Rejoice with the Van Gods

Friday, November 30th, 2007

Rejoice with the Van Gods — to the tune of Heart’s “Barracuda“:

Addendum: I learned a few things about the ad from Duncan’s TV Ad Land:

“We wanted to create an ode to an era when the van was a symbol of cool and marry it to the apex product in the field, the Honda Minivan,” says RPA Art Director Tatum Cardillo. “The spot straddles the fine line of between homage and hilarious as we enter the world of ultimate van art: the airbrushed Nordic Viking God against the thumping track of Heart’s hit song Barracuda.”
“The concept is truly inspiring,” said creative director Jason Cook, “and we embraced the challenge of developing the look and execution of the airbrush come to life working hand-in-hand with the animation team at Titmouse. This effect runs counter to typical direction because most van art is created by non-trained artists and, thus, it had to look rough hewn and great all at the same time.”

Does the current generation of soccer moms look fondly back at 1970s rock and airbrushed van art?

The best movies of 2006

Friday, November 30th, 2007

Roger Ebert shares his list of the best movies of 2006 — yes, 2006:

Yes, I know it’s a year late, but a funny thing happened to me on the way to compiling a list of the best films of 2006. I checked into the hospital in late June 2006 and didn’t get out again until spring of 2007. For a long while, I just didn’t feel like watching movies. Then something revolved within me, and I was engaged in life again.

I came to the terrible realization that I saw none of them in 2006, and I’ve only seen one, The Departed, since then. I’ve been a bad cinephile.

Six Months of Intellectual Anthropology

Friday, November 30th, 2007

Bryan Caplan thinks Tyler Cowen makes a spot-on plea when he asks for six months of intellectual anthropology:

I’d like to propose a new research convention. Anytime a writer or blogger talks about what The Right or The Left (or some subset thereof) really wants or means, I’d like them to list their personal anthropological experience with the subjects under consideration.

Caplan, who wrote The Myth of the Rational Voter, has some recent experience with this notion:

Since the publication of my book, I’ve been meeting a much wider range of people. I’ve talked to an elite Republican book club, a room full of vaguely Marxist academics at the New School, retirees, Cato, Heritage, a conference of largely leftist philosophers, the State Department (!), the Yale law school, DC economists, and UVA social scientists. I’ve also spoken on a wide range of radio shows and podcasts, left and right.

What have I learned? Primarily, I’m more convinced than ever that virtually everyone is sincere. The legions of people who imagine that their opponents secretly agree with them are utterly deluded. Even when you’ve got undeniable facts on your side, your opponents probably think that those facts don’t matter; you’re missing the deeper picture.

The lesson I draw: Sincerity is greatly overrated. It’s an easy and widely distributed virtue. So what is in short supply? Common-sense. Literalism. Staying calm. Listening. Sticking to the point. Accepting and working through hypotheticals.

If you’ve got these, I’d like to meet your tribe.

Lessons from India in gender politics

Friday, November 30th, 2007

Ray Fisman of Slate shares some lessons from India in gender politics:

Rural Indians are learning firsthand what it’s like to live under female leadership as a result of a 1991 law that restricted one-third of village council elections to female candidates. The villagers’ experiences are analyzed by economists Esther Duflo and Petia Topalova in a recent unpublished study. Using opinion surveys and data on local “public goods” — like schools, roads, and water pumps — Duflo and Topalova find that the villages headed by women invested in more services that benefited the entire community than did those with gender-neutral elections, nearly all of which were won by men. But as the opinion polls showed, for all their effectiveness, the women’s governance was literally a thankless effort, with the new leaders getting lower approval ratings than their male counterparts.

Of course, any time you bring new people in from the outside, you should expect them to act differently from the insiders who are beholden to entrenched special interest groups.

Overweight? Standing May Be Solution

Friday, November 30th, 2007

Overweight? Standing May Be Solution:

Hamilton recruited a few laboratory rats and pigs, as well as about a dozen human volunteers, including himself, to learn more about the physiological effect of sitting. The lab animals laid the foundation for the research in two different experiments. The animals were injected with a small amount of fat that contained a radioactive tracer so the researchers could determine what happened to the fat.

“What’s the fate of that fat?” Hamilton asked during a telephone interview. “Is it burned up by the muscle?”

