Thursday, December 27, 2007

Stanford memories

A friend of mine was going to be spending time in Stanford recently. This is excerpted from an e-mail I wrote to her:

And good food at Santa Fe. I really like American Southwest food, and hard to get it in other parts of the country. While at Stanford, do take advantage of the food. Great Chinese food in Cupertino at the mall with the Ranch 99 asian grocery (far better than in San Francisco's Chinatown which is mostly relegated to tourists). And of course Napa valley with the great food and wine, French Laundry's perhaps overrated and too much trouble to get reservations, but Bouchon (also by chef Thomas Keller) is excellent and much cheaper. Nice to rent bicycles up there, and check out the wineries without worrying about excess inebriation. Stacks and Cafe Brioche are the best breakfast/brunch places near campus, and Thai Cafe is the best lunch place on campus, (their food is actually more vietnamese than Thai). If you haven't found it yet, look for the long lines in the downstairs courtyard by the math and psychology departments.

Good memories. Oh, and do walk "the Dish" a beautiful 5km loop on a high hill behind campus, and drive up to San Francisco along Skyline drive, atop the foothills through ancient forests right behind campus with numerous hikes along the way, or drive down south along the coast along highway 1, driving by Half Moon Bay, and Big Sur National Park, or as far as Los Angeles on what's called (and I agree) the most beautiful highway in America. Even highway 280 right by campus is quite beautiful especially early in the morning.

Ah, I miss Stanford.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Synthesis vs Analysis

On the interview trail with R-, someone recalled one of the most annoying interview questions they received "What are you better at, Synthesis or Analysis." But also on the trail, R- has noted, and I concur that a difficult question posed by an astute interviewer is a good opportunity to learn something about yourself.

I remember learning about Blooms' Taxonomy of Knowledge in Mrs O'Neil's 4th grade Honors Reading class. (actually, it wasn't Honors back then, but first GAT for gifted and talented and later ESP for who knows what, but I vaguely recall thinking ESP meant extra special people...) Kind of a silly thing to teach a 10 year old, but I remembering memorizing the 6 modes of learning, I can still hear the class chanting them in my head "Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Synthesis, Analysis, Evaluation." Lots of big words, which really didn't mean anything to me until years later. But I remember trying hard to memorize them as we were to be tested on the words. I remember especially working hard on the word "taxonomy" which I had never seen before, and was such a strange arcane word, though I liked how it rolled around in my head even though I had no idea what it meant. I still like the word taxonomy, cooler than "typology" which means much the same thing, and sociologist types like to use.

But anyway, as to the question, I think for me it is easy, I do both, but synthesis is clearly what I am good at. What makes me unique from my colleagues is that I like putting together ideas from vastly disparate sources. Using my degrees that range from engineering to education to political science to math. Pulling together strands from music and philosophy. Probably excessively so, but I enjoy it. I never called it "synthesis" before. But I guess that's exactly what it is. Just took 20 years for that particular 4th grade lesson to sink in.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The McCain-Lieberman Party (or Yoda and David Brooks)

Below is a post I wrote last year that I couldn't post while working for the White House (given the post's advocacy for a particular candidate). I had been wondering when the political consequences of a quieter Iraq would show up, and it is finally showing up with a resurgent (or at least upticking) McCain-Lieberman party. A McCain-Lieberman ticket is one I'd love to support.

"Hyper-partisans (like "net-root" democrats and delay republicans) may have started with subtle beliefs, but their beliefs led them to partisanship and their partisanship led to malice and malice made them extremist, and pretty soon they were no longer the same people."

The Dark Side turned to they did...

I concur by the way. His column today was about defending the McCain-Lieberman party against the more and more extremist democratic and republican parties. That nuance and moderation should not be swept away by emotion-driven tribalistic sunni-shite-style partisanship. I'd vote for Lieberman if I could.

David Brooks is still my favorite newspaper/magazine pundit (though Joel Stein comes close), despite the fact that his nytimes column has deteriorated a bit toward Krugman style suckage.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Generation Q

Friedman identifies something in his column a couple weeks ago that David Brooks wrote in Atlantic Monthly in an article entitled The Organization Kid almost a decade ago (see my old posts from way back), which made Brooks my favorite magazine writer long before he gained fame as a NY times columnist, a position whose deadlines seem to cause a major decline in quality of output.

