By JANET RAE-DUPREE
Published: December 30, 2007

IT’S a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.

Andrew S. Grove, the co-founder of Intel, put it well in 2005 when he told an interviewer from Fortune, “When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’.” In other words, it becomes nearly impossible to look beyond what you know and think outside the box you’ve built around yourself.

This so-called curse of knowledge, a phrase used in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path.

Elizabeth Newton, a psychologist, conducted an experiment on the curse of knowledge while working on her doctorate at Stanford in 1990. She gave one set of people, called “tappers,” a list of commonly known songs from which to choose. Their task was to rap their knuckles on a tabletop to the rhythm of the chosen tune as they thought about it in their heads. A second set of people, called “listeners,” were asked to name the songs.

Before the experiment began, the tappers were asked how often they believed that the listeners would name the songs correctly. On average, tappers expected listeners to get it right about half the time. In the end, however, listeners guessed only 3 of 120 songs tapped out, or 2.5 percent.

The tappers were astounded. The song was so clear in their minds; how could the listeners not “hear” it in their taps?

That’s a common reaction when experts set out to share their ideas in the business world, too, says Chip Heath, who with his brother, Dan, was a co-author of the 2007 book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.” It’s why engineers design products ultimately useful only to other engineers. It’s why managers have trouble convincing the rank and file to adopt new processes. And it’s why the advertising world struggles to convey commercial messages to consumers.

“I HAVE a DVD remote control with 52 buttons on it, and every one of them is there because some engineer along the line knew how to use that button and believed I would want to use it, too,” Mr. Heath says. “People who design products are experts cursed by their knowledge, and they can’t imagine what it’s like to be as ignorant as the rest of us.”

But there are proven ways to exorcise the curse.

In their book, the Heath brothers outline six “hooks” that they say are guaranteed to communicate a new idea clearly by transforming it into what they call a Simple Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Story. Each of the letters in the resulting acronym, Succes, refers to a different hook. (“S,” for example, suggests simplifying the message.) Although the hooks of “Made to Stick” focus on the art of communication, there are ways to fashion them around fostering innovation.

To innovate, Mr. Heath says, you have to bring together people with a variety of skills. If those people can’t communicate clearly with one another, innovation gets bogged down in the abstract language of specialization and expertise. “It’s kind of like the ugly American tourist trying to get across an idea in another country by speaking English slowly and more loudly,” he says. “You’ve got to find the common connections.”

In her 2006 book, “Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It,” Cynthia Barton Rabe proposes bringing in outsiders whom she calls zero-gravity thinkers to keep creativity and innovation on track.

When experts have to slow down and go back to basics to bring an outsider up to speed, she says, “it forces them to look at their world differently and, as a result, they come up with new solutions to old problems.”

She cites as an example the work of a colleague at Ralston Purina who moved to Eveready in the mid-1980s when Ralston bought that company. At the time, Eveready had become a household name because of its sales since the 1950s of inexpensive red plastic and metal flashlights. But by the mid-1980s, the flashlight business, which had been aimed solely at men shopping at hardware stores, was foundering.

While Ms. Rabe’s colleague had no experience with flashlights, she did have plenty of experience in consumer packaging and marketing from her years at Ralston Purina. She proceeded to revamp the flashlight product line to include colors like pink, baby blue and light green — colors that would appeal to women — and began distributing them through grocery store chains.

“It was not incredibly popular as a decision amongst the old guard at Eveready,” Ms. Rabe says. But after the changes, she says, “the flashlight business took off and was wildly successful for many years after that.”

MS. RABE herself experienced similar problems while working as a transient “zero-gravity thinker” at Intel.

“I would ask my very, very basic questions,” she said, noting that it frustrated some of the people who didn’t know her. Once they got past that point, however, “it always turned out that we could come up with some terrific ideas,” she said.

While Ms. Rabe usually worked inside the companies she discussed in her book, she said outside consultants could also serve the zero-gravity role, but only if their expertise was not identical to that of the group already working on the project.

“Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who’ve done work in a related area but not in your specific field,” she says. “Make it possible for someone who doesn’t report directly to that area to come in and say the emperor has no clothes.”

Janet Rae-Dupree writes about science and emerging technology in Silicon Valley.