The radioactive tracer revealed that when the animals were sitting down, the fat did not remain in the blood vessels that pass through the muscles, where it could be burned. Instead, it was captured by the adipose tissue, a type of connective tissue where globules of fat are stored. That tissue is found around organs such as the kidneys, so it’s not really where you want to see the fat end up.

The researchers also took a close look at a fat-splitting enzyme, called lipase, that is critical to the body’s ability to break down fat.

After the animals remained seated for several hours, “the enzyme was suppressed down to 10 percent of normal,” Hamilton said. “It’s just virtually shut off.”

The results from the animal studies were very convincing, he said, and human experiments were just as compelling. The researchers injected a small needle into the muscles of the human volunteers and extracted a small sample for biopsy. Once again, the enzyme was suppressed while the humans remained seated. That resulted in retention of fat, and it also resulted in lower HDL, the “good cholesterol,” and an overall reduction in the metabolic rate.

Charles Munger on Increasing Price to Increase Sales

Friday, November 30th, 2007

Berkshire Hathaway’s Charles Munger gave a speech at UCSB in 2003 that was chock-full of thought-provoking bits, like this:

My fifth criticism is there is too little synthesis in economics. Not only with matter outside traditional economics, but also within economics. I have posed at two different business schools the following problem. I say, “You have studied supply and demand curves. You have learned that when you raise the price, ordinarily the volume you can sell goes down, and when you reduce the price, the volume you can sell goes up. Is that right? That’s what you’ve learned?” They all nod yes. And I say, “Now tell me several instances when, if you want the physical volume to go up, the correct answer is to increase the price?” And there’s this long and ghastly pause. And finally, in each of the two business schools in which I’ve tried this, maybe one person in fifty could name one instance. They come up with the idea that occasionally a higher price acts as a rough indicator of quality and thereby increases sales volumes.

This happened in the case of my friend Bill Ballhaus. When he was head of Beckman Instruments it produced some complicated product where if it failed it caused enormous damage to the purchaser. It wasn’t a pump at the bottom of an oil well, but that’s a good mental example. And he realized that the reason this thing was selling so poorly, even though it was better than anybody else’s product, was because it was priced lower. It made people think it was a low quality gizmo. So he raised the price by 20% or so and the volume went way up.

But only one in fifty can come up with this sole instance in a modern business school — one of the business schools being Stanford, which is hard to get into. And nobody has yet come up with the main answer that I like. Suppose you raise that price, and use the extra money to bribe the other guy’s purchasing agent? (Laughter). Is that going to work? And are there functional equivalents in economics — microeconomics — of raising the price and using the extra sales proceeds to drive sales higher? And of course there are zillion, once you’ve made that mental jump. It’s so simple.

One of the most extreme examples is in the investment management field. Suppose you’re the manager of a mutual fund, and you want to sell more. People commonly come to the following answer: You raise the commissions, which of course reduces the number of units of real investments delivered to the ultimate buyer, so you’re increasing the price per unit of real investment that you’re selling the ultimate customer. And you’re using that extra commission to bribe the customer’s purchasing agent. You’re bribing the broker to betray his client and put the client’s money into the high-commission product. This has worked to produce at least a trillion dollars of mutual fund sales.

This tactic is not an attractive part of human nature, and I want to tell you that I pretty completely avoided it in my life. I don’t think it’s necessary to spend your life selling what you would never buy. Even though it’s legal, I don’t think it’s a good idea.

(Hat tip to the Photon Courier.)

The best movies of 2006

Friday, November 30th, 2007

Roger Ebert shares his list of the best movies of 2006 — yes, 2006:

Yes, I know it’s a year late, but a funny thing happened to me on the way to compiling a list of the best films of 2006. I checked into the hospital in late June 2006 and didn’t get out again until spring of 2007. For a long while, I just didn’t feel like watching movies. Then something revolved within me, and I was engaged in life again.

I came to the terrible realization that I saw none of them in 2006, and I’ve only seen one, The Departed, since then. I’ve been a bad cinephile.