But I dispute Friedman's thesis, even more now than I did Brooks, that kids today are impressive but passive. Maybe I'm just a product of this generation, but I don't believe we need more activism at this stage. Because on the whole, the system works. (Friedman of course probably has climate change in mind, but having spent a year learning every facet of it, I am more confident than ever that the system is working on that front as well. I welcome anyone who wants to challenge that assertion.)

I think people have decided that marching in the street and sit-ins for the issues of today are wasteful and self-indulgent. The recent Columbia student hunger strike protesting changes in their curriculum seemed ridiculous; Time magazine was almost mocking them by quoting student Emilie Rosenblat: "The day after the revolution is just as important as the revolution
itself. Our work is just beginning."

I think people realize that more good can be done doing Teach for America or starting a company. Retail activism. (I like that term) Social entrepreneurship.

For those theoretically minded, the constructivist paradigm has been fully suppplanted by neo-liberalism. People (at least in the US) no longer need to try changing norms/institutions/rules of the game, but instead, are playing within the current capitalist market driven paradigm to effect change.

Of course, if we believe our Hegel or Schumpeter or Marx or Kuhn, this stage won't last either, at some point, we will move on. But until then, Viva la Market Economics!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Net Neutrality: Final Verdict, It Sucks.

I had never had a strong position on this until now. I was actually in a White House meeting (technology was part of my portfolio) that could have shaped how the FCC would regulate net neutrality, but didn't have an opinion at the time.

I saw a statistic today that helped me finally decide my position on Net Neutrality. In Time magazine, Dec 10, 2007, on their Numbers page, they cite a PCWorld article which says that by 2010 the Internet could slow to a crawl due to exponential demand growth for video, and that needed Infrastructure will cost $137 billion. Or over $1000 per US household. Of course these numbers are likely flawed, but still illustrate the danger of not having pricing on the Internet.

Those who advocate for Net Neutrality advocate a system like our airports or our highways, where the law prohibits most attempts to regulate who uses them. This is good for giving people free non-disriminatory access. It is very bad for controlling congestion. As highway traffic and airport delays get out of control, we see the dangers.

Similarly for the internet, if we had a pricing system, that would provide the funding necessary to pay for upgrades, and minimize the congestion so that people watching stupid youtube videos and porn movies don't block all the other low bandwidth stuff that may be more productive. Of course if people are willing to pay more per kB transferred for those porn videos, then they should be entitled, a pricing system allows the system to allocate to the most productive use. But still, for the price of 1GB video, you'd be able to receive several years worth of e-mail. The Internet Net could still be effectively free for most uses.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

ABC's Brothers and Sisters

My mom and brother turned me on last year to this show which I can't help but love. It is so earnest in its scmaltzy histrionic over-wrought melodramatic pathos, of an amazingly functional dysfunctional upper-middle class (perhaps more accurately lower-upper class, or upper class with middle class pretensions) family.

My cousin A- turned me on to the aesthetic of purity. Of a book/movie/comic/painting that is so completely earnest and unabashed in what it does. That even though it may not be artful in any traditional sense, it is perfectly rendered in its own way. Legally Blonde is one of my favorite movies in that vein. Brothers and Sisters satisfies that aesthetic for me in television.

How it goes over the top tugging at your heart strings in an emotional rollercoaster, which by all rights shouldn't work, but in its earnestness, just does.

Two slightly odd things about it. One is the protagonists are quite well off (with middle class pretensions). But I guess that is fairly typical of TV sitcoms (at least the ones I and most of my friends watch, which probably says something).

The other is that it is basically an update of the show Sisters. Funny how TV always repeats itself. (What blows me away is how Quantum Leap, with its absolutely ridiculous premise, resurrected its premise with a new show this season, Journeyman).

Friday, November 02, 2007

How to read a book without Reading.

University of Paris professor Pierre Bayard, author of "How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read" is a genius, at least based on this interview.

Not especially deep, but I found huge value in grad school (at MIT, we never really had to read), of skimming. That's how I stayed ahead in those political science and education classes that assigned two dense books of reading per class per week, while doing the course load for 3 degrees simultaneously.