NYTimes: Looking at America

十二月 31, 2007

nucifera: 作为纽约时报二零零七年的最后一篇社论,这无疑是非常精彩的一篇文章。那种沉重的呼唤思索实在是令人动容。

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Editorial
Published: December 31, 2007

There are too many moments these days when we cannot recognize our country. Sunday was one of them, as we read the account in The Times of how men in some of the most trusted posts in the nation plotted to cover up the torture of prisoners by Central Intelligence Agency interrogators by destroying videotapes of their sickening behavior. It was impossible to see the founding principles of the greatest democracy in the contempt these men and their bosses showed for the Constitution, the rule of law and human decency.

It was not the first time in recent years we’ve felt this horror, this sorrowful sense of estrangement, not nearly. This sort of lawless behavior has become standard practice since Sept. 11, 2001.

The country and much of the world was rightly and profoundly frightened by the single-minded hatred and ingenuity displayed by this new enemy. But there is no excuse for how President Bush and his advisers panicked — how they forgot that it is their responsibility to protect American lives and American ideals, that there really is no safety for Americans or their country when those ideals are sacrificed.

Out of panic and ideology, President Bush squandered America’s position of moral and political leadership, swept aside international institutions and treaties, sullied America’s global image, and trampled on the constitutional pillars that have supported our democracy through the most terrifying and challenging times. These policies have fed the world’s anger and alienation and have not made any of us safer.

In the years since 9/11, we have seen American soldiers abuse, sexually humiliate, torment and murder prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few have been punished, but their leaders have never been called to account. We have seen mercenaries gun down Iraqi civilians with no fear of prosecution. We have seen the president, sworn to defend the Constitution, turn his powers on his own citizens, authorizing the intelligence agencies to spy on Americans, wiretapping phones and intercepting international e-mail messages without a warrant.

We have read accounts of how the government’s top lawyers huddled in secret after the attacks in New York and Washington and plotted ways to circumvent the Geneva Conventions — and both American and international law — to hold anyone the president chose indefinitely without charges or judicial review.

Those same lawyers then twisted other laws beyond recognition to allow Mr. Bush to turn intelligence agents into torturers, to force doctors to abdicate their professional oaths and responsibilities to prepare prisoners for abuse, and then to monitor the torment to make sure it didn’t go just a bit too far and actually kill them.

The White House used the fear of terrorism and the sense of national unity to ram laws through Congress that gave law-enforcement agencies far more power than they truly needed to respond to the threat — and at the same time fulfilled the imperial fantasies of Vice President Dick Cheney and others determined to use the tragedy of 9/11 to arrogate as much power as they could.

Hundreds of men, swept up on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, were thrown into a prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, so that the White House could claim they were beyond the reach of American laws. Prisoners are held there with no hope of real justice, only the chance to face a kangaroo court where evidence and the names of their accusers are kept secret, and where they are not permitted to talk about the abuse they have suffered at the hands of American jailers.

In other foreign lands, the C.I.A. set up secret jails where “high-value detainees” were subjected to ever more barbaric acts, including simulated drowning. These crimes were videotaped, so that “experts” could watch them, and then the videotapes were destroyed, after consultation with the White House, in the hope that Americans would never know.

The C.I.A. contracted out its inhumanity to nations with no respect for life or law, sending prisoners — some of them innocents kidnapped on street corners and in airports — to be tortured into making false confessions, or until it was clear they had nothing to say and so were let go without any apology or hope of redress.

These are not the only shocking abuses of President Bush’s two terms in office, made in the name of fighting terrorism. There is much more — so much that the next president will have a full agenda simply discovering all the wrongs that have been done and then righting them.

We can only hope that this time, unlike 2004, American voters will have the wisdom to grant the awesome powers of the presidency to someone who has the integrity, principle and decency to use them honorably. Then when we look in the mirror as a nation, we will see, once again, the reflection of the United States of America.

