Sunday, December 31, 2006

Geneva: Day One -- A comedie of errors

So this is what I wrote on the first day of our ill-fated Geneva trip. Started off as a downer, but in the end, worked out as one of our best vacations and one of my favorite cities. Will post more for pictures. Here are first thoughts, for posterity.

A comedie of errors, as A- called it.
Vacation is hard stuff. It started with a general lack of snow that plagued europe and cancelled most of their ski events. Thus we shifted our ski in chamonix plans (also because M and A- were tired out from the holidays) to just a general paris/geneva trip (thinking that part of our flight had a paris stop over, it should be easy.

One, enroute to the airport, we got a flat tire, so we made our way home quickly (fortunately, we had given ourselves plenty of extra time so despite our dawdling, we still had time), switched cars, which was quite an ordeal as my car was out of gas and full of unused skis. Two, made it to airport on time, but somehow, new fare rules meant we weren't allowed to exit at Paris. We were forced to use the ticket or pay a $3000 penalty. How stupid is that. We had already booked/paid for a hotel in Paris. Tried hard, ran up against a wall of computer mediated bureaucracy. Three, resigned to going to Geneva, we resolved to take a train back to Paris when lo and behold our bags didn't make the connection, they were left in Paris. The irony is that as a result we couldn't go to Paris because by the time we got there, they'd wind up in Geneva. After waiting all day in the airport, until our bags arrived, all the trains sold out except for first class which costs about $500. So we decided to cut losses and stay in Geneva, at over priced (ridiculously) but still 5-star hotel that was supposed to be a last night splurge, but became a 5 night splurge.

The hotel, (Mandarin Oriental Hotel du Rhone) proved to be way past prime, (later saw only a 3.5/5 tripadivsor rating, with earnest but illinformed staff, mistakes on breakfast, ridiculously overpriced wifi ($150 for access while here), and rotting mandarin oranges in our room.

Though did finally get a good nap. Randomly found a nice local place with only one item on menu, le relais de Entrecote (perfectly cooked medium rare steak) with fries. And dined w/ locals in this amazingly cosmopolitan city.

Ended tonight with a fantastic shower though. Finally an upnote (after searching and being constantly disappointed all day). One of the best I've ever had. After a very long, dirty day (had a nice quick run at nicely appointed gym), and mm, two headed shower, nice tingly piping hot temperature controls, and nice spicy prickly shampoo and body gel. Hopefully, the rest of the trip can only be up.

Geneva (as I feared) is a boring city, (barely worth a day) but should have exciting day trips to small medieval castle towns around the lake, as well as nearby french annecy. Plus, exciting Red Cross museum on social science. Something very geneva.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Windows Vista vs OS X

The New York Times today has an annoying article today about how Vista is a rip-off of OSX. This is annoying because what no one ever notes is that OS X stole plenty from Windows 95, including opening folders in the same window, including the task bar. And desktop search, Google has had for some time.

But most annoying is the mac ads that all say Macs are better because they come packaged with lots of nifty stuff (like iphoto, imovie, etc...). Windows was moving in that direction, when anti-trust lawsuits instigated in part by Netscape and Apple forced them to stop, though of course that exact sort of "bundling" was part of Netscapes and Apples plans the whole time. Hypocrisy. (In A-'s words) Feh!

That said, Mac's are tempting. Many of my tech savvy geek friends have jumped on the bandwagon for the native Unix capabilities. If only they were lighter, I might have gotten one of their laptops, especially with the dual-boot option and just run Windows. Maybe my next laptop...

Friday, December 08, 2006

Studio 60 and the wide-eyed wonky post-cynical X-Mas spirit

Despite the show’s shaky start, I have started to grow fond of Studio 60. It is still the awkward bastard chimaera of West Wing’s plots and actors implanted into the backstage of a Saturday Night Live sketch comedy show, but the strange dissonant weirdness somehow appeals to the novelty seeking side of me.

It also still recreates a lot of what Sorkin did right in the West Wing. In Excelsis Deo, the first season Christmas episode, is regarded by many (including me) as possibly the best West Wing episode. Similarly, the Christmas episode of Studio 60 this week just worked.

Though fully acknowledging in Sorkin wonky style, the hypocrisy of a literal interpretation of Christmas, the show fully embraces the greater spirit of Christmas, as personified by the show’s Jewish headwriter, who becomes Christmas’ biggest advocate.

I know the show was saccharine cheesy, as it tried to find the nobility in all of its characters. But I liked that, the wide-eyed wonky post-cynical idealism, a picture not of the world as it is, but like West Wing, a picture of the world as it should be.

(plus the music rocked)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Harvard of the Proletariat

A new provost at Stanford, coming from her position as a VP of City College of New York, called CCNY the “Harvard of the Proletariat.” I think amongst lists of the elite colleges in the world, CCNY is by now, often forgotten. It was the first to offer free admission to all qualified (though philosophically I am opposed to this policy) but as a result, educated the children of New York’s many talented but poor (many immigrants/Jews) who were excluded from the Ivy Leagues, giving them their first step into the middle classes.

In the process, they educated nine Nobel Prize winners (more than any other US public school) including Ken Arrow (one of the fathers of modern economics) to last year’s Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Robert Aumann, as well as luminaries from Thorstein Veblen to Richard Schiff (who played Tobey on West Wing, the character also was a CCNY alum), to Andy Grove of Intel to both my parents (my father teaches there now).

The Economist magazine attributes much of its recent decline to its policy of open admissions which came out of the civil rights movement of the 60’s and forced City College to admit pretty much anyone who wanted to attend. This led to a long period of academic decline, until the policy was ended under recent reforms in 90’s, as CCNY strives to regain some of its old prominence.

