consciousness. Like, the worst music I've actually heard in my life was from this band I heard once in graduate school called The Knievels, whose gimmick around Bloomington was that they would play any party in exchange for a case of beer. Sweet Jesus, did they suck. But, given the small number of people who ever heard them play, it's not like they inflicted widescale cultural harm with their music, and, besides, what's the fun of listing them unless I had some bootleg Knievels that I could post to the web for you to listen and wince at?

But then, if something is truly awful, how does it get to be so visible that it can make a worst song list? It could be a novelty song that some people, for God knows what reason, found appealing at that point in time but you never understood. If I was making a 90s list, Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy for This Shirt" would be a prime example of such a worst song from my perspective.

Besides novelty songs, thought, it could be a song that bespeaks the central pathologies of the age. As I was thinking back through sucky 80's music, I realized how much of it really pretty much begged for the rise of the angsty authenticity that became alternative music in the 90's--I mean, look at the top 100 lists for 1983-1987, the rise of Nirvana and Pearl Jam will seem like a historical inevitability--much less the subsequent, more radical, and more complete takeover of teenage popular music by hip-hop.

Within music that speaks of the pathology of the age, meanwhile, I think that the easiest way for something to become a worst song is for it to be something by an artist who is sufficiently established that their next effort is going to get onto radios regardless. Specifically, the worst songs to me are those where you get the sense of (1) artists having sufficient contempt for their audience as to think they can just serve up whatever uninspired drivel they imagine to think up between lines of coke as being something the audience will lap up, (2) A&R people at major record labels who share the same contempt for the audience and agree that the songs would make a great single, and (3) audiences that show themselves to be indeed worthy of all this contempt by indeed loving the song or at least loving it after they've heard it on the radio five zillion times.

The way for non-established artists to enter this pantheon, I think, is by getting their songs associated with movies or television shows that may be good movies or television shows, but which can launch songs into prominence that, in terms of the song itself, have no business being there.

Anyway, to my list.

Immediate selections (seriously, these are sure to be on the playlist of my no-off-button-and-eternally-charged-batteries iPod welded to my head in hell):
Glenn Frey, "The Heat is On" - what happens when one of the most overrated songwriters of his generation gives up any pretense of trying
Kenny Loggins, "Danger Zone" - what happens when one of the most overrated songwriters of his generation gives up any pretense of trying, for the sake of a soundtrack single
Billy Joel, "We Didn't Start the Fire" - what happens when one of the most overrated songwriters of his generation gives up any pretense of trying, and just relies on listmaking instead of writing lyrics
Def Leppard, "Love Bites"

Required some deliberation:
Beach Boys, "Kokomo" - a one-hit wonder novelty song disguised as a song by established artists
John Parr, "St. Elmo's Fire" - God, I hate this movie, and I hate the song entirely independently
Poison, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn"
Ray Parker, Jr., "Ghostbusters"
USA for Africa, "We Are the World" - yes, I know it was for a good cause. That's how it got to be ubiquitous despite being so terrible

Cannot decide which of these should be the tenth:
Bobby McFerrin, "Don't Worry, Be Happy" - amusing the first time, painful thereafter
Club Nouveau, "Lean on Me" - anyone whose adolescence intersected the 80's should be ashamed of the popularity of the desecration perpetrated by this song
Neil Diamond, "Heartlight"
Oak Ridge Boys, "Elvira"

Honorable mention - song that today icks me out the most:
Extreme, "More Than Words"