2008西历新年卡

十二月 29, 2007

这是新制作的卡片,图案由程式所generate出来:

有兴趣使用这卡片的朋友:

NYTimes: After Benazir Bhutto

十二月 27, 2007

nucifera: 巴基斯坦的事件在我们这一带铁定不如许多娱乐新闻来得更加火红,但是巴基斯坦的问题绝对值得作为任何回教国家的一面镜子——包括马来西亚。

这里是巴基斯坦的一点背景。穆沙拉夫总统,既是国家的领导人也是军队的大头头,这使得他成了名副其实的专制领袖。他不是什么善男信女,渴望这美丽的宝座能够永远坐下去。即便如此,美国政府还是甘愿花钱支助他,原因无他,主要因为他肯听话,使得巴基斯坦是美国作为反恐战争中非常有重要的一个基地和成员。

但是好景不长在。

近来巴基斯坦纷乱的起源可以简略地归结到这么的一个事件上,那时,穆沙拉夫除去了一个公正的法官。出乎穆沙拉夫意料的,民众对此反应非常激烈。美国的处境也因此变得非常尴尬。然而,美国还是需要这位听话的总统,尽管他接下来引发了非常要不得暴乱和暗杀活动。美国为此坚持巴基斯坦必须进行真正的下一届的选举。

这就促成了后来贝纳姬的回国。

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Editorial
Published: December 28, 2007

Benazir Bhutto was a flawed and undeniably courageous leader. Her return to Pakistan two months ago raised hopes that her country might find its way toward democracy and stability. Her assassination on Thursday is yet one more horrifying reminder of how far Pakistan is from both — and how close it is to the brink.

Ms. Bhutto’s death leaves the Bush administration with no visible strategy for extricating Pakistan from its crisis or rooting out Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which have made the country their most important rear base.

Betting America’s security (and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal) on an unaccountable military dictator, President Pervez Musharraf, did not work. Betting it on a back-room alliance between that dictator and Ms. Bhutto, who had hoped to win a third term as prime minister next month, is no longer possible.

That leaves Mr. Bush with the principled, if unfamiliar, option of using American prestige and resources to fortify Pakistan’s badly battered democratic institutions. There is no time to waste.

With next month’s parliamentary elections already scrambled, Washington must now call for new ground rules to assure a truly democratic vote.

That means a relatively brief delay to allow Ms. Bhutto’s party, probably the country’s largest, to choose a new candidate for prime minister and mount an abbreviated campaign. Washington must also demand that Pakistan’s other main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, be allowed to run. And it must insist that Mr. Musharraf reinstate the impartial Supreme Court judges he fired last month in order to block them from overturning his rigged election.

Mr. Musharraf is stubborn. Washington will need to send the same message to Pakistan’s military leaders, perhaps the ex-general’s only remaining backers.

Ms. Bhutto and her father and political mentor, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, were democratic, but flawed political leaders – imperious, indifferent to human rights and, in her case, tolerant of gross corruption among close associates. The father was deposed by a military coup and then hanged. The daughter was twice elected and twice deposed. But both had one undeniable asset: electoral legitimacy — legitimacy that the generals and the Islamic extremists could only seek to destroy or, in Mr. Musharraf’s case, hope to borrow.

The Bush administration has to rethink more than just its unhealthy and destructive enabling of Mr. Musharraf. It also must take a hard look at the billions it is funneling to Pakistan’s military. That money is supposed to finance the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But, as a report in The Times on Monday showed, Washington was lax in monitoring, and much of it has gone to projects that interested Mr. Musharraf and the Pakistani Army more, like building weapons systems aimed at America’s ally, India. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda and the Taliban continued, and continue, to make alarming gains.

The United States cannot afford to have Pakistan unravel any further. The lesson of the last six years is that authoritarian leaders — even ones backed with billions in American aid — don’t make reliable allies, and they can’t guarantee security.

American policy must now be directed at building a strong democracy in Pakistan that has the respect and the support of its own citizens and the will and the means to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Pakistan is a nation of 165 million people. The days of Washington mortgaging its interests there to one or two individuals must finally come to an end.

NYTimes: Happiness for Sale

十二月 26, 2007

By EDUARDO PORTER
Published: December 26, 2007

If money can’t buy true love, at least it can pay for a nice dinner out. But what about happiness? In an editorial observer last month, I noted that many scholars studying happiness agree that it cannot: growing incomes don’t make happiness grow. Now there is some evidence that this time-honored conclusion could be wrong. Recent analyses of polling data on life satisfaction across the world suggest that countries may indeed become happier as they grow richer.

The economic growth-doesn’t-buy-happiness argument is also known as the Easterlin paradox for the economist Richard A. Easterlin. In 1974, he published research suggesting that despite stellar economic growth in the United States since World War II, “higher income was not systematically accompanied by greater happiness.” Mr. Easterlin later found that people were no happier in Japan in 1987 than in 1958, despite a fivefold jump in incomes. Other economists found similar patterns in other countries.

