Sunday, December 11, 2005

Chronicle Column #2 and Msg from Steve Levitt

My second Chronicle of Higher Education column has been posted:
Trusting the system

Not as controversial perhaps as my first one, so not as much bruhaha (I still remember that word showing up on a 7th grade vocabulary list). I did recently get this unsolicited e-mail from Steve Levitt in regard to the first column:
Don't like the term Freakonomics, eh?

Then don't bother sending your packet to U of C.

Just kidding.

I'm not even involved with junior recruiting this year.

Steve
To which my reply was:
Yeah, actually my next column starts with an apology for the first one, analyzed using the model from my job market paper.

I have a second paper on fads and fashion that--I just recently realized--happens to explain why you used to be my (academic) hero until the Clark Medal and the book made you too well-known and popular, so that I now have to adjust my tastes to someone lesser known with more signal value.

When I submitted that column though, I never expected it to be published, or for it to be so widely read. It surprised and mortified me.

I am sorry about any offense, though I stand by my claim that the term Freakonomics is horrid. Though for a brief second, I did consider, for want of a better term, listing it on my CV as a field.

Ben

Monday, December 05, 2005

cafe musings of the college bound

I was sitting in a little French bakery, La Douce France, sipping espresso and enjoying a blackberry tart, with a copy of the economist, my ipod for the moment turned off from Death Cab for Cutie, to enjoy the sound of french easy listening christmasy music, the chattering grey-haired ladies-who-lunch gabbing in Spanish, and two twin indian girls, soliciting a well-heeled elderly gentleman for a college recommendation.

That caught my attention. The well-practiced, college interview speech, the focused pre-meds-to-be with already the perfectly crafted resume, the appropriate extra-curriculars, the excitement about diverse knoweldge, but still the early laser focus on medicine, in these high school seniors. Exciting times. It is a process that I still read about avidly when articles show up in Time or the New York Times. Probably because, I, like those girls, devoted a huge amount of effort and mental faculties to the process. Though maybe I will still write that paper on education some day.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Economics TV Show

A letter sent to the radio show hosts
So I just listened to a radio podcast on “The mysterious equation 14” and I have to say that the piece dates you in two big ways.

First of all, culturally, economics is still misunderstood, but no longer quite reviled. I am about to finish my PhD in economics, and when I tell people on airplanes, blind dates, etc. that I am an economist, there are only two possible responses: “So you want to be Alan Greenspan?” or “Do you have any stock tips?” So in today’s post-stockmarket bubble age where Greenspan is subject to hero worship, economics is misunderstood, but not so much boring anymore.

Also, as for a television show about economics, one actually exists, and is doing surprisingly well. The CBS show Numb3rs is in its second season and is one of the highest rated show in its timeslot (albeit Friday night, when only dorks are watching TV) and it is a standard cop/detective show, except the main character is a mathematician who solves crime by using math to predict human behavior. Basically, an economist. Most episodes use standard economic tools: game theory, Bayesian analysis, statistical regression, regression to the mean, social networks etc. I just wish people would understand this is not pure fantasy, and actual economists do this kind of thing all the time. I dream that maybe young people will be turned onto math and eventually economics by it.

The second way the piece dates you though is your economic analysis. So while I am perhaps one of the most neo-classically minded of my peers (my advisor is a Chicago school diehard), it seems that most economics of the past 30 years has been focused on identifying examples when trade is not beneficial, win-win, perhaps because as you say, the win-win situation is boring.

So to the first order you are perfectly right, markets work. However, arguably, in the cases you mention, the second order effects that cause markets to fail may come to dominate. Also, our economy seems to get most of the first order things right already, so it makes sense for people to focus on the second order effects.

Take your examples. The Toyota commercial does represent mutually beneficial exchange, but it also represents externalities, it represents preference shifts (which economics does not have a good handle on) which may be bad for society though welfare theory cannot handle it.

The idea that a company might not try to suppress the invention of a durable fabric in that Alec Guiness film is like that pernicious urban myth of the oil cartel conspiracy to squelch renewable energy. But still there are plenty of examples of planned obsolescence, of HP spending money to make their printers slower, or IO theory that shows that a firm makes more money renting than from selling, and thus there are potential welfare losses from such scenarios. Not to mention all the questions of innovation and pricing of information.

And finally, there may be quite rational reasons for strikes, that depend on incomplete information, though admittedly, the theory has yet to be come up with a definitive model of two person bargaining that does have delay.

Anyway, thanks for provoking some interesting thoughts on my morning jog.