Basically, I made sure to at least skim everything (when most of my classmates would get bogged down, and just skip). Sure retention goes down, but at some point, I learned that there is no neurological basis for forgetting. So quite possibly your brain potentially stores everything it comes across, somewhere, just you don't always have access to it. So I figure, if I stuff it full of stuff, even cursorily, things will come together if sufficiently important. Seems to have worked well enough to get A's in those fuzzy classes anyway.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Everything's Big about Government these Days

NPR was complaining recently about how paltry today's GI Bill is compared to those from the original, and people complain about the lack of ambition in today's space program when compared to Apollo, and that we need a concerted push for clean energy like we did with the Manhattan Project.

When the truth is that the GI Bill provides greater benefits today than it did after World War II, not counting the vast number of other ways education is subsidized. That the annual budget of NASA today is higher than average annual spending for the Apollo program (adjusted for inflation). And that direct government spending on climate change R&D over the past 7 years is higher than the entire cost of the Manhattan Project, and direct spending is dwarfed by tax credits.

And yet, NPR regularly ignores these realities. As do the pundits they interview. Boo.

(Fyi, according to wikipedia, the Apollo mission averaged $8 billion per year in 1996 dollars, whereas the NASA budget is $13 billion in 1996 dollars. According to wikipedia, the GI's got $10,000 per year for education post WWII, today they get $13,000 according to va.gov. The Manhattan project costs about $20 billion in today's dollars. US Federal Government Clean Energy Research spending over the past 7 years is about $14 billion. Lots more if you add in state/local government, private spending, and research into other aspects of climate change.)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Bias on NPR and the Universality of Human Behavior

To be fair, it wasn't NPR's bias, just the stuff they put on the radio. Caught a few minutes of John Dean's speech to the Commonwealth Club on San Francisco. Unfortunately drove out of radio range to hear the rest of it, but in those few minutes, heard how Dean cites social psychologists who found that Republican voters are prone to Fascism and Nazi behavior. Which annoyed me because it goes against one of the main tenets of the last 50 years of social psychology, that people aren't that different, especially in responding to an authoritarian regime. That Hannah Arendt was right when arguing for the "banality of evil." That the vast majority of subjects in Milgram's experiments proceeded to electrocute someone to death, when asked to by the experimenter. That one of the main impetus of social psychology in the second half of the 20th century is to show that the potential for fascism is universal, to think otherwise is to commit the fundamental attribution error, and that people are largely the same, which is comforting in a way. But of course that doesn't fit Dean's thesis, so it is a fact that Dean convenient does not talk about.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Do Psychologists understand the Economy better than Economists?

Peter Ayton is giving a talk next week entitled "Why Psychologists know more about Economic Behaviour than Economists".

Here's my thoughts.

I feel the problem is that most psychologists have a caricatured view of economists, that may be true for large parts of the profession, or those trained a long time ago, but amongst "good" economists which is probably most economists at top schools, economists have a much more nuanced view.

Psychologists may know more about specific behaviors in certain contexts, but are probably less able to make predictions about what happens in the economy at large. Good economists know their models are flawed, but accept our models as useful tools, that match patterns and can make predictions in most of the economy. Sure, they do not capture all the nuances that psychologists care about, but they accept that as a trade off for more tractability.

Like if I was asked, what is the impact of a refinery outage on the price of oil, though psychologists will know that fear and herding may drive some effects, economists know that supply and demand is likely the best predictor, and in fact, can show the statistics that prove it.

It is also an application of the overconfidence effect. David Dunning was on NPR a couple days ago talking about how the robust finding in psychology that everyone thinks they are above average. Applied to this case, both economists and psychologists think they are better at understanding the economy.

Economists have recently reconciled these findings (a couple recent papers in the American Economic Review) by arguing that everyone can believe they are better than average, because everyone defines "better" in a different way. Economists and psychologists just care about different questions when thinking about the economy, and each group probably does know more about the questions that they care about.

Friday, October 12, 2007

I almost won a Nobel prize...