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids

Friday, November 30th, 2007

I’ve discussed before the power and peril of praising your kids. Now Carol Dweck writes about her work in Scientific American and explains the secret to raising smart kids — which is not praising their talent but their effort:

I first began to investigate the underpinnings of human motivation—and how people persevere after setbacks—as a psychology graduate student at Yale University in the 1960s. Animal experiments by psychologists Martin Seligman, Steven Maier and Richard Solomon of the University of Pennsylvania had shown that after repeated failures, most animals conclude that a situation is hopeless and beyond their control. After such an experience, the researchers found, an animal often remains passive even when it can affect change—a state they called learned helplessness.

People can learn to be helpless, too, but not everyone reacts to setbacks this way. I wondered: Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed.

In particular, attributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame. In 1972, when I taught a group of elementary and middle school children who displayed helpless behavior in school that a lack of effort (rather than lack of ability) led to their mistakes on math problems, the kids learned to keep trying when the problems got tough. They also solved many of the problems even in the face of difficulty. Another group of helpless children who were simply rewarded for their success on easy problems did not improve their ability to solve hard math problems. These experiments were an early indication that a focus on effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success.

Subsequent studies revealed that the most persistent students do not ruminate about their own failure much at all but instead think of mistakes as problems to be solved. At the University of Illinois in the 1970s I, along with my then graduate student Carol Diener, asked 60 fifth graders to think out loud while they solved very difficult pattern-recognition problems. Some students reacted defensively to mistakes, denigrating their skills with comments such as “I never did have a good rememory,” and their problem-solving strategies deteriorated.

Others, meanwhile, focused on fixing errors and honing their skills. One advised himself: “I should slow down and try to figure this out.” Two schoolchildren were particularly inspiring. One, in the wake of difficulty, pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips and said, “I love a challenge!” The other, also confronting the hard problems, looked up at the experimenter and approvingly declared, “I was hoping this would be informative!” Predictably, the students with this attitude outperformed their cohorts in these studies.

Several years later I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Like Jonathan, such children shun effort in the belief that having to work hard means they are dumb.

The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.

We validated these expectations in a study published in early 2007. Psychologists Lisa Blackwell of Columbia University and Kali H. Trzes­niewski of Stanford University and I monitored 373 students for two years during the transition to junior high school, when the work gets more difficult and the grading more stringent, to determine how their mind-sets might affect their math grades. At the beginning of seventh grade, we assessed the students’ mind-sets by asking them to agree or disagree with statements such as “Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t really change.” We then assessed their beliefs about other aspects of learning and looked to see what happened to their grades.

As we had predicted, the students with a growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades. In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it. They understood that even geniuses have to work hard for their great accomplishments. Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.

The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.

Such divergent outlooks had a dramatic impact on performance. At the start of junior high, the math achievement test scores of the students with a growth mind-set were comparable to those of students who displayed a fixed mind-set. But as the work became more difficult, the students with a growth mind-set showed greater persistence. As a result, their math grades overtook those of the other students by the end of the first semester—and the gap between the two groups continued to widen during the two years we followed them.

Gray Water Package Units from Brac Systems

Friday, November 30th, 2007

I was just discussing a “gray water” solution for guilt-free flushing. Now Lloyd Alter, over at Treehugger, is wondering how long until we’re all using Gray Water Package Units from Brac Systems — or something similar:

The Brac system includes “state-of-the-art components that filter used water from your shower, bath and laundry(*1), and then reuses it for your toilet’s evacuation system. The recycled water, which we will refer to as grey water, is strictly used for your toilet or for irrigation, and cannot get in your drinking-water system.

Foreign particles are filtered, so it is like using normal water, but without having to pay again, while also doing something effective for the environment. Furthermore, once integrated into your existing plumbing, the system operates seamlessly, so the only difference you will notice is on your water bill.”

I asked Chris why they did not include the washing machine as a recommended connection; he said that the sinks and showers generally produce enough water to run the toilets and any excess will just go to the overflow.

I mentioned that in Atlanta there was a big need for landscaping water; he said that if that was the case it would make sense to have the biggest tank and connect the washer to it. He noted that you can also connect your downspouts to it and collect rainwater.

I’m not sure the mass market is going to run out to spend $2,000 to save a little water — especially if water prices don’t go up to reflect low supply and high demand.

How to Create "House Rules"

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

Scott Meyer, in his Basic Instructions comic, explains How to Create “House Rules” for games.