--
http://www.benho.org

Friday, November 04, 2005

A trip to see the Dalai Lama


Lama, Live at Maples Pavilion
Originally uploaded by benho.
So the Dalai Lama has descended on Stanford with much fanfare and sellout venues. My friend Amita happened to have tickets, and invited me to go, I went, not really expecting much, but more as a chance to see a celebrity. In the end, I was quite impressed.

For whatever reason, I found myself agreeing with everything he said. I had four hypotheses as to why.

  • Chinese/Confucian/Taoist/Buddhist legacy of my upbringing.
  • Just a generally sensible upbringing
  • The New-Agey, post-hippy, political correct, California culture that I live in today
  • The Lama is hitting upon some universal truths.
So today, he outlined a very compelling philosophy, that resonated very well with how I viewed the world.

  • The purpose of all living things is to seek happiness and ease suffering.
  • Humans are different than animals because they have mental faculties and intelligence that facilitate this purpose.
  • We should embrace science for effectively solving much of our material suffering.
  • But material well being is not a sufficient condition for happiness. We should have affection for our fellow man, but at the same time not let affection divide. We should treat all humanity as one body.
  • It is easy to be tempted by negative thoughts. Strive for positive thoughts
  • Have respect for all faiths and systems of beliefs. Be moderate and do not judge.
I agree very much with all of these ideas. However, I then began to wonder about how practical they are. How helpful are they for changing people’s ideas, how I raise my children one day. I added a fifth hypotheses about why they resonated so well, which is they are just so vague and general, so “motherhood and apple pie” that of course you agree, but not necessarily deep. A McDonalds version of spirituality, you can have it your way (or Burger King), easy spirituality. He told us to meditate analytically, but didn’t have direction as to how; it doesn’t matter. There was something nice about 7000 people in a stadium in complete silence for 5 minutes, lost in thought, but also something unstructured and easy about it too.

But in the end, the Lama has a whimsical winning personality, and in Q+A was quite amusing and surprising. He basically talked about the unity of religious and spirituality; how he lectures Christian priests about God. An odd but interesting question, “Would you favor genetic engineering of people that removed desire and thus remove suffering?” His answer was surprising. I would not favor, only because the experimentation would be painful and cruel. But if science could eliminate desire and remove suffering (ala soma) he would be all for it. He also freely admitted the primacy of science over Buddhist texts, lamenting how he wasted so much time memorizing Buddhist cosmology when now we know from modern physics that all that was nonsense.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The New Sensibility

Time Magazine assembled leading thinkers to ponder the future:

The Road Ahead

What was interesting to me is that if these are the leading thinkers (according to super mainstream Time), what makes me happy is that I think they're getting stuff mostly right. Sensible. To me anyway.

Less partisan. More common sense. I didn't read anything new, but left with a sense, that the current mainstream is getting it right. The kind of view exemplified by Family Guy, The Daily Show, or Southpark, which range from left to vaguely right in political affiliation but all share a common underlying "common sense." I guess optimism might be the way to put it. Post-cynicism might be a better term still.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

movie reviewlet: serenity

I'm rather shocked at the rave reviews for this film on salon or the nytimes. Happy in a way. Hopefully if the movie has legs, they may make more and that would make me happy.

If you read my earlier Firefly entry, you know I'm a big fan, but as I expected, Serenity is Whedon's first film foray, and like his first comic book attempt, Fray, he's not quite comfortable with the genre. But as Whedon demonstrates in the latest X-men comic, he learns quick. The next one should be better.

This film though was over edited, too polished. A whole season crammed into 2 hours. Salon calls it subtle, I call it inelegant. The story was railroaded along, without the lackadaisical cowboy jauntiness that characterized the show (and without the quirky folksy campfire theme song).

The style wasn't quite on, but there was some semi-interesting cinematography, and the fight choreography was passable, (which says a lot given how high Hong Kong cinema has raised the bar in that realm).

I was finally appeased when I was jolted into memory the character upon which the movie's main antagonist "The Operative" is based. Mustafa Mond, of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. The man who believes in the Utopia he is creating so much, that he is willing to sacrifice himself to create it, becoming a monster that has no place in such a space.

I am, perhaps, being overly harsh. As Salon pointed out, the film's writing is infinitely better than any of Lucas' drivel, with characteristic Whedonesque comic-book style quips, and a firm grounding in big ideas. I especially appreciate the subtlety; Whedon gives credit to the intelligence of the viewers and his crew, where obvious traps are obvious to the characters as well.

As the Salon critic said, this would have been a lot better as the second season it was intended to be. But I hope at least it will be good enough to follow the show's Star Trek-style fairy tale, and continue the franchise.