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded today to Al Gore and the IPCC, the UN Committee that puts out reports on the science of climate change. As the energy economist at the CEA, I was asked many times to help put out the latest draft of the IPCC report, but the request was denied by our chief staff because, rightly so, it would have taken up a lot of my time on tedious negotiations, which was considered too valuable.

Though even as one of the thousands writing for the IPCC, not sure if I'd count as a laureate, though MIT always counted its staff who were part of MSF (Doctor's without borders) in their Nobel Laureate count.

Doh.

So as a nearly-Laureate, I want to take the opportunity to complain about the fact that Al Gore won as well. While I respect the IPCC, Al Gore pisses me off.

Not because he uses junk science and emotional scare tactics as even the New York Times does not dispute, but because he writes a book trashing everyone else for using junk science and emotional rhetoric, and then uses junk science and emotional rhetoric himself (as I have decried on this blog before).

Double Doh.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Superhero memories

My cousin, A-, sent me an article about a recent panel discussion on superheroes which included the following question:

"...moderator Ben Greenman opened the discussion by asking all the panelists to recall their first superhero experience."

Good question. I guess the answer would have to be the Superman movies or maybe the Batman tv show. The first one in theaters was actually Supergirl I think, I can picture the empty grand old New York City theater with my father.

The first exposure to comics though, I have to credit to A-. I had read Gi Joe and Transformer comics before (because of the cartoons) or Archie and Jughead (because they were in supermarkets) but I think it was perhaps one of the X-men trades with Loki and the Norse pantheon that he lent me that got me hooked. I started collecting Uncanny X-men around issue 275 a special double issue, and the rest is history.

(Randomly, A- started collecting Uncanny X-men with the same issue)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

And the new Top Chef is...

Hung!

I do have to say that I was rooting for him from the beginning. Partly because I respect his culinary style. Careful precision in his execution, very much, his Asian fusion, partly, (though that can easily get cheesy, e.g. Roy's) but also his willingness and ability to tastefully adopt modern techniques. Plus have to support Asian-American role models, I s'pose.

I also sympathize with Hung for the attacks he gets. I think it his dedication and focus on his task that causes him to block out/ignore those around him, that leads others to call him arrogant but I think he's just misunderstood. So congrats Hung.

Oh, and for what its worth, Harold's (the original Top Chef) restaurant Perilla is highly recommended. We walked by one day and saw him just sitting on his stoop, wearing the classic Harold white undershirt (R- flipped out like a groupie in front of a rock star), so we had to try Perilla for dinner. Excellent risotto side. Everything well executed. My main was a simple pheasant (very easily overcooked) but mine was beautifully tender and the skin nicely crisp. Basic competencies, but still rarely well executed.

Friday, September 28, 2007

In Memorium: a death in genre (trashy) fantasy

Just found out that Robert Jordan passed away. AV Club took the opportunity to trash his books. His never finished 12,000+ page 12 volume tomes to some were the ultimate example of genre fantasy (aka trashy and as opposed to fantasy with literary pretensions like Borges or Gaiman) but for me just seemed too heavy and pendulous to bother with.

I agree with the AV Club blogger though, that George RR MArtin blew me away. At least the first was perhaps the best genre fantasy I have read. But like the blogger, I had moved on from genre fantasy before the plodding Martin released his 3rd book (plus his introduction of magic in book 2 put me off, part of what made book 1 so great was that it was fantasy without magic).

I can definitely empathize with the AV Club's point when I stopped reading genre books, I also read a lot less. Though my recent response has been to read more comic books (though many with literary pretensions).

(Though I feel compelled to observe that he neglects Raymond Feist, who despite being a trashy fantasy writer wrote the text for the first computer game to almost transcend into what could almost be called literature (Betrayal at Krondor), and experimented with fantasy novels where the plot was driven by devices like founding the first stock market and cornering the corn market. Again, it was a naive view of economics--I will write a better one someday--but I appreciated the effort.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

When command and control is good.

UN Environmental Program:
Regulatory and control instruments such as building codes and appliance standards are the most effective way to increase energy efficiency, and so mitigate the industry's impact on global warming.
Environmental Economics Blog:
Dumbfounded: as if struck dumb with astonishment and surprise.
Me:

So of course normally I'd agree with that there are better ways to regulate than command and control. You could tax for example. But on this issue, this is one issue where I ignored economic consensus and didn't battle government bureaucracy on this point when I was at the White House.