Reading the 2nd Amendment

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Shannon Loves notes that when Reading the 2nd Amendment we should at least be aware of what the language used meant at the time:

The 2nd Amendment in its original form reads:
A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.

Today, “regulated” most commonly means, “placed under government oversight.” Militia implies the civilian reserve of the national military. “security of a free state” means protecting the national government from external attack. “The people” means all citizens considered in concert. Given these modern definitions and shadings, a naive reader might interpret the 2nd Amendment as stating:

A military reserve, supervised by the national government, being necessary to protect the State from external attack, the right of the people collectively to maintain and use weapons shall not be infringed.

In 1792, “regulated” as applied to military matters contained no connotation of political oversight or control. Instead, it meant trained and organized. In a time when soldiers fought by moving in large, coordinated formations, order meant everything to military effectiveness. They used “regular” in the sense we use when we speak of of a regular angle or polygon. “Regulated” military units were organized into consistent, interchangeable units that made battlefield information management more efficient. “Unregulated” military units were just unorganized groups of men that could not fight as effectively as did “regulated” units. The use of “regulated” versus “unregulated” held no connotations of political control at all but merely described the units’ state of military organization.

With the passage of time, armies raised by centralized governments proved more organized than those raised by citizens. The phrase “regular army” evolved to mean one controlled by a centralized authority and “irregular army” evolved to mean an ad hoc one. The original use of the words to describe the organizational state of the army at any given time disappeared.

In 1792, “militia” held no connotations of a military reserve. Instead, the term applied entirely to self-organized groups of citizens operating out of their own shared authority. A “militia” differed from an “army” in that a central executive such as a monarch raised armies, but when citizens acted themselves they raised “militias”. Nothing in the use of the word “militia” prior to the 20th Century implied any degree of state sanction. In both colonial and frontier times, groups of citizens raised “militias” on their own authority at any time of their choosing and organized them as they saw fit. Prior to the Civil War, most campaigns against Native Americans were carried out by militias organized in frontier communities. Indeed, for people of the founders’ generation, no current American military organization would qualify as a “militia”. State executives were given the authority to call out the militia but the inherent moral and legal authority to form a “militia” rested with the civilian population.

In 1792, “free state” did not mean a country free from external attack but rather a non-despotic government.

In 1792, “right” meant an inherent ability instead of the modern sense of “granted privilege” or “entitlement.”

In 1792, “the people” definitely meant “each individual citizen.”

In 1792, “keep and bear” meant “possess and use.”

In 1792, “arms” meant “weapons.”

So, if we update the language of the 2nd amendment into its modern equivalents we get something like:

Well trained and coordinated groups [of] citizens organized for military action being necessary to prevent the devolution of governments into despotism, the inalienable ability of individual citizens to possess and use weapons shall not be abridged.

James Bennett follows up with a comment on the times:

We should also remember that the Founders were referencing relatively recent historical experiences — ones that had overshadowed political discourse throughout their lives. If any American state were t attempt secession tday, we would view that event through the lens of the American Civil War even though that event was almost 160 years ago. So the founders viewed these issues through the lens of the Glorious Revolution, which was only a century previous — they had known witnesses to those events in heir childhoods. And the English Civil War was no more distant to them than the American one is to us today. To them, the threat to the “security of a free state” was exemplified by the Stuarts trying to disarm citizens’ militias in the years before 1688, or the professional New Model Army marching into Parliament to dismiss the members they disliked by force of arms. The Second Amendment is a real reaction to real-world events — and it specifically endorses the fundamental concept of an armed citizenry.

A Thirst for Change

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

A few years ago, Kara and Theo Goldin quit their jobs — she was a VP at AOL, and he was an IP lawyer at Netscape — to renovate their house and raise their young children. Then they realized they had A Thirst for Change:

In May, 2005, the Goldins launched Hint, a naturally flavored bottled water made without sweeteners or preservatives. Kara is the chief executive; Theo the chief operating officer. This year they expect revenues of $3 million to $4 million, and next year three times as much. The water is sold in several grocery chains, including Whole Foods Market, Stop & Shop, and Ralphs, as well as small stores. And, because Cherise McVicar, Walt Disney’s senior vice-president for national promotions, happened to try (and like) a sample of Hint, the Goldins now have an arrangement to put Disney’ characters on their bottles.