Final Grade:
A-

Friday, September 09, 2005

good eats! a food discontinuity

Maybe it was watching all the alton brown.
Maybe it was adopting fresh herbs (cilantro and basil)
Maybe it was finally switching to kosher salt
Maybe it was shopping at trader joe's
Maybe it was the retreat to cooking given the pressures of outside work
Maybe it was the culmination of cooking for self at MIT, to cooking for roommates at Stanford
It was certainly catalyzed by spending a weekend with Romina's aunt, who's cooking inspired me, not to mention time in Hong Kong

But this week, I have managed to take my cooking to a new level, at least for me. (As a wise friend of mine once said, the beauty of cooking for yourself is you'll always like your own cooking)

Dishes prepared with my hyper-efficient food-on-the-go methods this week:

Roast lamb, dry marinated with rosemary, chopped garlic, fresh basil, kosher salt, pepper, red pepper for 6 hours, broiled for 1 hour and rested. insanely tender and flavorful. medium/medium rare served with roasted shitake mushrooms and persian cucumbers (flavored with olive oil, salt, pepper and lamb drippings)

chicken thigh fried rice, with pre-sliced crimni mushroms, fresh cilantro, and lightly fried red pepper

amazingly meaty chicken thigh with fresh basil and red peppers (so pretty).

chicken thigh with turkish spices, tofu, celery, fresh cilantro, roasted cashews served with sauteed green beans, so that just a bit wilted, with soy sauce, and garlic with freshly steamed white rice

vegetarian tacos, filled with refried beans, fresh avocado, shredded cheese, homemade salsa with (tomatoes, persian cucumbers, corn, chili powder, cumin, garlic) all on lightly toasted corn tortillas

cauliflower and ground lamb curry with fresh basil, cumin, tumeric, chili powder, random spices, curry powder, tofu, peas. served with fresh white rice.

planned:

spaghetti with fresh tomatos, mushrooms, ground beef and basil and garlic

tuna salad with celery and real mayonnaise in a pita and spices roast lamb andwiches, with roasted vegetables, olive tapenade, fresh tomatos in a pita

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Troops are all Heroes: Why?

As opposition to the war in Iraq grows, the common theme heard from all sides, is that regardless to degree of opposition, the soldiers are all heroes. This stands in stark contrast to the reaction to Vietnam where returning soldiers were spit on, yelled at, etc. I wonder why?

Today, we only blame the leaders. Perhaps it is post-modern liberal blue state idea that the structure of society impels the impoverished to join the army, thus they are not responsible. This stands in contrast to the Kevin Smith Clerks mentality that the subcontractors killed by the destruction of the Death Star in Return of the Jedi deserve no sympathy due to their complicity with the dark side

Or, perhaps it is merely the acceptance that patriotism is ok, a conservative red state idea that has won out, shifting what is politically correct.

Monday, August 29, 2005

famine and free trade

Reading about the recent famine in Niger, it is nice to see that poverty groups like Oxfam have finally joined the economists cause of free trade by calling for an end to rich world agriculture subsides. The economist in me takes heart.

However, the contrarian in me thinks it is weird that since rich world crop subsides keep the world price of food low, then abolishing them would raise the world price of food in the name of eradicating poverty and famine.

Of course, the proper economic analysis is that crop subsides are very expensive (the rich world spends tax money about equal to the GDP of sub-saharan Africa each year), and that money would be better spent on other forms of aid. Furthermore, since poor countries are more dependent on agriculture than rich, raising the world price would improve their terms of trade, effectively helping their farmers more than it hurts their consumers, encouraging investment and producing jobs.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

job search diary

The Chronicle of Higher Education is looking for columnists to talk about the job search process. The application consists of a submission for the first column. Since likely mine will never be printed, I'll post it here as well.

Little wonder my professors tend to have huge egos. The number of hoops that I have had to jump through to get thus far have been enormous. Yet the hoops through which I still have to jump are the most daunting yet. At every level, the screening of applicants is severe, and at every level, the bar is raised, soon to stratospheric heights.

Valedictorian of my high school class, I made it through MIT’s highly selective undergraduate admissions process where I breezed through four degrees in as many years (Bachelors’ in Economics, Mathematics, Computer Science, and a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science). Of the many economics majors at MIT, I was one of only three in my class to make it into a top PhD program. I chose the program that easily has the best placement record for getting its students into tenure track positions at top schools. I had the highest score on the qualifying exams in my class, thankfully avoiding dismissal, breezed through another two masters’ in Political Science and Education along the way, and yet despite the fact that all these lines in my CV have clearly inflated my own ego, I am still humble enough to recognize that the probability that I will be considered qualified to take a position amidst the august faculty of any top departments is a long shot.