This conclusion confounds a core economic belief that underpins a lot of policy-making around the world: that economic growth is an effective way to increase well-being. Some economists and psychologists suggest this thinking, unexpected if not downright ungrateful, might be due to adaptation. As people become richer, they raise their expectations — becoming envious of a new, richer crowd.

Recent research, however, suggests there might not be a paradox after all. Using many polls that span several decades, Justin Wolfers, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, found that in many countries, growing incomes have been accompanied by increasing happiness.

This is not to say the hippies were wrong. Many other factors, including how we use our time and the quality of our relationships, affect happiness. Moreover, the correlation between rising incomes and increasing happiness is much more striking in poor countries — where even a marginal improvement in the quality of life stands out — than in rich ones.

Any challenge to the Easterlin paradox is likely to be disappointing to those of us in search of scientific backing for the urge to drop out of the rat race and play the guitar. It is reassuring to find that effective policies to improve economic growth and boost the incomes of the less fortunate would make their lives not only easier but apparently also happier.

LATimes: Give till it helps

十二月 25, 2007

nucifera:施比受更有福如今开始有了不少的科学证明,这篇文章做了非常不错的总结。若是想看中文的简化版本,可以看这里:

http://www.zaobao.com/special/newspapers/2007/12/taiwan071224b.shtml

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By Karen Ravn, Special to The Times
December 24, 2007

WE’VE pored over catalogs, spent hours online, made umpteen harrowing treks to the mall.

We’ve hustled and bustled, been hassled and harried, shopped till we dropped (and dropped lots of cash too). We’re stressed as heck, and we’re not going to take this any more — until next year.

If giving Christmas presents is so hard, why do people do it?

Evidence is piling up (like those packages under the tree) that human beings were born to give. Their very physiology makes them do it.

Studies show that when a person gives money to a stranger or a charity, the “rewards area” of the brain gets busy. It’s the same area that goes to town when the person eats a sugar cookie or finds a parking place at the mall or receives a gift of money from Ed McMahon.

Not only that, but generous people also seem to live longer and stay healthier than those “bah humbug” types, according to population studies. It’s even possible (scientists are busy testing this concept now) that the more Christmas spirit shoppers have, the fewer bugs they’re likely to catch during the holidays.

Gift-giving, in a nutshell, seems to improve people’s health and longevity. It lifts their mood and bolsters their ego. And perhaps most important of all, it makes people beholden to one another, so that when their goose is cooked, they have friends to save their skin. Or so goes the evolutionary theory.

“The most important thing I learned in writing a whole book about human relationships is ‘give more gifts,’ ” says evolutionary biologist Jay Phelan, a life sciences academic administrator at UCLA and co-author of “Mean Genes: From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts.”

A gift doesn’t have to be expensive, studies show. It really is the thought that counts — well, the thought and the pretty wrapping.

But just try telling that to Joel Waldfogel.

“People are best suited to make choices for themselves,” says Waldfogel, a professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. The lesson from his own research? Don’t give gifts. Give money.

“How is gift-giving as a way of choosing stuff for me?” he says. “The answer is — it’s a crummy way.”

Giving to live

Quite apart from the risk of receiving a lime-green polyester pant suit, gift-giving may seem foolish from an evolutionary, struggle-for-survival perspective. By hoarding resources (cashmere sweaters, pricey perfume, peppermint bark) instead of giving them to others you’d probably have more luck passing on your genes.

But survival is also helped by generosity of the one-good-turn-deserves-another variety, or the one-nice-gift-deserves-another-of-approximately-equal-value-and-thoughtfulness variety.

That’s called “reciprocal altruism,” and it has inspired many a mad dash to the mall.

“It’s a way of buffering yourself from an uncertain future,” Phelan says. “You never know when you might need help. When you have friends, you’re much better off.”

Because reciprocal altruism proved valuable for survival purposes, people evolved to feel a basic inclination to be generous and helpful — and to feel good about it, according to several recent studies

For example, a report published in the November issue of the Public Library of Science’s journal, ONE, showed that the inclination to be generous is influenced by the hormone oxytocin. Give people extra doses of oxytocin, and they’ll be much more generous than they would be otherwise.

In the study, 68 male subjects were randomly assigned to pairs and then played games in which player A was given $10 and told to offer some of it to player B. If B accepted A’s offer, both of them would get to keep their shares of the money. But if B rejected the offer, they were both Scrooged, so to speak.