(Perhaps with the help of talented new faculty hires like my cousin who, though not at CCNY, teaches at Brooklyn College, one its sister schools in the CUNY system.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Pop Quiz: What two sources of energy account for nearly all the world's energy use?

Answer: Solar and Geothermal.

I’ve been thinking a lot about energy lately, and this is just a curious factoid I've been pondering. When discussing energy, careful people distinguish photovoltaic power from the more general term of solar, because really when you think about it, nearly all the energy we use is solar, except for the stuff that’s geothermal. Basically, there you can think of energy as coming in the form of 4 forces, the weak and strong nuclear, gravity and e&m. And I’m basically say it is gravity and the sun's strong nuclear as the source of everything.

Hydropower – Powered by the water cycle which is powered by the sun.
Photovoltaic – Directly solar powered
Ethanol and other Biofuels – From the plant matter that got its energy from the sun
Oil – From the plant matter that got its energy from the sun that was converted into oil by geothermal pressures.
Natural Gas and Coal - Ditto.
Geothermal – Well geothermal.
Wind – Powered by temperature gradients crated by the sun.
Fission – Powered from the energy stored in uranium atoms, which were created not by our sun, but the previous star of our solar system. So given that it is also powered by a star of our solar system, I’d say that’s also solar power.
Tidal – Actually, this is different as this is lunar powered, but no one really uses it so its ok.
Fusion – This is actually different two, fusion is powered from the hydrogen remnants of the Big Bang, but there are no real fusion power plants either, so I’m ok on this one for now.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Evidence for Snowcrash's human computer theory

The New York Times today ran a story about the neuro-basis of speaking in tongues.

The article suggests that the neuro-basis of speaking in tongues (a Pentecostal practice of spewing random syllables in a trancelike state which I saw for the first time in the new Borat movie) is consistent with God. For me, what is more interesting is that it is consistent with Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash.

One of the most wild but interesting conceits of Snowcrash is that the human mind (basically being a computer) and our thought processes were designed with some inherent genetic structure. Chomsky and Pinker find evidence for the genetic basis of language (from completely different methods). Stephenson suggests that the brain has an underlying operating system, with a universal programming language, that allow cultural memes (ala Dawkins') to be transferred like computer programs transferred across the internet, but here, it is behavioral patterns transferred between people. So a program that called for obedience to God could be transferred to others who hear the underlying coding for the program.

What does the coding sound like, this assembly language/machine code for the human brain? Stephenson proposes that the Pentecostals' practice of speaking in tongues is a way to access the underlying machine code driving human behavior, and let it rise to the surface. The brain imaging study the nytimes reports on is at least consistent with this interpretation.

Aside: Stephenson is perhaps my favorite fiction author. Here are two reviews I wrote of his books:

Monday, October 23, 2006

Why I Gamble

Friend: On an unrelated note: do you gamble (besides poker)? Just wondering what a smart man like you still enjoys negative expectation games. (I've been itching to play blackjack and try some craps.)

so yeah, i gamble. not a whole lot, but for a while I was on a $1500 winning streak starting on my third or fourth time. started maybe winning about $100 at a time, every time, playing craps and blackjack. i don't play as much ever since the streak ended a year or so ago, but sure while playing you have plenty of time to sit and contemplate the meta- behind why a rational person would play.

the easy answer is pure entertainment. almost all forms of entertainment (movies, opera, skiing, etc.) are negative expected value games. (sometimes very negative). we still play them.

part of it is just the nice environment (vegas casinos are nice, usually not worth it for me elsewhere), free drinks, you get treated well by the staff, with deference and respect. sure its artificial, but feels nice.

but sure, the sheer thrill of it is fun. part of it is the camaraderie. craps is great for that. the table tends to win and lose together, and humans are evolved to enjoy teamwork (altruism genes). at least I do. blackjack too actually because as the card counters know, you mostly win or lose as a table based on the composition of the deck.

Also, happiness is not simply about how much money you have. (again, skiing is a negative $70/day game that I happily play). but even more purely, evolutionarily there is a nice economic basis for happiness that shows that optimal happiness isn't a direct function of how much money you have but instead is based on relative gains and losses. Thus the thrills of the occasional gains could easily outweigh the losses even though monetarily it doesn't. (see my chronicle column on this)

so actually, thinking about it more, it really is a nonsensical question to ask why one plays a negative expected value game. when really, the only positive expected value game we normally play is called a "job" and is not normally expected to be fun. (of course there are exceptions to that)

I also spent a lot of time, trying to rationalize the 15 game ($1500) winning streak. (So the rough algorithm I used was play until I either was up $100; and then stop; or down $200 and then stop) Somehow I won 1500 that way, the probability of which (from my stochastic processes class) is roughly 1-2/3^15 ~= 0. So of course, if you add in psychology, you can say that I cheated my accounting, and threw out from my sample a couple times when I lost money (excused as didn't have enough time to fully execute my strategy, or simply cause I was playing on a boat).

Saturday, October 21, 2006

French-ness: Everyday Philosophers

There was always something amusingly intellectual about talking to some french people (at least the ones I was likely to bump into), that I never put my finger on until hearing an npr story recently about a French pianist who has a new book about classical piano and wolves. And the tight connection between the two.

And it just really hit me, this "frenchiness." She has moved to the US and really loves it here, but she talked about it in such a way that reminded me of the random french guy I met on a train once, who after college went to build roads in Africa, and then to some job in rural china, where he met his American wife, a perfume maker, and then they moved to Mexico where he became a plastic salesman, and now they're in New Jersey, and he's looking for a job.