The vagaries of rankings means there are roughly fifteen research universities that can claim to have a top ten economics department; a tenure track position at any one of them would be a dream job. But each of these departments graduate 20 or more students each year, and each only hires around one or two, which means over 300 people vying for fewer than 30 positions.

My mathematical training tells me that since the Nobel committee chooses to award its prize to about two economists each year, then a simple flux argument implies that amongst those applying for these coveted tenure track jobs, an average of two will one day be laureates.

This is my competition.

My expectations have been fluctuating wildly over the past year as the date of the job search approaches. Sometimes I think I have a real chance. My advisor encourages these thoughts. Yet I also take care not to set myself up for disappointment. Having read the research on the prospective academic job market, I know my chances are slim. I am heartened by the fact that Economics, being one of the most popular and well funded majors, has better job prospects than English at least, where I am told admissions letters to top PhD programs often come with warnings that many of their graduates aren’t able to find academic positions at all.

Still, my friends and family don’t seem to understand the realities of the academic job market. They ask where I want to work, and I have to explain that I will have little choice. The typical candidate only has two or three offers to choose from out of the dozens he or she applied for. Of course a city in the north-east would be nice. My family is mostly clustered around New York, and my girlfriend lives in Baltimore. I’d like to plan around her, but even if I could, she will have her own geographically restricted medical residency search two years later.

My friends and family also always phrase the question as “So you want to teach?” which always amuses me because of how little teaching is emphasized, it seems, in the positions that I am seeking. I actually like teaching. Though my funding obviated my need to, I served as TA for four classes, and served as the lecturer for the fifth, managing a class of 70 students, and redesigning the course. A position at a liberal arts college actually has a lot of appeal, though given the culture by which I have been socialized, that is still seen as somewhat of a failure.

In the end, I am fairly committed to pursuing an academic career. I actually worked for a year, trying the paradoxically hedonistic yet puritanical life of a Wall St. banker. I actually enjoyed it: the excitement, the fast-paced environment, the smart people. In the end, I decided I wanted something more. I am careful though, to not let my heart get set too firmly. The uncertainties of the academic job market make such wariness a practical necessity. As my friends and family have recently had to deal with job insecurity in uncertain economic times, I now have greater appreciation of the near complete security offered by academia. Complete except for twice in your career, the second time during tenure review, and the first at the very beginning, cramming all of the uncertainty into an intense focused singularity of compressed anxiety.

Despite the stress and fears, I am still excited. This job search marks the culmination of my five years in graduate school. The first two years spent worrying about qualifying exams and class work. Then the standard third year doldrums, common in economics, as students make the transition from coursework to research and often get lost in the process. This past year has been the final push to the finish.

The job search starts for us in November. Unlike the more ad hoc process adopted by most other disciplines, economists, enamored with efficiency, have a very centralized system. Packets go out in November to around 70 schools, any you are remotely interested in. Each packet contains three letters of recommendation, your CV, and a job market paper. This paper is essentially one chapter from your dissertation, a paper you eventually intend to publish and hopefully representative of your future output. These 70 packets hopefully lead to around 9-10 half-hour interviews at the discipline’s main conference in January. The conference hopefully leads to 3-4 full day fly-outs which if all goes well leads to 1-2 offers. As I said, it is a brutal screening process.

Human institutions such as this job matching mechanism fascinate me. I suppose this is in line with my research interests which attempt to apply economics to areas where it has previously feared to tread. I am riding the latest fad in economics, one that has yet to acquire a proper name. Steven Levitt gave it the ill-advised title Freakonomics, that despite a massive media blitz, never stopped sounding stupid. The basic idea is to apply the tools of economics to questions typically reserved to sociologists, and hopefully to be receptive to their input. This “sociological economics” is still largely an off-shoot of another more dominant fad, behavioral economics, the admixture of economics with psychology. Some of my current interests are using economic tools to explain concepts such as creativity, legitimacy, opportunity, and identity.

I am happy that I seem to have caught the leading edge of this trend; few other students in my year are pursuing research in the same vein. Graduate school is all about the daunting task of producing novel knowledge the world has never seen before. After struggling over questions that very smart people have been working on for generations, I found it easier to pick easy questions that no one had been crazy enough to ask before, e.g. “What does economics theory have to say about apologies?”

I hope that the media hype has made search committees more receptive to these ideas, though the hype could just as easily help start the backlash that will return economics to more sober questions. In either case, the next year will be an interesting one. I just hope the (likely apocryphal) Chinese epithet “May you live in interesting times” doesn’t turn out to be the curse it was intended to be.