For the Goldins, the years between leaving their familiar world and entering unknown terrain were filled with questioning, sussing out possibilities, then a moment of recognition followed by months of experimenting, gathering info, listening, cold-calling, and being called naive. Then they just plunged in.
Kara began paying more attention to the concerns of health-conscious mothers. “I was looking for the low-hanging fruit,” she says. Then there it was: the sugared-up juice box. “I always wondered why there wasn’t another option.” There is, of course. It’s called water. But Kara figured kids (and everyone else) wanted a drink with flavor. At spas, she had been served water with fruit in it, and realized there was something to that: “I thought someone should put it in a bottle.”

Kara began testing fruit combinations on her family and friends while trying to squeeze information from any people in the beverage business who would talk to her. They were pretty skeptical that someone without any experience could succeed with the most difficult of drinks to produce and sell: one that was unsweetened and made without preservatives.

When she put together a business plan in 2004, she started to see what the skeptics were getting at. “I had no resources for labels, bottles, bottlers,” she says. “I had only halfway listened to their point about how hard it is to get shelf space [in stores].” The only thing that wasn’t a problem was money: She and Theo financed the company themselves initially. Now, after additional investments from friends and family, they own more than 90%.

Theo began devoting more time to Hint about six months before the May, 2005, launch — in two stores, one in Marin County, Calif., and the other in Manhattan. They hadn’t signed up any distributors yet, so they drove the first delivery to the local gourmet market (one case of each flavor — apple, cucumber, lime, and tangerine).

A few months later, they got their first big break. At the Fancy Food Show in New York, the San Francisco buyer for Whole Foods expressed interest in carrying Hint. He asked if the Goldins were with United Natural Foods (UNFI ). They had no idea what that was. Turns out it is the largest natural food distributor in the U.S. With the promise of Whole Foods as a customer, they worked out an agreement.

Getting distributors is what it’s all about in the beverage business. And for those who work on other things besides health foods, an unsweetened drink retailing for $1.69-$3.00 is a hard sell. The Goldins did, though, just manage to get in with an important network of independent distributors. “They have surprised a lot of people,” says Gerry Khermouch, the editor of Beverage Business Insights. “They’re selling overpriced, unsweetened water with a slight hint of fruit. They’re the niche of the niche.”

Now the Goldins have begun to grapple with some of the compromises they made early on. They’ve improved the production process so that Hint has a shelf life of 12 months instead of four. They’ve changed their 16-ounce bottle, which was originally an inch shorter than others on the shelves and looked puny by comparison. Their new one is a standard eight inches tall.

They’ve also figured out a few things about the flavors. Apple and pear are too difficult to work with, so they’re on hiatus. To develop mango grapefruit took 15 tries with three different consultants over an entire year. Peppermint, though, took only two attempts.

Next year they hope to raise $3 million from an investor who might help expand their distribution and sales. “We learned over and over again in the tech world that it’s not really about the idea. It’s about how well and how fast you execute the idea,” says Theo.

It’s not really about the idea. It’s about how well and how fast you execute the idea. I guess that’s why I should have executed this idea a few years back.

Robert Full Explains How To Design A Foot

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

Robert Full explains how to design a foot that is inspired by nature:

Biologist Robert Full shares his fascination with spiny cockroach legs that allow them to scuttle at full speed across loose mesh and gecko feet that have billions of nano-bristles to run straight up walls. His talk, complete with wonderful slow-mo video of cockroach, crab and gecko gaits, explains his goal of creating the perfect robotic “distributed foot.”

Bringing zeppelins down to Earth

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

In Bringing zeppelins down to Earth, Michael R. of Witigonen holds a Q&A session with airship engineer Ron Hochstetler, who makes the following points:

  • Weather has always been a huge operational challenge for airships, which can’t simply fly above bad weather, the way heavier-than-air airplanes can; they have to fly around it.

    Traditionally, the airship pilot and flight crew had to study weather maps and carefully plot out their best-guess route for avoiding head winds. Now, computers can plot intricate weather-optimized routes that take into account both unwanted head winds and helpful tail winds.