Because if you believe the estimates, it does look like people don't respond to prices when it comes to efficiency.

That even without taxes, people pass up efficiency improvements in dryers, dishwashers, buildings, cars, that would net save them money, at any reasonable discount rates.

The gut reaction of any economist is that they must be measuring this wrong. People are not paying for the efficiency improvement because there are unobservable characteristics (e.g. fuel efficient cars are less fun). However, there have been so many studies that consistently find this, that after a while, you have to think, maybe the measurement is ok.

So economic theory could back command and control in this case if you believe that either hyperbolic discounting causes consumers to be short sighted and ignore future gains, or information costs are high and consumers can't compute the savings, or principal-agent issues, particularly relevant in buildings comes up. The people who buy the buildings, are not the people who pay the utility bills.

I guess the point just is that things are never as simple as Econ 101 textbooks might have you believe. That said, the world would probably still be a better place if more policy makers knew a little more econ 101.

Monday, September 24, 2007

New Web Host for benho.org

So I recently discovered that google wasn't indexing my website. Which I figured out was because I was still using my web host at mit, from undergraduate days. So I finally moved benho.org to my own web host (free hosting at x10hosting.com which means not great reliability, so sorry if the site is down) which shouldn't mean much to you, but means more flexibility on my part.

Shouldn't affect readers at all except you will need to change your links for any rss feeds you may use. For the main blog:
http://www.benho.org/atom.xml
http://www.benho.org/rss.xml

And for the photo blog:
http://www.benho.org/photoblog/atom.xml
http://www.benho.org/photoblog/rss.xml

Sorry for any inconvenience.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Whee, I'm a published photographer

So I now have 3 things on my resume as professional photographer (in case I ever decide to switch careers), the couple hundred dollars I was paid by my department to photograph my grad school graduation ceremony, as official photographer for Stanford Wushu, and as of today, as published photographer on Schmap.

Well sorta anyway. Schmap is a web-based travel guide that uses Flickr to get free photographs, and probably used my photo for the Westward Look resort (a beautiful place incidentally) near Tucson, probably because it's the only one on Flickr.

R- actually beat me getting on Schmap with her photo of Davies Hall in SF.

Anyway, good deal. Schmap gets free photos and free word of mouth, and flickr users get their 15 nanoseconds of fame.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Me on Nytimes.com's Freakonomics blog

- Gratuitous self-promotion -

So I got asked to write something about global warming for the Nytimes.com Freakonomics blog.

That's it.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Commodification of Uniqueness

There was a recent New York Times style magazine article on the new Saks Fifth avenue shopping bag, which features a unique arrangement of the saks fifth avenue logo on every single bag.

By cutting up the logo into squares, and rearranging the squares in a different way on each bag, they create googols of different possible combinations.

The shopping bag, a Warholian symbol of comformist consumerism has over the past few years received much attention as lower production costs have caused mall brands to create fancier and fancier bags, while eco-concerns has made reusable canvas grocery bags into a fashion statement.

However, the Saks bag does something neat by making these mass produced symbols of brand identity into something no longer identical. Each unique, yet each, identical in its genesis. Replicating nature by its same but not sameness (like snowflakes).

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Google Earth Flight Simulator

I often thought it would be cool to play certain video games just for the chance for vicarious travel. I love to travel, but never have enough time or money. The idea of doing it virtually partly struck me from a talk I attended (many years ago) by a game designer for a precursor to Everquest and World of Warcraft and the MMORPGs of today. While the game was a typical fantasy hack and slasher, he said he often got letters from retired folks and people in nursing homes who loved the game just to wander the world. One woman wrote how she particularly enjoyed walking to this one bend in a virtual river, just to watch the fish jump out of the water. Something quite reasonable to do in the real world, but difficult given limited mobility, so why not do it in a virtual one.

(Of course virtual worlds today are so sophisticated, one of my colleagues here is trying to use them as a research platform.)