Monday, August 01, 2005

jargon and verbiage on media bias

Judge and Economist Richard Posner has an analysis of media bias in yesterday's New York Times.

An economist friend sent me that link, and below is my reply. I am impressed by how much jargon and verbiage I've been using in my replies to him recently. I think I've been properly socialized into Economics...

the theory sounds largely consistent with the recent economic papers on media bias, such as alesina and mullainatahn, groseclose, or by our fellow gsb student william minozzi. that's always been my view of things. the new york times appears perfectly unbiased to its audience, as does fox news. it's a simple case of horizontal product
differentiation.

william has the interesting result that regardless of the owner's bias, the profit motive is strong enough that it becomes irrelevent, and instead the bias is targetted to the audience's opinion as posner suggests. william's theory also makes the simple point that bias is not so bad so long as there is at least some competition.
someone who wanted the truth could just consume two newspapers. watch both cnn and foxnews. etc...

one problem with posner's theory is that the cost trend is not so unambiguous. network effects makes the cost of entry go up not down. hence, most towns have fewer newspapers than they used to, most now only have one. (someone has an empirical paper on testing teh bias using this fact recently). similarly, radio is now dominated by a few conglomerates like clearchannel, etc...

also, he is a little two cheerleadery for the blogosphere. the hayek marketplace for ideas myth is nice, but you could cite groseclose on valence here.

his view is again the one of horizontal product differentiation in a hotelling sense in bias space, where perfect competition by the blogs leads to a condorcet jury winner effect of finding the median. (wow, that's a lot of jargon)

but, mainstream press has other dimensions (aside from bias) that the blogs can't replicate, such as reputation, and thus accountability, and money and a budget and training, to report on iraq for example, access, increasing returns to scale... and who's to say the median view is the truth.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Kant and Nietzsche revisited in Batman Begins: or just me overanalyzing

So I walked away from the latest Batman installment undecided only about whether it merited an elite nine, or unprecedented ten on my imdb movie rating list. I decided to go with the nine, just because the movie felt somewhat rushed, crammed with ideas, and though it introduced lots of interesting ideas, never developed them. I figured I would do so here. (Though I do want to first add that Christian Bale finally does Michael Keaton’s Batman justice. I agree with the New York Times that not only is Bale able to match Keaton’s borderline insanity, but also brings aristocratic entitlement that Keaton’s everyman can never achieve.)

Batman: the Animated Series creator Paul Dini, makes the point that Comic Book films achieved its success when its creators, weaned in the post-1986 modern comic book epoch inaugurated by Frank Miller/Alan Moore, stopped taking comic book characters as jokes (ala Christopher Reeve’s Superman or Adam West’s Batman) and started taking them seriously.

There is little doubt that though Doug Lyman’s Batman Begins doesn’t follow Miller’s Batman: Year One, Miller's influence is clearly there, with direct visual references such as the rearing Nightmare from Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, but more importantly, with deeper thematic ones.

In a paper for a philosophy class, I argued that Miller’s classic struggle between Batman and Superman represents the clash in philosophies of Nietzsche and Kant. In Batman Begins, Nietzsche’s Will to Power is exemplified by the League of Shadows. The League, like Nietzsche, believe that the ubermensch (overman), is Beyond Good and Evil, that the overman has the ability and the duty to exert his Will over the rest of society.

Batman defies the League because though he is at home in their overman society, he retains his sense of good. In D&D terms, it is the difference between Lawful Good and Lawful Neutral. Conveniently, the movie provides us with a rough working definition (a thin slice) of the forever vexing infinitely complex terms, good and evil, in young Bruce Wayne’s conversation with mob boss Carmine Falcone. Whereas the most harm Batman could inflict on Falcone is on his person, Falcone can inflict harm via Rachel and via Alfred, the ones for whom Batman cares. In Kant’s words, people are an end in themselves, whereas for the League and Falcone, people are merely a means.

In the final scene, Batman imposes his Will to impose order over a burgeoning Gotham mob, a direct reference to the climax of Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. Batman is still the overman, but he imposes his Will for the ends of the people of Gotham, not his own.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Joss Whedon's Firefly: the Platonic Space Western Ideal

A friend introduced me to Firefly recently, I watched the first episode last Friday, and have now (4 days later) watched the entirety of the show's short run of 14 episodes before it was cancelled. It has found its way onto my top 10 list of favorite of all time.