It was mostly in the metaphors he used maybe, or his way of expressing himself. It was so unique to French. I think its an everyday use of philosophy. He was talking about the friends around the world he has, and how great Skype is for keeping in touch, but then not stopping there, he talked about how he dreamed that Skype may one day lead the the world to transcend the pettiness, and will help us enter a utopian golden age of eternal peace and mutual understanding.

It is an everyday dreamy philosophy, evident in their movies. Dreamers. L'auberge espagnol. The two most recent ones. Where people just sit around and philosphize. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset too.

And it's not a Rational philosophy. That would be too German (Kant, Hegel Marx, etc), though the French started that rational philosophy (Descartes, etc.). But a more everyday philosophy like Foucault. Big grand thoughts applied to everyday life, that life has a bigger meaning, and it should be applied to everything we do. (Bourdieu and Derrida too maybe if I knew their work better). Like the nihilism of the french philosopher in I Heart Huckabees.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Have you all noticed somone oddly using pronouns. They represent the future.

I got into a big tiffle with my feminist economics professor my first year of graduate school. Following standard grammar, after much agonizing, I used he as the third person singluar genderless pronoun. I considered he-or-she, s/he, it but found them all awkward.

I have since capitualted and follow the convention accepted in academic economics, alternate between he or she, but if there is a stereotype, use the gender that defies the stereotype.

I stubbornly refuse to adopt what is becoming increasingly common, using "They" for the singular genderless. I heard it on NPR this morning and see it quite regularly in magazines.

English has always had an awkward shortage of pronouns.

More glaringly, is the missing 2nd person plural. Historically 2nd person singular was thou and thee, and 2nd person plural was you and you.

Thou and thee have long degenerated and we were left with confusion. However, I wouldn't be surprised if before long, we get you and you for 2nd person singular, and 'you all' and 'you all' for 2nd person plural.

Having lived in Washington for only a few months, I catch myself using "you all." It certainly fills a much needed gap, and more acceptable (to me anyway) than "yous" and "y'all." It surprised me how ubiquitous it is here, not just by southerners.

On the whole, I am fine with these developments, though I may resist them myself. English language like english law (by contrast to french language and french law) is not codified, but organic.

For my many friends who get offended when nuclear is pronounced "nucular," I refer them to Monty Python's Holy Grail where they prounounce knight, well like "k-n-i-g-h-t," when for the past few hundred years, we have taken to pronouncing it "nite."

Language is fluid and adaptive. And that's cool.

Monday, October 16, 2006

A bs social theory of religion: Religion is...

(extracted from bs from a conversation with my cousin a-)

In the end, in my view, religion is primarily a set of formal rules we follow to avoid the hobbseian state of nature. Neal Stepheson's novel Snowcrash sees humans as computers, blindly following rules (without being conscious of it), and things like culture/religion as computer programs (which are in essence just rules), that evolve to solve the nasty, short and brutish prisoner's dilemma/tragedy of commons we call the game of life. dawkins called them memes, a concept as fundamental nowadays to cultural anthropologists it seems as genes are to biologists.

But christianity (or more specifically post-enlightenment protestantism) is a step beyond, because instead of mere rules, it advocates meta-rules. don't blindly follow rules like don't work on the sabbath, or don't eat pork, or don't eat cows, or eye for an eye, but instead try to understand what god wants, (meta-rules). This is the faculty of reason that descartes and kant were so infatuated with. Reason with a capital R.

sorry, that was a random dump, but nice sometimes to synthesize all the various bits of philosophy I read in grad school (even sci-fi Stephenson was read and assigned for multiple classes).

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The NBC monday night line up.

On NBCs two new shows, Heroes and Studio 60.

Both got off to shaky starts, but i'm mostly hooked, on heroes certainly. Of course nothing new in heroes, for anyone who's read alan moore or any superhero comic book not set in the DC/Marvel universe. Yes, superheroes are human, and yes if you do take the concept of superpowers seriously, you get interesting things.

For a while I was surprised M. Night wasn't involved, until it occurred to me that its massive resemblance to unbreakable was just because the story line is just ridiculously cliched in the world of just mildly non-mainstream superhero comics.

But still cool to see on TV, taken seriously, plus it got a really good audience, might get useful memes out there. I was hooked.

studio 60 would be bad, except its just so weird, that maybe it works. It was basically a west wing episode (Down to the gilbert and sullivan adoration) except they just swapped out the sets. So i liked the west-wing-ish ness of it, but for a show about a saturday night live clone, Aaron Sorkin's not very funny. (that was the conclusio of the time magazine review i believe). i mean, according to the show's warped sense of reality, they became a smash hit with a parody of pirates of penzance. I, having seen more perforamnces of gilbert and sullivan than probably anyoen you know, still thought it was stupid.

but still, putting hard nosed social-commentary, snarky sorkin dialogue into a show about a satrday night live, must just be insane enough to work. probably not, but I'm willing to give them a shot.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Run Forrest Run

"Now you wouldn't believe me if I told you, but I could run like the wind blows. From that day on, if I was ever going somewhere, I was running!"

- Forrest Gump

This is a weird lesson to take from the movie Forrest Gump, but that sounded like a surprisingly good policy. I don't have time nowadays to go to the gym much, with long hours at work and 3 hours a day commuting. So to make up for it (if only a little) I find myself running whenever I can. It started off with running for the train; there are always a few of us poised to get off the subway, to run up the escalators to catch a train at union station. But I also do it to fetch lunch, enroute to meetings in other buildings, a quick sprint down empty hallways. Useful to keep the energy up during the day. Blood rushing. Less time in transit. Good for health. Efficient.

A LifeHack as they're called nowadays.