So now I am sort of excited at how google earth is helping recreate the experience of travel, and giving it away for free. The new version of google earth contains a flight simulator, which lets you navigate the real world, modeled through user input and satellite imagery, to explore places you have never been before. Still not perfect, but pretty neat nonetheless.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Dewey on Democracy

Excerpted from a recent book discussion on Nadine Gordimer's The Pickup, a modernist novel that addresses immigration, globalization, and cross-border migration.

One thing I forgot to mention was my favorite sentiment from the philosopher John Dewey. Political economists and others often worry about democracy, Bryan Caplan just published a book on the subject. When the majority of Americans have a hard time identifying the Vice President, couldn't locate Sudan on a map, and have trouble adding two fractions, it is a parlous state of affairs to be depending on a democratic vote to make decisions on complex issues like immigration reform, science policy, or globalization. But Dewey countered that it is the responsibility of the experts--the economists, the political scientists, the physicists--to package their ideas in ways easy to understand, ways that will properly inform the electorate to make the hard decisions. He argued that poets and painters and musicians have been able to package very complicated ideas in a way that reaches a wide audience. So I thought Nadine Gordimer's book is an attempt at it. Apparently, she didn't succeed too well, but it is a noble goal. The fate of democracy may depend on it.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Bourne Ultimatum is Way Existential

I guess it is officially ok to use existential, not in terms of the 19th century philosophy of Camus and Sartres, but as an important sounding way to say, "pertaining to existence." While Alicia Silverstone's character in Clueless was mocked for casually dropping the term, the NPR review of Bourne Ultimatum calls the movie existential, just because it deals with Bourne's existence. I guess the ultimate arbiter of such things is William Safire who recently discussed this new casual use, especially in the context of Dick Cheney's declamation that the War on Terror is existential.

I have often been tempted, but tend to resist, not wanting to bring in connotations of alienation and absurdity, and that consciousness creates meaning and all that.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Green Living Sucks

So I moved into my new apartment in Ithaca, NY: Gateway Commons, and I love it. Brand new building, never lived in before, hard wood floors, high-end stainless steel furniture, high ceilings, recessed lighting, granite counters, kitchen island, flat stove top, spacious, easy access to campus and to downtown, the walk to work is one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever been on (if I take the long way anyway).

The one thing on the beautiful well designed website that raised major red flags was the 3rd part of their motto: "Live Luxury...Live Smart...Live Green" LIVE GREEN.

I have nothing against green, but it just raises flags. Typically, it just makes things more expensive, for little benefit, which is why I tend to avoid organic foods and the like in the grocery store (presuming I can get non-organic of comparable quality, like at Whole Foods). But I liked the place enough to take the apartment anyway.

Living there one day confirmed how great the apartment is, and how annoying the live green part is. The bamboo floors are beautiful but apparently very easily dented. The sinks are all water efficient and thus have very low pressure, annoying when washing dishes and even washing hands. The shower is meek and highly unsatisfying. The toilet so far has been of decent design that despite the low-flushness has been ok, but every time, it just barely does its job, so I suspect that multi-flushing will become necessary. The AC cycles on and off with a loud click very rapidly (turning on and off for a couple minutes at a time). Presumably an energy saving feature, but still.

And the thing is, I am pro-environment, but believe that some things are worth it and some aren't. What environmentalists don't get is that economists know how to calculate the damage excess water or energy use has on the environment and that sometimes the benefits of water usage outweigh the cost. For me (and probably most people) we would much rather have satisfying showers and easy flush toilets, and pay a few extra bucks to compensate the environment through other means. (Like pay farmers to stop growing rice in the desert. The recent stupid campaign against bottled water is similarly dumb. If you want to know whether bottled water really is a bad idea, you might ask, would people still buy it if the externalities are correctly priced. Most reasonable estimates would likely be the extra cost to be under 5 cents per bottle. That is unlikely to majorly crimp the industry, end ellipsis). Argh.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Hypocrite in Chief: Al Gore Assaults Reason

I had an epiphany standing on the White House lawn as an intern for the Clinton Administration in the summer of 1999. Politicians lie. He was giving a speech about how tax cuts stimulate the economy (A Keynesian idea that has made it into the public consciousness) but then uses some sophistry to draw the diametrically opposite conclusion to what is taught in any intro macroeconomics class. I concluded that all politicians play with the truth all the time. That in some sense this is inevitable, given the limited attention span of the public who don't have time to listen to fully articulated argumentation, and the fact that at the end of the day, truth and reason are likely subjective (I am sympathetic with Foucault and post-modernism on this point).