Read my review.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Culture Blooming

David Brooks never fails to disappoint with his column in the New York Times. He is perhaps my favorite journalist/pop-social scientist (see my 3/28/03, 4/26/01, 8/17/03, 4/04/04 entries) but like Krugman (whom I also used to like), when the biweekly deadline hits him, he invariably sucks.

In this week’s column Brooks’ laments the lack of culture in today’s middle class, citing a deep analysis of Hemmingway in Time magazine from the 1950’s.

I have two responses. The first is the one I normally use when people lament the declining quality of education. Even if the average member of the middle class is less “cultured” than the average today, it doesn’t mean the average American is. The middle class is just much bigger today. Even though the average SAT score keeps going down, the difference is that today 80% of high school students aspire to college and thus take such exams whereas in the 50’s it was only the few elite. The same is true for the middle class readers of Time magazine.

The second is in line with the thesis of Steven Johnson’s recent Everything Bad is Good for You. Why is all pop culture bad. First you have huge selection bias, by comparing the best of yesterday with the average of today. Second, TV is so much more nuanced today (compare Leno to Ed Sullivan, Seinfeld to Leave it to beaver). Video games teach complex problem solving and creativity compared to the linear world of books. Far from being apathetic, people today are hyper self-aware, see my analysis of this nihilism, anti-nihilism synthesis in my epinions Mallrats movie review.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Good Life: Justifying $600 dinners using Greek philosophers and Economic Theory

Extracted from a conversation, in which the correspondent expressed his disdain for those who spend $350 a person for dinner.

I personally see no problem with spending $650 for a dinner for two. Not that I do so especially often, but I think it is well worth it.

Why should life be only about investment in new knowledge? Why should the pursuit of sensation be considered a “pusillanimous … waste of time and resources?”

Let's think about this from the utilitarian model which would have a hard time justifying investment for investment sake if the investment is never translated into consumption. Rather, a standard exponential discounter would pursue consumption in moderation smoothed across a lifespan.

I suppose, since you seem to give great weight to classical thought, I can perhaps cite Epicurus as justification for the enjoyment of consumption.

More simply, in your pursuit of knowledge, who is to say that knowledge (and in particular wisdom) is contained only in text and introspection (Hume and Descartes be damned and heck if you believed them, you’d have to reject modern science as well).

I do agree that the pursuit of knowledge is a worthy pursuit, but also believe that knowledge comes in many forms. James C Scott calls the wisdom that can only come from experience metis. My master's degree advisor, von Hippel called it sticky information. In popular parlance, a picture is worth a thousand words, and often so is a good meal, a beautiful presentation, a delicate aroma, a delightful taste.

At the very least, I believe in the principle of decreasing returns to scale (of course we could have an interesting discussion why returns might be increasing). The privileging of one method of inquiry into the nature of the world over another, violates the idea of equalizing marginal rates of substitution.

To each his own, I suppose. The liberal answer. I just think you should give more credit to those who pursue truth in a different way.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Inept psychology, Interesting political economy, Incomparable worlds: Star Wars Ep. 3

So fulfilling my childhood cultural birth rite, I joined the throngs of costumed dorks and associated saber wielding geeks and attended the final Star Wars on opening night (as I had done for Episodes I and II and the re-releases of IV, V, and VI) and I must say that I am surprisingly satisfied.

I agree with Times reviewer AO Scott that it is at least as good as Episode IV, making it the best of the films that Lucas directed. That said, he should still have let someone else write and direct as he did for episodes V and VI. This was especially apparent in the descent of Anakin, done with a singular lack of style and grace that is Lucas’ trademark. Hayden Christenssen has demonstrated that he can play slow corruption,in Shattered Glass, but this film demonstrated none of the exquisite seduction of Luke present in the original trilogy. Episode 3 made Jedi look like a psychological masterpiece. Anakin here was simply petulant and deranged.

I also found fault with Lucas’ rather overt jab at Bush, “Only Sith think in absolutes” says Obi-Wan, in response to a parody of Bush’s “with us or against us” line, ironic in a movie that is iconic for its Manichaean portrayal of the forces of light against dark.

Yet the primary theme is a good one: what drives the fall of democracy; it falls as Padme observes to “thunderous applause.” Finally Lucas crafts a believable political system, highlighting how finely balanced democracy can be; how easy it is for an empowered executive or a militarized independent religious order to subvert the democratic process; how tenuous the beliefs, norms, institutions that sustain democracy truly are. As much as Star Wars is about the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, so too is it about the fall and redemption of democracy.