Weird too I guess but whatever. If it's good enough for Forrest Gump, good enough for me.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Childhood Nostalgia - Fantasy LARPing

I came across this article looking through the travel section of the New York Times interviewing the LARP (Live action role playing) groups I used to play. Back in high school, I used to spend a entire weekend every month or so at a boy scout camp dressed in medieval costume, playing with foam sword and spell packets (home made bean bags made from t-shirts and rice and duck tape). Good times.

Extracted from an e-mail to R-:

don't really miss it though. it was a lot of work. i still have the costumes and swords and spell packets somewere at home. and i actually used to go to the boyscout / girlscout camps they described, like i remember participating in sieges of the wooden castle they describe, i still remember the spells i cast at the ogre "I create a magical seal that will pin" I incanted, while throwing a handmade beanbag full of rice, that locked the "ogres" leg to the castle battlement, while my fellows in the "brotherhood of the rose" (who were recognizable by the rose pin we all wore on our leather tabards), "killed" the ogre with their foam swords and rhey, with his prize possession, his foam halberd, which he labored long and hard to build.

of course in the heat of these large battles actually, i was mostly a peon, and could do very little, but that didn't matter, as it never really did. and we feasted in celebration the next day, on roast chicken and bread, which was great because most of the sleepless weekend, (i ate soggie hoagies from blimpies,) while the sorceresses sang spell songs.

i guess this sounds pretty disturbing and weird. weird enough that they made a movie about it, but unlike this article, that was a different variant than ours was.

yeah, most of the time, i was a peon, in the background, while cool stuff happened around me, like the background characters in war movies, but still got to help perform a ritual to restore the mage's guild shield wall, which was taken down during an attack, and also spent a night running through the woods off trail, escorting a sacred artifact.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

A day in the life at the CEA

So it has been a few weeks since taking my new job at the White House Council of Economic Advisers and basically drowning in work. For the first time in my life, finding myself too busy even to eat lunch on some days. It looks like I'm the main economist for energy and transportation which means I'm involved with pretty much everything the White House is doing on those topics, which is a whole lot.

It has been heartening so far that on the whole smart policies get advocated and smart decisions are typically made. It's easy to point fingers from the outside, but I still hang on to the idealism that Aaron Sorkin's tv show exemplifies. People are trying hard, just circumstances (typically politics) gets in the way.

I miss the freedom of academia. The ability to set your own schedule and your own agenda. To wake up on your own pace, and take time off when you want. To spend your time at the frontiers of knowledge, and the rarified air of the ivory tower. But at the same time, this job satisfies always the consultant urge in me. To work on new topics every day, to be making quick decisions and to have those decisions matter. To have a sense of urgency and a sense of purpose. I expect to enjoy every minute here at the CEA, but I also look forward to returning home.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

UPDATE FINALLY! Goodbye Stanford

It’s funny that as I think back to my last days at Stanford, my first thoughts were of the great food I had. My drive here to Baltimore was delayed because of car problems, but in the end that was fortuitous because that gave me the chance to visit old favorites that I have been forgoing because of my penchant for cooking these past few years.

The rural classy John Bentley (with Mom and Andy who claims it is his favorite meal ever), the Peruvian Peruanas Estampas with Esther in Redwood City with the spicy garbanzo bean salsa and the red fizzy drink, the best local Mexican La Pachanga with Nageeb and Eric and their respective significant others, great breakfast pancakes with John Paul and Esther at Stacks of Menlo Park, the hip Zibbibbo sister restaurant in a renovated warehouse in the city with Wei-En, the Sunnyvale Indian buffet I first tried with Amita, Rik’s ice cream, Café Brioche, hip new Indian place with Sunil and Gopi, the Chinese food truck with Nancy and Lawrence, the Treehouse with Dave and Charlotte, the crappy Japanese place with William and Eric, the so-so Italian in Mountainview with Albert, the nice meal at 3 Seasons/Tamarind (I forget) with Chris Rohrs, Carlos' birthday dinner at 750 talking about mortgages and marriage with a bunch of economists, cami, etc, scott's birthday in the city with tina, the final bbq with Peter and Larry and others…

In the end, it’s not so much the food (which was great) but the great friends that I say goodbye to. As we spread out across the country, I hope we keep in touch. It’s only been a couple of months, and I miss you all.

At least it culminated nicely with a big dinner my mom set up at a fantastic Chinese banquet at Hong Kong Flower Lounge (good enough for R- to approve), where such events are often awkward to setup, and awkward to host, this was effortless. Thanks to my Mom, Andy, Esther, Eric, Julie, John Paul, Debbie, Amita, Albert and of course Romina.

(I have a huge backlog of blog entries. But all my time was sucked up by graduation and moving, and now by CEA job. Hopefully I’ll start updating this again soon.)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

good morning

woke up this morning at 5:30am to take my friend a- to the airport and pleasantly surprised (this is the first time i've been up so early in non-city summer light) to exit my apartment to bright early morning sunlight and a dewy freshness that brought me back to my days in summer camps and laire (live action role playing sleep deprived weekends where we would emerge from being up all night in a post adrenaline haze)

driving down on 101, with sunlight over misty hills, and reminded to drive back on 280, (reportedly the most beautiful highway in america) one of my favorite things, is rt 280 in the morning, kinda pathetic, but beautiful, as Nwm would say, enveloped by the Green, through verdant tree filled valleys that taught me about the universality of aesthetics, and the benefits of low sunlight for rich yellows and pretty shadows learned from photography.

drove aimlessly up rt 280, listening to npr recounting the history of AIDS and the carpenter who became director of the MET opera with stunning opera music, stopped for gas in my old menlo park neighbhood, and for a coffee at starbucks (a habit i learned from R-), before returning home, and sitting outside my apartment, enjoying the birdsongs, the leaves rustling, the fresh morning air, and my ipod with an npr review of al gore's new movie.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Reviewlet: X-men the last stand

Despite the critics' thrashing, the fanboy in me liked this movie, a lot. For someone who still owns at least 10 or so years of X-men comics, this movie gets it right. First and foremost, the mutant powers.

