The 9th Annual Year in Ideas, from the 13 December 2009 New York Times Magazine, is a compendium of compelling discoveries.

After a brief reference to the gist of each that caught my attention, here are my reactions:

The New Idea


1. “Cognitive Illiberalism”: This is the thesis of three law professors writing in the January Harvard Law Review. They argue that the U.S. Supreme Court erred in Scott v. Harris when it ruled against Harris’ demand for a jury trial. Harris was fleeing police at 85 m.p.h. when an officer rammed into his car, rendering him quadriplegic. He wanted damages from the police officer. The Supreme Court declared he did not have a case; because 75% of 1350 viewers of the chase video believed deadly force was justified to stop Harris’ vehicle.

Majority opinion about a video is not the best standard for deciding a case. It is a slippery slope. My opinion is that that plaintiff should be allowed to sue for damages if the officer violated the law. Immunity from suit under the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution should only be available for the police officer within the scope of his authority.

2. “Counterfeit Self”: People who thought they were wearing fake designer sunglasses cheated more on a self-graded test than those who thought they were wearing the genuine article.

The study author’s explanation is that someone who feels like a fake is more likely to act like one. Well, maybe so. We know from other studies that priming a test subject with smells, colors, or acts of kindness or inducing a “stereotype threat” can affect decision making shortly thereafter.

But isn’t it possible that the test subjects wearing knockoff sunglasses said to themselves, “The test organizer is cheating a manufacturer by handing out bootleg replicas of a designer product – and disrespecting the rule of law – so they are not deserving of honest treatment.” In my motivational hypothesis the subject’s misconduct is triggered by their attitude towards the test provider, not their attitude about themselves.

3. “Cows With Names Make More Milk”

I have read that cows listening to classical music also produce more milk. But the advantage of anthropomorphizing farm animals is of no use to me as a lawyer. What I want to know is — Will my computer function better if I give it a name?

4. “Cul-de-Sac Ban”: Virginia no longer provides maintenance or snowplow services to newly built cul-de-sacs.

How will local government deliver police, fire or rescue services to un-plowed cul-de-sacs in new housing developments after a blizzard? It would have been more effective, in my opinion, to raise the property tax somewhat on homes built in dead-end streets after a certain date; and continue plowing all streets.

5. “Forensic Polling Analysis”:

Trailing numbers (final digits, like the “9” in “49%”) in a certain company’s election polling heavily favored certain digits.

I am unclear whether the analyzed data consisted of percentages or numbers of voters. The Times says the former, but I think it has to be the latter. Here’s why: Percentages should contain more of the digits 0, 1, 2, 8 and 9 if the polling was done on close questions, and we know the Bush v. Gore election was rather close. Results would be 51% to 49%, 52% to 48%, and the like; whereas trailing number of the population responding to a question would – I agree – be expected to be random. They might be 1346 to 1285, for example, among 3,000 people polled, with the 6 and the 5 of this hypothetical occurring at random.

Here, my problem seems to lie with the reporting, and not with the impeccable work of Nate Silver at

6. “Good Enough is the New Great”: The new technology mantra is “cheap, fast, simple”.

This is an expression of what I call standard deviation psychology. It is the college semester for $600.00 at a community college instead of $20,000.00 at the private school across town. The student either denies any difference in value, considers the higher tuition is not worth the cost, or is unable to pay more in any event. We see the same phenomenon among purchasers of lower-priced products offered by competitors of the MacBook, iPhone and iPod. As a PC Magazine reviewer wrote recently, you can get a laptop for under $500.00, but it’s a boring device.

7. “Guilty robots”: New software offers military robots an ethical context for weapon selection and the decision to fire.

I would like to see “ethical architecture” software applications weigh the punishment of capital murderers, recidivists, addicts, and the mentally ill. If Pentagon R&D money were not helping select targets overseas, we would have more to spend on improving sentencing decisions at home.

8. “Literary Alzheimer’s”: Agatha Christie’s vocabulary shrank dramatically in her last two published works before she died of Alzheimer’s.

I recall reading a respected longitudinal study comparing the writing of nuns. It demonstrated that even as young girls, those who would later develop Alzheimer’s exhibited a less complex pattern of expression.

I also know experts observed paintings of major artists like Willem de Kooning become unstructured and confusing as Alzheimer’s took hold.

9. “Random Promotions”: A study indicates organizations do better to promote at random, or to promote the best and the worst office workers; rather than only promoting those that hold out the most promise.

If you think the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is over-burdened now, imagine the consequences of implementing this!

Drawing on best and worst solutions is called “Parrondo’s Paradox”. Isn’t that our stated policy in Afghanistan — staying and leaving?

Always promoting the best performer is a faulty policy according to this study because according to the “Peter Principle”, people rise to the level of their own incompetence. In other words, just because I do well at my job does not mean I will be good at handling the work of my supervisor.

What would happen if we were to apply this randomness principal to mate selection? The rate of divorce nationwide is around fifty percent, so – on average – a carefully selected partner has no better odds than a coin toss of working out.

We could match names from the voter registration rolls with three preconditions. (I am writing this, so I pick the conditions.) Your partner is within three (3) years of your age, you get to choose their sex, and no participant is under age eighteen.

This is no worse than what we have now from a probability standpoint. But there is one problem: No one is happy marrying a stranger.