And that is the genius of Lucas, to create worlds, to tell compelling stories. The brains behind the most successful franchises in movie history (Indiana Jones, Star Wars) he had previously wisely let others fill in the details. Lucas more fundamental contribution still is in revolutionizing how movies are made, at Industrial Light and Magic and his small movie magic empire.

I nearly agree with AO Scott that Lucas has surpassed Peter Jackson to be the foremost creator of worlds alive today. Scarred by the ravages of war, we now see the classical Naboo civilizations as real civilizations, rather than Roman or Rastafarian caricatures. Lucas does bring magic to the cinema, creating epic space battles and alien worlds with as much razzle-dazzle as has ever been mustered in a film. However, I still have to give Lord of The Rings credit, whose technical prowess does not quite match that of Lucas, but Jackson more than compensates with passion. At times, Episode 3 felt like a video game, one with breathtaking, stunning visuals, but without the poetry of Jackson’s Middle Earth.

Despite it all, Lucas pulled it off. Perhaps Episodes One and Two had just set expectations sufficiently low, or perhaps it was all part of a master plan (I doubt it), as Lucas completes the cycle, I walk away sated and fully satisfied.
Final Grade: A

See also: my other opinion on Lucas:

George Lucas: horrendous writer, mediocre director, legend of filmmaking – A Star Wars II review


And my other movie reviews at:
Ben's Epinions Page

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

TV Review: Battlestar Galactica

What could have been a kitchy sci-fi channel remake of campy 70’s space western, Battlestar Gallactica has made it as one of Time Magazine’s six top shows on television. I was drawn in to watching since the season premier by the idea that the President was the former Secretary of Education, and ~37th in line for the presidency when everyone ahead of her was killed.

Though the show takes place in the far future when humans have spread across the galaxy and where Earth is but a myth, the society portrayed is remarkably contemporary, with a government and social system and a relationship with technology much like our own. Thus, when the show is able to have all of human civilization destroyed except for 50,000 survivors on a ragtag fleet fleeing through space, we are able to better see the underpinnings of our society, visible only through an experiment we could never run. We see the off-the-equilibrium path beliefs that sustain our civilization.

Already, in the shortened first season, we see questions of how democracy is sustained in a military crisis, how the media is handled, the influence of charismatic personality cults, and just the simple institutions society is based upon. Curiously, human religion is based on ancient Greek mythology, while in an interesting contrast to the human’s persecutors, the cylons, a race of robots who having rebelled from their human masters, have developed a monotheistic religion akin to Christianity. The robot civilization, the quintessential “other” allows the show to explore what it means to be human.

Though the dialogue is spotty and the plot sometimes predictable, Battlestar Galactica is a showcase for grand ideas. That’s why it sits comfortably among the four shows to which I am a weekly devotee (West Wing, Lost, and Numb3rs being the other three).

Grade: A-

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Reviewlet: Born into Brothels

A 2005 Oscar winning documentary by and about photographer Zana Briski's encounter with the children living in Calcutta's brothels.

At first irritated by the selective footage this (and every documentary) uses to tell only one version of the story, I was soon taken in by the greater story, emphasizing the potential and the plight of these brothel children of Calcutta, depicting the desperate lives these kids lead in Calcutta's prostitute-laden labyrinthine red light district, and yet the beautiful images they can create, when given cameras and tutelage by an earnest photographer (though I am a bit peeved that after spending years there, she never learned their language).

The cinematography was beautiful, the photographs both the photographer and the children created were absolutely stunning. In addition to the excellent job the film does in personalizing the story, there is a nice universality to the film, on the vast wasted potential in children everywhere in the world. And also an inspiration, what one person can do, and what she can't, as we find that the Zana Auntie's efforts largely led to failure, and even her successes meant the virtual excision of these children from their parents into boarding schools, as these budding Eliza Doolittle's are to be bred into a far different world from their parents and allowed little contact with home.

Grade: A

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Turkeys in Turkey

we saw a turkey in turkey, though in turkey, they call them indian (Actually hindi) which to them means indian, though of course, in france, they call turkey "from india" (dinde to be precise), whereas in most places, they just call them turkey, though in fact the turkey is an american bird, which is why ben franklin wanted to make the turkey the national bird, but was overruled in favor of the wussy bald eagle...

fuller reflections from turkey to come in my art pages with pictures!