One specialty of the X-men comics has always been the team work and the comboing and complementary use of powers was exceptional.

Magneto and Pyro hurling flaming cars, Kitty Pride as the ultimate support character, Colossus with his new protect others ability, etc. And always, my favorite, the canonical "fastball special" of Colossus using Wolverine as a "smart" projectile.

And movie special effects have finally developed to make their super powers really worked. This was the first of the x-men films where Wolverine's healing was compelling. And Beast was true to form, and I thought casting frasier was genius, though his make up didn't quite work for me.

Like the previous movies, this one included lots of canonical x-men plot elements. Wolverine and Phoenix. Joss Whedon's plot line of the Indian scientist Kavita Rao discovering the mutant cure.

The movie again asks the interesting ethical questions that the X-men always asks. Revisiting the holocaust, ethnic persecution, and indirectly, homosexuality. Though it does so in unsophisticated ways, it's not bad for a superhero movie.

And minor spoiler. I am sure that despite the graves at the end, noone died.
One death was never seen, one (if you read the comic book you would know) can never die, and finally Xavier mentioned the braindead body during class for a reason. Of course there will be sequels.

Fourth highest grossing opening of all time. Like Da Vinci code, the people are ignoring the critics, for the better this time. The New York Times review by Manohla Dargis was clueless and stupid: "By the time Warren Worthington III soars over the Golden Gate Bridge, his white wings extended and evoking seraphic visions of "Angels in America," the metaphor of the persecuted minority has all but left the realm of the figurative."

Final Grade: A-

Monday, May 22, 2006

Mental Masturbation on Language and Rationality

Listening to NPR while jogging last week around the glimmering sunny Lake Lagunita (Lake "Lake"), Tom Wolfe mentioned his belief that human rationality, the very essence of humanity, came about with language, the ability to communicate sparked reason, sparked civilization, sparked humanity.

This sparked a chain of random fun ideas, on Wittgenstein's (I believe old Wittgenstein as opposed to new Wittgenstein) concurrence that reason is only possible with language and thus truth is inherently unknowable (echoing Humean empiricism) because language is necessarily imperfect (echoing the proof by Godel that even the language of math is necessarily imperfect and certain ideas must be inexpressible in any mathematical system, echoing Church and Turing on the inherent incomputability of some things), and then reminded of W-'s explanation of how Habermas' reconciles post-modernism with objective reality by saying that reality is objective, but the imprecision of language and the necessity of language to perceive reality makes our perception of reality necessarily subjective.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Reviewlet of the DaVincii Code

Google's immersive advertising campaign for DaVincii code worked on me. Sovling the onlne puzzles got me intrigued enough to want to see the movie, and thus read the book first. Here are my thoughts:

Perfunctory prose with scarce character development (supposedly Angels and Demons did that) and awkward dialogue that existed only to advance the plot reminded me of a Hardy Boys novel. Maybe I just haven't read fiction in too long, but I tend to expect better even from my comic books.

It is however my kind of story, though Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose did the whole biblical grand conspiracy story several orders of magnitude better, but this was defiinitely much quicker of a read, and filled with an interesting plot and intriguing historical details (like where the word horny comes from or how to better appreciate renaissance iconography or how a sexual orgy can be a ecstatic ecumenical excultation of the Goddess [though not as novel as Neal Stephenson's sexual orgy as primitive archo-Internet packet switching]).

Also interesting to compare to the retelling of the same conspiracy story in the crappy Nick Cage movie, American Treasure.

The cheesy travelogue descriptions of parisian and london tourist traps, were good for me to relive old vacations, and gave greater appreciation of paris and da vincii and the mona lisa. The book rewards the avid casual tourist who knows that westminster abbey is right by parliament and houses the tomb of newton.

In the end, a satisfying plot, with interesting colorful side characters (Silas, Teabing), I enjoyed the read. Angels and Demons is next on my queue.


Thursday, April 27, 2006

Bipartisanship and working for the White House

"You'd have to be a Republican to work for the current White House" remarked one of R-'s friends, after learning that I am deferring Cornell to take a job as CEA economist in the Bush administration.

Of course the converse was also said back when I was an intern for the Clinton administration.

One of the ideals I hold dear is that partisanship is orthogonal to good governance. The writers of The West Wing seem to agree (why I love that show).

According to the NYTimes, the original plan for this season was that the Republican (played by super liberal Alan Alda) was supposed to be elected president. Despite the fact that the show's heroes are mostly Democrats, it would have been fitting to end the show on an up note with a Republican victory. Alan Alda's character continues the line of good Republicans from John Goodman's presidency, to the Speaker of the House in the first episode, to the eminently likable republican lawyer Ainsley Hayes.

Leo's death changed things so that the show's creators decided to have the Democrat win, which bummed me out until I saw that they would do even better; they would maybe make the Republican, the Vice President for a Democratic presidency. The first split ticket since the disasterous cantankerous Adams administration, but a resounding reaffirmation of the message of bipartisan governance. Great stuff.

I still like Ainsley's quote that I wrote about a couple years ago. When her Republican friends were making fun of her colleagues in the show's Democratic administration, her reply:

"The people I have met have been extraordinarily qualified. Their intent is good. Their commitment is true. They are righteous, and they are patriots... Is it so hard to believe, in this day and age, that someone would roll up their sleeves, set aside partisanship, and say, 'What can I do?' "

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Randy Cohen - Ethical Moron

here is a very short list of people I don't like, even shorter after Noam Chomsky worked his way off of it, but I should add one more, Randy Cohen, the ethicist from the New York Times and NPR.