Clearly, it was in A’s self-interest to make the lowest offer he thought B would accept. But players who had inhaled a dose of oxytocin offered, on average, 21% more ($4.86) than players who had been given a placebo ($4.03).

Oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is naturally stimulated by such things as touching or feeling trusted, and it has been shown to facilitate various social interactions, including the bonding of mother to child.

“I think of oxytocin as social glue,” says the study’s lead author Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont. “Oxytocin facilitates living in groups.”

The scientists conducted other experiments and found that oxytocin doses increased generosity 80%.

A second study, published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also may have linked oxytocin to cheerful giving. The research, which investigated charitable giving, found it really may be better to give than to receive.

Using a brain-scanning technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers led by Dr. Jorge Moll, head of the Neuroscience Unit-LABS-D’Or Network in Rio de Janeiro observed brain activity in 19 subjects while they made anonymous decisions to accept money for themselves or to make a charitable donation.

If subjects always decided in favor of their own monetary self-interest, they would walk off with $128.

But the amount they would get decreased every time they chose to make a donation in support of, or opposition to, one of a wide range of causes (including issues of abortion, the death penalty and nuclear power).

On average, subjects gave away $51 — 40% of their possible payment.

When a subject decided to take some money, brain activity increased in several regions known collectively as the mesolimbic rewards area. But when a subject decided to donate some money, activity there increased even more, implying that giving is rewarding.

Donating money also led to increased activity in another part of the brain known as the subgenual cortex, a region that abounds in receptors for oxytocin, supporting the notion that giving is an important social act. Taking money, an act that doesn’t especially lubricate social interactions, left the subgenual cortex unfazed.

In this study and the oxytocin study, generous subjects paid a price — leaving with less money than those who gave less money away. But the studies seem to imply that the rewards of being generous — up to a point, at least — outweighed the cost.

Of course, everyone produces oxytocin and has a subgenual cortex and a rewards area in the brain. Not surprisingly, “everybody will be altruistic if it’s cheap enough, and nobody will if it costs too much,” says William Harbaugh, professor of economics at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

And yet clearly, some have more Kris Kringle in them than others. What determines where each person draws the line?

Harbaugh led a team of researchers to probe people’s brains and find out. Specifically, they wanted to know if they could predict how altruistic people would be on the basis of activity in the rewards area of the brain.

In a study published in the June issue of Science, 19 female subjects were each given a bank account that started with a balance of $100. The balance went up and down with a series of deposits and withdrawals, half of which the subjects controlled, and half of which were automatic.

While this was going on, researchers tracked the subjects’ rewards area activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging.

The scientists found that nine of the subjects showed more activity in the rewards part of the brain when they received money automatically. (This group was called the “egoist” group.) The other 10 had more activity in the rewards center when money was automatically withdrawn from their accounts and donated to a food bank. (This was the “altruist” group.)

It was the first time researchers had found that nonvoluntary “donations” to a cause can increase activity in the rewards area of the brain, implying that some people may actually like to pay taxes for causes they believe in.

The subjects’ responses to automatic deposits and withdrawals were strongly related to the choices they made when they had a say over how the money was allocated. Altruists donated to the food bank almost twice as often as did egoists — 58% versus 31% of the time. However, rewards area activity was greater for voluntary donations than for automatic ones — very much as if the study had captured the so-called “warm glow” effect, the fuzzy, “I’m-a-good-person” feeling that comes from doing a kind deed.

“Brain activity really does predict how people behave,” says Ulrich Mayr, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and a co-author of the study.

It’s not all in your head

The rewards area of the brain is a little like Santa Claus. It knows if you’ve been bad or good, and if you’ve been good, i.e. if you’ve behaved in ways that evolution has determined to be good for you — it gives you the gift of feeling happy or full or relaxed.

Of course, the rewards area can be tricked. Not everything that makes you feel good is good for you. (Think about eating a pound of fudge or drinking a quart of eggnog.)

But generous behavior may be the real deal. One study, reported in Psychological Science in 2003, found that over a five-year period, people who gave support to others were less likely to die than people who didn’t.

The study, conducted by a team led by Stephanie Brown, professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, looked at 423 older married couples. In interviews from 1987 and 1988, participants were asked if they had given (or received) instrumental support to (or from) friends, neighbors and relatives other than their spouses in the last year and if they had given emotional support to their spouses.

