El Gabo ha muerto …

Did you know Gabriel Garcia Marquez almost became a lawyer instead of a writer? Thank goodness he decided to follow his heart and write for a living. Here is a synopsis (in Spanish) of one of our favorite stories by el Gabo, News of a kidnapping. (The images in the video speak for themselves and the musical background is in English, so check it out anyways.)

!Que viva el Gabo y su obra!

Why don’t we abolish timeouts in sports?

After all, there are no timeouts in soccer. In the alternative, why don’t we at least consider reducing the total number of timeouts or capping the number of referee reviews? In short, why do we put up with long, drawn-out games? According to this statistical study of NBA game times, for example, the final 60 seconds of a pro-basketball game lasts five and a half minutes on average, while the median length is 4 minutes. (It could be worse, however. The final minute of the 18 November 2013 game between the Denver Nuggets and the Oklahoma City Thunder took twenty minutes to play out.) For your edification, then, here is a complete minute-by-minute data visualization of NBA game times from the website

Crowdsourcing the supreme court?

Note: the post was revised and expanded on 16 April 2014.

As things currently stand, nine members of a quasi-legislative committee meet in secret to decide some of the most important cases and controversies in the U.S. (These politicians in robes are called “justices,” of all things.) Under the guise of judicial review (a power that does not appear anywhere in the original U.S. Constitution or in any of its amendments), a mere five members of this elite cabal have the self-declared and self-serving power to veto laws passed by Congress. There has got to be a more efficient and equitable way of deciding Supreme Court cases, right? Here’s a thought: why can’t we crowdsource some of the decisions of the cases pending before the Supreme Court, at least on an experimental or trial basis? For starters, by way of example, perhaps we could croudsource specific types of cases, such as disputes involving issues of intellectual property or bankruptcy law, allowing all lawyers who practice in these legal fields (and, why not, law professors who teach these subjects) to cast a vote on the outcome of such cases as they arise?

Constitutional Postscript: Note that Article III of the U.S. Constitution calls for a national supreme court, but Art. III does not require a certain number of “justices” or a specific type of procedure for deciding supreme court cases. So there are no constitutional or technological barriers preventing us from trying out such a crowdsourcing reform as the one described above, just a lack of our collective imaginations.

Your tax dollar at work …

Check out this tax-time data visualization from our friends at
We want our money back!

In defense of Aldon Smith

TMZ Sports was the first to report that police officers in Los Angeles had arrested NFL linebacker and defensive end Aldon Smith at LAX last Sunday afternoon (13 April 2014) for becoming belligerent and making a false bomb threat before boarding his flight. But before we rush to judgment in this particular case, it’s important to remember what triggered this sorry state of affairs in the first place: annoying and largely ineffective airport security protocols. Specifically, Mr Smith was “randomly” selected for a secondary (i.e. more intrusive) screening after he had already been screened at the main security checkpoint in Terminal 1 of the Los Angeles airport. (By the way, in any other context these grotesque, invasive, and non-consensual airport searches would no doubt constitute a common law invasion of privacy tort, would they not?) Thus we say Mr Smith had every right to be upset. His fake bomb threat (assuming he even made such a threat) is no less farcical and stupid than the airport searches designed to detect such threats. In short, why do Americans like to proclaim that we live in a free country when our major airports and other public venues (like NFL football stadiums) are anything but free. Our airports and arenas have become mini-Gulags, mini-police states. Or, as Senator Rand Paul said at a speech at Cal-Berkeley last month, this is not the stance of a free man:

Thanks, TSA, we feel much safer now …

Model this: nice guys finish last?

The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, one of the most important models in game theory, predicts that business firms that screw their customers should fail, not succeed. But check out this recent report in Bloomberg Businessweek: The most hated airline is also the most profitable. Here are some excerpts:

Spirit Airlines inspires a special kind of wrath among the American traveling public: It’s the industry leader in customer complaints by a wide margin. Over the last five years, Spirit’s rate of complaints to the Department of Transportation was three times higher than other U.S. airlines … The loathing has also inspired a dedicated Twitter feed: @hatespiritair. Its customers will probably find this annoying, too: In spite of the rancor it inspires, Spirit has become the most profitable U.S. airline in terms of its operating margin and return on invested capital. Spirit’s 16.2 percent margin is highest among U.S. public airlines, as is its 26 percent return on capital, according to data compiled by Bloomberg … Spirit shares have gained 439 percent since its mid-2011 public offering at $12.

Since neither the rational actor model nor the repeat Prisoner’s Dilemma model seem to hold in this case, how would you model or otherwise explain this perverse outcome?

Data visualization courtesy of Slate.


The Coase Theorem and the Game of Chicken

Note: this post was revised and updated on 13 April 2014.

There are only two parties to this particular dispute, a public agency and a private cattle rancher (thus so-called “transaction costs” are low), so what’s preventing them from negotiating a wealth-maximizing Coasean bargain?  Maybe the property rights in this particular case are not well-defined. Alternatively, perhaps this conflict should be modeled as a Game of Chicken, since one of the sides just swerved. Can you guess who the chicken was?

Addendum: here are a few other cinematic situations in which the Coase Theorem may not hold.