It is really extremely rare for me to ever read something that I cannot give at least some credence to. I am all about seeing all sides, and giving credit to differing points of view. Randy Cohen has the truly unique ability of saying something I find totally off base and irrational on nearly a weekly basis.

Mostly because of his righteous castigation of many opinions that I believe reasonable. How he equated illegal downloads with theft, with no hint of nuance. His complete rejection of any hint of utilitarianism. How he looked like a complete moron when he hautily dismissed the suggestion by a reader that the Business Reply Cards found in magazines are intended for new subscriber.

Monday, April 17, 2006

fun with economics

My friend A- sent me this story about how a man has traded a paperclip for a house:

This story provides an interesting demonstration of economic principles. A- used a physics analogy to think about the story. Paperclips like electrons have a value/energy level. To exchange a paperclip for a house, you have to add tons of value/energy.

In efficient markets, trading a paperclip for a house would be impossible by some type of law of conservation. However, because of "transaction costs" (see Williamson), barters can be made where there are gains from trade, where the value of an item to the seller is greater than the value to the buyer, and thus "profit" is made.

So to prevent arbitrage, these gaps can only exist in the presence of search costs, and that is where the value/energy is added.

The Marx' theory of value that says value comes only from labor holds here. The value is created from the man's labor, in using the internet to find all these mutual exchanges of wants.

Of course, that is only the base analysis. We could get into more detail by saying since this is a special case, it makes a cute story. Some value is also created from the sheer entertainment value of the story. Each person who participated in the chain gains status and satisfaction from telling how he played a part in this scheme, and thus is willing to trade for more than the items were originally worth...

Isn't economics fun!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

new york techno-flann

I took the early morning (5am) train from Baltimore to New York last week. Had an hour or so to kill before meeting up with family, so had a quick "techno-flann." Wrote the following while sitting in Bryant Park:

watched House on my laptop on the train ride up. took a nap.
got off at pennstation, turned on ipod, and people watched, fun to
watch the crowd.
arranged ride with mom via cell phone
checked for location of Banana Republic using googl via cell phone (there's a blazer I've vaguely wanted to get)
enjoying beautiful east coast springtime (a bit humid) enjoying the nice irony given all the rain in the bay area,
walked up 7th ave to times square enjoying food stands
saw nypublic library in sun-hazed distance, wound up in bryant park, with free google wi-fi!
so here i am writing this e-mail
beautiful beautiful morning, a nice diffuse new york haze. convinced me i should enjoy mornings more...

see a video from my new camera, uploaded to google video

Saturday, April 01, 2006

flânning in baltimore

A baltimore neighborhood
Originally uploaded by benho.
The nice thing about waking up at 5am (R- has to be at the hospital by 5:30 for rounds) is that I can work for 6 hours, take a 3 hour nap, and still be justified to quit for the day a 2pm, time I have spent flânning around baltimore all afternoon.

(to flânn is my own personal coinage from the french term flânneur which is a very french concept describing what parisians seem to do all day, the american heritage describes it as aimless idling or loafing, but a better description would be aimless loafing with a mission, to experience life, to breath in experience. as i said, very french.

So after two amazingly productive mornings where I finally got a hold of the data I've been meaning to get for a year, (amazing the power of the internet and e-mail connections and Granovetter's weak ties), I rewarded myself with a flann about town. Something I try to do in every city I visit, but haven't done in baltimore despite coming here regularly for almost two years now.

so the first day, in a bright beautiful sunny day (in ironic contrast to current california rain) I had lunch in mt vernon, the historical neighborhood where Amistad was filmed filled with the peabody, a nice park, old colonial architecture, where I had fantastic pad thai from Thairish, a hole in the wall, little more than a kitchen and a couple tables, with limited menu, but fantastic pad thai, nice chewy freshly fried noodles, with firm meaty shrimp, cooked by the proprietor, a Thai immigrant with an Irish wife, who's been serving food there for decades.

Stomach sated, I walked north past slowly revitalizing hipness, past the university of baltimore and mica to penn station (beautifully ornate like the many other penn stations, and the former penn station in new york), with the giant calder metallic burning man statue out front. from penn station, i continued north, to the other side ot the railroad tracks, where I found myself the only non-black person to be seen, and garnered strange looks at times. though i was comforted by the fact that every store placard was written in korean, including the hair place, which i knew was a hair place despite having no apparent english, by the large posters of black women hairstyles in the window. I wound up at a Safeway, which was amazingly well appointed, nothing like the dodgy key food in my old brooklyn neighborhood, complete with the same occassional gourmet food sections as teh safeway back in palo alto.

the next day, again at 1:30pm ish, I set out, this time for Blue Moon Cafe (rated best breakfast in baltimore) in fell's point, one of my favorite neighborhoods, a 2 or so mile walk, but again, beautiful weather, a bit more humid than dry california, but comfortably so for an east coaster. Walked through downtown, this time past colonial french architecture, reminded me a bit of new york complete with hot dogs and "new york style" buffet delis which I remembered well from my morgan stanley days, occasionally nice neo-gothic church spires would appear in the cracks between buildings, or an italian renaissance tower, or a ugly brick tower which I had to investigate and discovered it was a police memorial.

walked through another all black neighborhood, this one completely residential, a nice new development of brick rowhouses, still vaguely uncomfortable especially after being chased down the street a couple weeks before (thankfully I was in a car). But felt protected and happy by the bright sunlight, and the soothing sounds of terry gross on my ipod, a podcast (these rock) of an interview with a half-black/half-white writer for the show Scrubs, and enjoying the really nice discussion of race (As opposed to the crassness of crash) and medicine which reminded me of R-.