  • Non-rigid airship designs — blimps — are cheaper and easier to build than rigid designs — zeppelins — but they have a size limit based on the strength of the envelope fabric. With stronger fabrics, we can now build non-rigid airships as big as the old rigid airships from back in the day.
  • Fully buoyant airships, as they slow down to land, behave more and more like soap bubbles, at the mercy of the wind. One way to side-step this problem is to make the ship heavier. A “hybrid” airship obtains just 80 percent of its lift from helium and the remainder from dynamic lift, like an airplane.
  • Airships, because they travel so slowly compared to jets, can have enormous payload volumes. In most transport aircraft you run out of payload volume long before you ever reach the payload weight limit of the aircraft.
  • Airships require less infrastructure than jets, trains, etc. — they don’t require a massive modern airport at each end — which makes them (a) flexible and (b) ideal for the less-developed world.

Taking Marriage Private

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

Stephanie Coontz, professor of history at Evergreen State College and author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, discusses Taking Marriage Private:

Why do people — gay or straight — need the state’s permission to marry? For most of Western history, they didn’t, because marriage was a private contract between two families. The parents’ agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.

For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple’s wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows — even out alone by the haystack — the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married.

In 1215, the church decreed that a “licit” marriage must take place in church. But people who married illictly had the same rights and obligations as a couple married in church: their children were legitimate; the wife had the same inheritance rights; the couple was subject to the same prohibitions against divorce.

Not until the 16th century did European states begin to require that marriages be performed under legal auspices. In part, this was an attempt to prevent unions between young adults whose parents opposed their match.

The American colonies officially required marriages to be registered, but until the mid-19th century, state supreme courts routinely ruled that public cohabitation was sufficient evidence of a valid marriage. By the later part of that century, however, the United States began to nullify common-law marriages and exert more control over who was allowed to marry.

By the 1920s, 38 states prohibited whites from marrying blacks, “mulattos,” Japanese, Chinese, Indians, “Mongolians,” “Malays” or Filipinos. Twelve states would not issue a marriage license if one partner was a drunk, an addict or a “mental defect.” Eighteen states set barriers to remarriage after divorce.

In the mid-20th century, governments began to get out of the business of deciding which couples were “fit” to marry. Courts invalidated laws against interracial marriage, struck down other barriers and even extended marriage rights to prisoners.

But governments began relying on marriage licenses for a new purpose: as a way of distributing resources to dependents. The Social Security Act provided survivors’ benefits with proof of marriage. Employers used marital status to determine whether they would provide health insurance or pension benefits to employees’ dependents. Courts and hospitals required a marriage license before granting couples the privilege of inheriting from each other or receiving medical information.

In the 1950s, using the marriage license as a shorthand way to distribute benefits and legal privileges made some sense because almost all adults were married. Cohabitation and single parenthood by choice were very rare.

Today, however, possession of a marriage license tells us little about people’s interpersonal responsibilities. Half of all Americans aged 25 to 29 are unmarried, and many of them already have incurred obligations as partners, parents or both. Almost 40 percent of America’s children are born to unmarried parents. Meanwhile, many legally married people are in remarriages where their obligations are spread among several households.

Using the existence of a marriage license to determine when the state should protect interpersonal relationships is increasingly impractical. Society has already recognized this when it comes to children, who can no longer be denied inheritance rights, parental support or legal standing because their parents are not married.

As Nancy Polikoff, an American University law professor, argues, the marriage license no longer draws reasonable dividing lines regarding which adult obligations and rights merit state protection. A woman married to a man for just nine months gets Social Security survivor’s benefits when he dies. But a woman living for 19 years with a man to whom she isn’t married is left without government support, even if her presence helped him hold down a full-time job and pay Social Security taxes. A newly married wife or husband can take leave from work to care for a spouse, or sue for a partner’s wrongful death. But unmarried couples typically cannot, no matter how long they have pooled their resources and how faithfully they have kept their commitments.

Possession of a marriage license is no longer the chief determinant of which obligations a couple must keep, either to their children or to each other. But it still determines which obligations a couple can keep — who gets hospital visitation rights, family leave, health care and survivor’s benefits. This may serve the purpose of some moralists. But it doesn’t serve the public interest of helping individuals meet their care-giving commitments.

Perhaps it’s time to revert to a much older marital tradition. Let churches decide which marriages they deem “licit.” But let couples — gay or straight — decide if they want the legal protections and obligations of a committed relationship.