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January 2004

Ian Ayres and Barry Nalebuff ask an interesting question: "Why don't firms use their inside information to sell rivals short when they have information that won't be good news for their rivals?" (Forbes magazine, free registration required.)

Which prompts a question of my own: under what legal or economic theory should insider trading be illegal for individuals but legal for firms (as Ayres and Nalebuff declare it is)?

The Onion nails it again. They don't have permalinks, so here's their pitch-perfect entry. (But go visit the site!)

14-Word Diet Stretched To 200 Pages
BOSTON—The Florida Keys diet, which can be adequately described in 14 words, has been padded into a 204-page book: Losing Weight The Florida Keys Way, available in bookstores Tuesday. "The diet is pretty much, 'Avoid saturated fats and simple carbohydrates, eat mostly fresh vegetables and seafood, and exercise," said author Dr. Harris Jegen. "Unfortunately, no one is going to shell out $24.95 for one sentence, so I've got some recipes and charts in there, a bunch of testimonials, and a 50-page Diet Diary." Jegen's previous books include The Florida Keys Diet and The Florida Keys Diet Made Easy.

Ah, the mysteries of the world. The NY Times explores just who the hard-core Michael Jackson fans are. It reports, in an amazed tone, that many are young (under 35), middle-class, European women who are "unusually attractive, fashionably dressed and well-spoken" but many of whom "come from broken homes. Many have lost a parent. Many of the girls have eating disorders."

O.K. but just don't drink any Kool-Aid he might offer you, ladies.

I, and I'm sure all the regular readers of the Door, send sympathy to aspiring economist Chris Silvey. Chris is suffering from an awful screw-up, courtesy of Higher Education:

I sent my applications and all supporting materials for econ PhD admission in the beginning of December. I found out last week that none...I REPEAT ...none of the schools have recvd transcripts from one of my undergrad schools (Cal State Northridge, aka CSUN). When I contacted CSUN last week they said that they sent the transcript on Dec. 6 (almost a month after I requested and paid for them). As of yesterday UCLA, about 20 miles from CSUN, had not recv'd my transcripts. So as of now I have missed many FinAid deadlines. I called CSUN again yesterday and got the financial director in Admissions and Records at CSUN and she finally tracked down what had happened with my transcripts. They were never sent! The school was replacing software and my transcripts were being held for Fall 2003 grades...nevermind the fact that I haven't attended CSUN for two years. Long story short, they sent my transcripts Jan.22 and are sending me a letter on CSUN letterhead apologizing for, and explaining, their mistake. Now I have to contact all of the graduate secretaries at all of the schools I applied to and explain what happened. I only pray that this set circumstance, out of my control, wasn't an easy way for the schools to weed out an application to reduce the substantial pile in front of them at the admissions committee. I worked hard for years in school, and spent a lot of time and money setting myself up to have a good chance of admission with funding at top schools...and now fate has dealt me a poor poker hand. I hope I can plays the cards I have been dealt with skill and still win. But inside I am steaming with anger.

The NY Times has a long look at the current battle over copyright. It gives a sympathetic hearing to the ubiquitous Larry Lessig, along with his intellectual allies, Jonathan Zittrain, Yochai Benkler, and James Boyle (who's right next door to the Door, at Duke). It also gives some space to the opposing view, represented by Jane Ginsburg and Paul Goldstein.

It's a big, important, and difficult issue. Both sides make reasonable arguments. And as Richard Posner recently observed, the resolution ultimately should depend on some empirical magnitudes that we know almost nothing about. (The link to Posner's original article seems to be gone, but Posner is charitable toward copying academic research, so he probably wouldn't mind me linking to this copy of his article.)

That said, I have two snarky comments about the Times piece.

1. The piece opens what with what an NYU scholar helpfully labels for the Times a "copyright horror" story. Students at Swarthmore obtain either leaked or stolen corporate memos. They think they relate to a vital public policy issue, so they post them on the Web. The company, Diebold, alleges that the students are infringing the company's copyright and demands that the memos be removed from the Web. Since the Website is hosted by Swarthmore, and since the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes an Internet Service Provider potentially liable for the material posted by its users, Swarthmore removes the material. Now here's the kicker:

After persistent challenges by the students -- and a considerable amount of negative publicity for Diebold -- in November the company agreed not to sue. To the delight of the students' supporters, the memos are now back on their Web site. But to proponents of free speech on the Internet, the story remains a chilling one.

Even if the students had actually been forced to remove the memos from the Net, were they prevented from writing a speech or an article or a book based on those memos? No. Were they prevented from asking for them to be printed in, say, the New York Times?? No! To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: I know chilling, I've been chilled; this is not chilling.

2. In the article's concluding paragraph we find

Like Rachel Carson in the years before Earth Day, the Copy Left today is trying to raise awareness of the intellectual ''land'' to which they believe we ought to feel entitled and to propose policies and laws that will preserve it.

Would that be the same Rachel Carson who helped get DDT banned based on questionable science and who is, therefore, indirectly responsible for thousands of premature deaths?

Theodore Dalrymple praises Britain's cab drivers and in passing provides a lovely look at ". . . the interesting question of how the taxi-drivers of a provincial city are able to do what the British government, in all its tentacular forms, cannot do. . . "