entry in fells point was heralded by the heavenly smell of baked goods emanating from two large commercial bakers, apparent warehouses but for the smell of raisin oatmeal bread and other confections, whetting my appetite for the blue moon cafe which i finally reached, and found myself. a dark, hot, stuff and cramped shack with just a few tables, but it was late, so i had the place to myself, to enjoy a nice cup of coffee, which went perfectly with a banana chocolate scone and a great italian omlette. also proud that i managed to only eat half, (little victories, J- would be proud) and after savoring the meal a bit with my economist magazine, headed out to walk back along the water front, and industrial canals, to the tunes of Rilo Kiley. A random solitary store in a residential area caught my eye, and I found myself in an irish boutique, where the proprietor, a MICA graphic design graduate discussed her 25 year history of owning that store, and we talked about my cousin, and R- for whom I was looking for a present.

finally, time to head back with a couple final errands to whole foods and a little south asian "quik-e-mart," with "for entertainment purposes" slot machines in the back with a regular permanently seated, a scene i've seen in many of these markets whether south asian or hispanic.

Showing J- around Baltimore last week proved to me that I really have come to know baltimore reasonably well. i for one have come to sorta like it, though don't think R- would totally agree. it's got a nice "realness" to it, whatever that means. I guess the best way to sum it up is that it's a city where it's almost impossible to find a Starbucks, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Mountains Beyond Mountains a biography by Tracy Kidder: or why anti-poverty crusader Paul Farmer irritated me

Paul Farmer is a Harvard medical school professor who spends most of his time in Haiti fighting tuberculosis, AIDS and more generally poverty, both in Haiti and around the world. As someone who has dedicated his life to providing medical care for the truly impoverished, Farmer is a hero for my girlfriend, a med student, but somehow I always found him to be unsettling.

Tracy Kidder is the author of Soul of a New Machine, a Pulitzer Prize winning ethnographic analysis about the motivations of geeky computer engineers. It was the most compelling non-fiction book I have ever read and a crucial part of my education as an economist. As soon as I saw that Kidder had written a new biography, Mountains Beyond Mountains, subtitled the "The Quest of Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World" it was a book I bought at once for the both of us.

Kidder somehow accurately articulates exactly what always unsettled me about Farmer. It is some combination of his holier-than-thou crusade for the poor, his purposeful inspiration of guilt into all around him, his Communist ideology, and his utter disregard for efficiency. However, through personal narrative, Mountains Beyond Mountains leads the reader through Kidder's budding appreciation of Farmer as he they travel together in the course of Kidder's research for the book. Kidder helps the reader understand Farmer by showing how the medical crusader overcame Kidder's own misgivings, partly through his important academic contributions to the understanding of epidemics, partly through his immense personal dedication toward the eradication of poverty, but primarily through the inherent goodness of Farmer's morality which Kidder comes to appreciate.

(see full review here at

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A Progressive Case for US involvement in Iraq

Many liberals and now many conservatives have used the 3rd anniversary of the Iraq war to renew their attacks against US involvement in Iraq. My position three years ago was insufficient information to pass judgment (I tend to have a high bar) and thus willing to defer to those with more information. Someone asked me today how my opinion has changed. It hasn't.

West Wing (excellent show) has just had Jed Bartlett sending a comparable number of US troops to an oil rich central Asian country to avert a civil war. It seems this is a typical left wing progressive position: US troops should be used to stand between combatants in potential civil wars, Sudan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Nigeria, i.e. nation building. It seems that a large part of the attacks in Iraq are between Iraqis. Shouldn't the US be there to minimize the damage? Yes, there are other problems we are ignoring, but isn't something better than nothing?

Note that this is totally independent of the US invading in the first place. Even if you disagree about that, what's that have to do with pulling out today. And there are strong progressive reasons for invasion as well. The people of Iraq clearly wanted to be free of Sadaam Hussein's rule. Every opinion poll shows they are still overwhelmingly happy to be rid of him. Isn't inaction in helping kick out a dictator the same as action in propping up a dictator (a standard left wing indictment of US foreign policy) [And yes, those classical liberals/libertarians especially make a big difference between action and negative inaction, but economists and progressives tend not to care] {And of course I always thought there are good reasons sometimes to support dictators, it's just interesting now that there are so many progressives out there that wish we had.}

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Chronicle for Higher Ed Column #3

This one got a bit more personal that I would have liked. The editor asked for a new ending at a weird time for me, but it did make the piece much better.

Chronicle Column #3

For those who don't know, I am taking a job as Assistant Professor at the Johnson School of Business at Cornell. Yes, Ithaca is Gorges, though it is alas in the middle of nowhere. Still, it all seemed to work out. So if you have any suggestions on how to conclude my column, I'd be happy to hear them. I have no idea.

I don't want to come across like the MIT professor who told me, Ben, you should be happy you didn't get a job at MIT. Maybe it's the best thing that ever happened to you, it forces a reevaluation of what's important. Also, when people find out you are an MIT professor they think you're some kind of God or something and you're lucky you don't have to deal with that. Gee, thanks...

Though on the whole he was right. The whole search process allowed me to reevaluate what I want out of life, and what is important. Now, the task just is to condense that into an engaging non-off-putting 1000 word essay.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

jimmy carter and george bush got it right

The forces of rationality lost another one today to the forces of politically inspired stupidity, as the Dubai Ports World was forced to divest its holdings in the US Ports.

The combined forces of Jimmy Carter, NPR and the Economist who all thought the deal was unquestionably a good thing as well as a veto threat by George Bush couldn't stand up to the combined political pressure by senators from both parties (led by among others Hillary Clinton who loses all moral high ground on this one), abetted by Lou Dobbs on CNN openly mocking anyone who would suggest that the port deal is a good idea.