Thursday, March 03, 2005

ramblings on sociology vs economics

excerpted from a debate about the future of economics amongst the social sciences:

i do give sociology credit, in that they seeem equally open to all ideas. at least woody powell is. the papers we read for his classes happily cite econ papers as readily as anthropology.

but they have yet to come up with the common framework. the common language that unites them that allows progress to be made.

i guess, at least from a stanford perspective, there's the big push for institutional theory, with micro-foundations in social psychology, but that's hardly universal, and will unlikley get there yet.

plus psychology is a rather muddled foundation, with its own fads and favorite theories that ebb and flow.

sociologists are an extension of what thinkers have been doing since plato and before. cataloguing phenomenon.

i do sorta think that modern economics represents a kuhnian paradigm shift, a new science, that will not easily be displaced.

though our methodology based on logic and math has faults of its own. I often say that modern economics is the true heir or Marxism, though a true marxist once retorted that modern economics is Marxism divorced from morality. and math and logic and objectivity is fine and good, but humans are creatures of passion, spirituality, and morality, and it is important not to forget that.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Numb3rs: a hallmark of an age of optimism

For all those who see pop culture as a wasteland, as proof that we are facing apocalypse now, I always like looking for signs of optimism.

I was reading today about McDonalds and their new apple slices that replace fries in happy meals. As society has become wealthier, we face new problems, but though it takes time, institutions exist to deal with them. The media hype over obesity worked, the trend has reversed.

The ever increasing crime of the 70's and 80's has reversed. Amazingly, New York is the safest city in the country.

The cold war solved itself without nuclear winter.

Democracy unrelentingly has spread across the globe.

Science and technology continues its inexorable advance.

Harry Potter (despite its flaws) has reinvigorated reading for children. Has made it cool again.

On television, the highest rated show is CSI, a show that reifies science. West Wing made a good run, idealizing government. Even the Apprentice, which makes business exciting.

Things to get kids excited, to inspire.

Numb3rs is particulary exciting. Though I felt it can't possibly last, and I still don't expect it to last the season, it is somehow the highest rated Friday night show (which doesn't say that much). It totally feels like a public service show, but good for CBS.

Eric and I are annoyed that the main character is a mathematician rather than an economist, but the principles are the same.

If the show can get kids excited about math, especially the "girls of Summers," then I dunno. Good things. We live in exciting times.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

cool ibm ad

Cool IBM banner ad with soothing ibm branded music drew me to a very nicely done flash ad. Impressive.

ibm ad

I'm always on the lookout for innovative internet ads. I understand that advertising is the key to maintaining high quality free content. For the longest time, I made an effort to click on banner ads that appealed to me and resisted pop-up blockers until they just became so damn obnoxious.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Movie Reviewlet: The Corporation

Part of a disturbing trend in recent film-making where complex ideas are expressed as propaganda rather given a fair airing. The film displays a complete unwillingness to understand economics. It includes comments by eminent economists only to mock them. It fails to understand Adam Smith's age old point that "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

The film does contain kernels of truth and does package the ideas in an entertaining way, but by allowing no room for dissent, it is merely preaching platitudes to the choir.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Democracy in Iraq

So it shouldn't mean anything. The Elections in Iraq that is.

I tend to believe in the Hegelian view of the state, that the state is a reflection of the people regardless of the technical details.

Or Dewey's view of democracy, that it's not process that defines a democracy, but that democracy is government by the aggregated ideas of an entire populace, the collective will manifested.

But it's still nice. Heartening. Photos of courageous happy people coming out of voting booths. Democracy in action.

Monday, January 31, 2005

pontification on patriotism

a friend asked me if i'd ever consider getting canadian citizenship.

i went to visit the American national landmarks in philadelphia with Romina. It was very useful to see it with a pair of non-American eyes. it really felt like philadelphia was some sort of sacred shrine of Americanness, where you come and recite the sacred symbols of the cult and renew your devotion to the faith--"life liberty and the pursuit of happiness" "city on a hill" "innocent until proven guilty" "we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". Passages drilled into our collective psyches by indoctrination with patriotic songs and stories during childhood.

the same international tests that show American students lagging behind in math and science (though I quesiton these results actually) show that Americans lead the world in civic education. i wonder if this patriotic indoctrination is unique to America, or common everywhere. and though i mock it, i'm not sure if it is a bad thing.

anyway, point is i'm effectively brainwashed, that in the words of Noam Chomsky, when he was asked whether he would consider leaving the United States "No. This is the best country in the world."

Monday, January 10, 2005

A Theory of Apologies -and- Internet Fame

My latest Stanford Daily column explains why I don't want to be Alan Greenspan, how economics goes far beyond just stock market tickets into areas like bias, family, identity, crime, etc., and end with a synposis of my current research.

The other happy news is that apparently someone outside Stanford read my column, someone writing about anthropology and economics, exciting news:

A ref to my column

Thanks to Dilys D for alerting me.

Amazon Contextual Product Ads