Instrumental support included providing transportation, running errands, going shopping, doing housework and providing child care. Emotional support consisted of making their spouses feel loved and cared for and being willing to listen if their spouses needed to talk.

The researchers then examined the individuals’ answers as well as whether they had died during the course of the study.

Results showed that those who gave instrumental support to others had a reduced mortality rate during the course of the study compared with those who hadn’t given such support and with those who’d received support. Giving emotional support to a spouse also reduced mortality risk.

All in all, just as the earlier study suggested that giving money away can be better than receiving it, this study showed that giving support to others can be better than receiving it.

This study was one of more than 30 reviewed in a May report by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The report’s main findings: Volunteers have lower mortality rates, function at a higher level, physically and cognitively and are less likely to be depressed in later life than people who don’t volunteer.

Older volunteers are likely to receive greater health benefits from volunteering than younger volunteers, and those who volunteer about 100 hours a year are most likely to receive health benefits from volunteering. The study also found that mortality risk and heart disease rates are lower in states with higher volunteer rates.

Studies finding links between altruism and health haven’t determined why altruism is so good for your health, but oxytocin may have a hand in it, Brown suggests. The hormone is known to lower heart rates and blood pressure, promote wound-healing and reduce the effects of stress.

Brown is now conducting an experimental study of Christmas shoppers to see if their attitudes affect how likely they are to get sick over the holidays.

Her team of researchers has been scurrying around malls asking shoppers questions such as: How much do you care about the people you’re shopping for? How good do you feel about the presents you’re buying? How happy do you think recipients will be with your presents?

About a week from now, researchers will call the shoppers back and ask if they stayed well or got sick since last they met.

The hypothesis: Shoppers who really like the people they’re shopping for and are excited about the wonderful presents they’re buying them will stay healthier than shoppers who really don’t know what to get for people they really don’t care that much about.

That is, truly altruistic shoppers will stay healthier than Grinches.

The ‘dead weight’ theory

If Brown’s hypothesis turns out to be true, it may be bad news for the health of Joel Waldfogel of the Wharton School, a highly respected economist and very nice man who every December turns into the Grinch who wrote “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas.”

In 1993, Waldfogel was a professor at Yale and the recipient of one too many preposterous presents. He began taking surveys in his undergraduate classes and confirmed his suspicions: On average, when you exclude sentimental value, the value a recipient places on a gift is less than the gift giver spent on it — at least 10% less, and maybe more.

This, in economic terms, represents a “dead-weight loss,” or a waste of resources.

And because the National Retail Federation predicts that holiday sales will reach nearly $500 billion this year, that would make the dead-weight loss of Christmas 2007 almost $50 billion.

Not everyone buys Waldfogel’s arguments.

A study finding no dead-weight loss — finding instead that gifts create positive value — was published in 1996 in the American Economic Review, the same journal in which Waldfogel’s paper had appeared three years before.

The authors cited several possible reasons gifts might create, not lose, value: A gift could be something the recipient never knew existed or something frivolous the recipient felt guilty about buying, or something the recipient wanted an excuse to enjoy — “It’s a gift!”

They also thought Waldfogel’s idea of trying to separate out sentimental value was hopeless (although they attempted to do it in their study too.)

A couple of years later, two more economists entered the fray. In their report, they tried to quantify how much people really valued the gifts they’d been given by forcing them to auction the gifts.

When faced with the prospect of truly giving up a gift, people put a higher price on it than when asked about it in a survey, the method used by Waldfogel.

Waldfogel is sticking to his guns. In 2002 and 2005, he published two more studies in which he continued to find evidence for a dead-weight loss. He’s also found that some gift givers, insecure about their proficiency in the gift-selection department, are more likely to give cash gifts than more self-confident givers, despite the stigma associated with giving plain old unadulterated money.

Next year he plans to go international. Do gift givers in other countries, he wonders, throw away their money too?

And so the debate rages on, with no peace in sight.

Could gift cards be the answer? Gift cards are sort of like money, but they’re not money. They’re sort of like gifts, but such safe gifts. You can’t get the wrong size, wrong color or wrong style.

OK, you can get the wrong store. And gift cards can get lost. And lose value. And expire. In fact, experts say, nearly $8 billion worth of gift cards went to waste last year.

Gift cards: The new dead-weight loss of Christmas?