It is not just a blow against free trade, and against all rational sense (NPR lined up dozens of experts, and only one had reservations about the deal. The politicians could find no expert that supported their opinion), but also it was a chance to show the Arab world that in the US, freedom and trade outweigh petty tribal disputes. That we live in such a Cosmopolitan society that until the likes of Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer stepped in, an Arab company running parts of major US ports would have gone completely unnoticed.


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

amtrak and the joys of social norms

I was reminded today of a minor bout of happiness to be back in the US feeling at Penn Station in New York. I love travel, and there are lots of place in the world I'd be happy to live, but I had just returned from a ski trip in France where we were constantly aware that lines were always mere formality, that without careful vigillance, whoever was behind us at any given point in line, would inevitably wind up in front, to the point that I got into childish name calling with some Aussie. The utter disrespect for lines is mirrored almost everywhere you go (with perhaps Japan and the UK being exceptions).

It really is a silly thing, but standing in Penn Station in January, in a crowd of well over a hundred people waiting to board the train to Boston to a stressful set of 20 interviews that may well determine the course of my life, I was amazed when the track number was announced to board the train, the massive crowd of people instantly coalesced into an orderly single file line. Simple things.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Age of Science is Over

During the State of the Union the other night, President Bush echoing pundits everywhere, said that the US is falling behind in science and technology, and mercifully resisting the urge for protectionism, called for better math and science education. Every issue of American Scientist says the same thing. Asian countries value math and science, our kids should too. So too say the pundits on Charlie Rose today, as well as the globalization scare mongers like Thomas Friedman.

Yet few economists seem to be too worried. My thought, since when should the US be following other people’s leads, aren’t they following us? Where is the market failure? (ok there are lots, but stay with me here) Maybe the market for education knows something our experts and pundits do not.

Sure, other countries are graduating more scientists and engineers than we are, but they are also graduating more farmers too, and have populations with far higher farming aptitude. The US left the agricultural economy behind long ago—we manage to lead the world in food production with only 1-2% of our work force—maybe it is time to start expecting the end of the science economy. Sure there will still be scientists and engineers, just like there are still farmers, but the rest of us will be doing something else. People seem less concerned with the speed of their gadgets nowadays than with their design.

If not science then what else? I don’t know. Marx was smart enough to not try to predict what we would do with all the free time technology would bring: perhaps artists and musicians, athletes and life coaches, writers and therapists, professors and diplomats, chefs and architects, doctors and vets, inventors and entrepreneurs. Students aren’t clamoring to study math and science in school, maybe not because they are too stupid and lazy, but they (with the help of the market) are smart enough to realize those aren’t the skills they need for the 21st century.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

sunny optimism

I have always been a sunny optimist when looking at trends in the human condition (see my column from the Stanford Daily). Like many economically trained, it always pained me to see that Shark Attack news stories always spiked when the actual number of shark attacks was steeply declining. Similarly for church burnings, kidnappings, homework epidemics etc.

So it didn't surprise me to read that last year as stories about Methamphentamine epidmics, rampant teenage sex on the rise, depression spriraling out of control, when in fact, drug use is steady, teenage pregnancy is on the decline, the number of teenagers having sex is down, suicide rate is down.

What did surprise me is that I felt the media was more responsibile about it this year. The Economist and NPR's On the Media both ran stories about these media mistakes. Perhaps the media is getting better too.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

psych vs econ

Stanford Ed School prof, Myra Strober, once related a nice paradigm for relating psychology, sociology, and economics. When trying to predict what a person will do, the psychologist wants to know about his past, the sociologist wants to know about his present societal influences, and the economist wants to know how the person's decision will affect his future. Likely the truth depends on all three.

(Yes, that is a gross caricature, be prepared, there will be many more, but caricatures are often useful... Disclaimer, the following is pure speculation on my part, I invite you to tell me if you disagree.)

So I had a conversation with an Illinois psychologist Sharon Shavitt, that helped another big difference between economics and psychology click into place. My classes in the soul searching political science department (where every class began with two weeks of justifying itself as a science) helped. Psychology concerns itself with laws, while economics concerns itself with theorems.

A law is an observed regularity of behavior -- e.g. the law of gravity (pre-Einstein) -- without any attempt to explain why. Psychologists are primarily concerned with finding regularities of behavior, and expressing them in as universal terms as possible. The reasons for the behavior don't matter so much. The economist always wants to explain things. Start with basic assumptions/axioms, and derive the reason behind why these regularities of behaviors exist. At first glance, this just sounds like better science (esp in a Popperian sense). Though in order to make these derivations tractable, we wind up basing our derivations on axioms we know not to be true, in a sollipcistic (perhaps the first time i've used that word non-ironically) attempt to have our explanations stand up on a vaporous foundation.

Which helps me understand why my co-authors in our fashion paper think the finding that the meaning of fashion is socially constructed (in econo-speak, fashion has signal value only as a result of Nash equilibrium between all players). Curious that it is actually economics that would find itself more comfortable with this fundamentally po-mo (post modern) idea. The psychologist focuses on universals of behavior, ignoring from whence it came.

It also explains why psychologists don't seem bothered by the fact that attribution theory is really more law, than theory. A large literature exists describing how attributions operate in a vast variety of circumstances, but there is little attempt to explain why. So my clumsy attempt to explain it, is thus met with indifference, disinterest, maybe scorn.

I guess social psychologists take behavior as a primitive. Economists aren't much better. We tend to take preferences as a primitive. Evolutionary psychology and evolutionary economics take both fields further, but neither is well developed.