So I should be sympathetic to Al Gore's new book, the Assault on Reason, which seems to make much the same point, except for one major difference, Al Gore holds himself above it all, he claims he is the exception, and while he professes the problem is universal, focuses his attack on the Bush administration.

The frustrating irony is in order to make his point that politicians today use half-truths, false facts and innuendo, Gore himself uses half-truths, false facts and innuendo.

So I haven't read the book yet, but I have read an extended excerpt in Time magazine, as well as long fawning interviews in the NY Times, Time, Charlie Rose, etc., none of whom question his facts, even when they are wrong.

In his excerpt, one of the only facts Gore uses is a statistic about how much television Americans watch, and blames television for the decline in national discourse, but ignores the fact that TV watching is in fact declining in America. And he goes with a wildly incorrect calculation that Americans devote 3/4 of their free time watching television.

He also cites as an example of Bush's perfidy, that 50% of Americans still think Sadaam Hussein helped perpetrate 9/11. He does not cite the survey that finds nearly as many Democrats who believe that George Bush perpetrated 9/11 (one of many such surveys is here). Yes, people are egregiously uninformed, but it is not just Bush who is responsible.

Gore cites the Bush administration's lies about climate change, and yet as someone who had to approve nearly everything the administration said about climate change in the past year, I would disagree. And the inconvenient truth is that even the New York Times reports that Gore's much lauded film includes many factual errors and false innuendo, but that story has been largely ignored.

Gore somehow thinks democratic discourse was better 200 years ago, when non-whites, women, non-property owners, those under 21, who were too poor to pay the poll tax, or pass certain exams, or were deemed unworthy by voting officials, (that is the vast majority of the population) were all denied the right to vote.

He paints some golden ideal of American democracy in years past, but doesn't seem to offer much evidence for this in interviews anyway, and is never challenged on this point, though many historians have pointed out that civil liberties are commonly withdrawn during war time (think Lincoln and habeas corpus, FDR and Japanese interment) and that sex scandals have driven politics since Alexander Hamilton was slandered, and wars have been started over false pretense (Remember the Maine! or the Lusitania) since the beginning. Heck, even the Revolutionary War was started in part because of the Stamp Act, even though they actually were taxed less than most British citizens, and the tea that was dumped during the Boston Tea Party would have been cheaper (even with the tax) than what they were already paying.

Anyway, on the whole, Gore probably isn't any worse in this regard than most other politicians, it just irks me when he clothes himself in self-righteousness, writes a book to that effect, and manages to slip it by completely unchallenged.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter: The Wizard with a Thousand Faces

Just finished book VI, in anticipation of the finale. (Gave up on reading the french versions for the last few).

Kept on getting caught up (as has been mentioned in all the reviews) how much Rowling draws from all the fantasy epics in popular culture. The Dark Side/Voldemart/Sauron uses fear/anger/hate while Luke/Harry/Frodo's advantage is friendship/love/pity, as we learn from Yoda/Dumbledore/Gandalf. And yet, while Luke/Frodo/Harry's advantage is his friends (Han/Leia, Sam/Fellowship, Hermonine/Ron), he must in the end, go it alone, abandoned even by his mentor as Gandalf/Dumbledore/Yoda dies, to complete the hero cycle.

I guess there are deeper meditations on the nature of good and evil here. Universal truths. Either that, or epic authors have been following the same cliches for thousands of years.

Anyway, on to book VII.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

On BBC World

So was hoping to have a video of this to post before posting but looks hopeless. I got interviewed about my apologies research on live tv a couple weeks ago (around 2:50 pm EST on Friday June 22, 2007 on BBC World). Worried I'd make a fool of myself, but I think it went ok, mostly. Still nervous as heck. Though I don't know for sure as I haven't seen the interview yet (they made a tape for me, but their used a 10 minute long video tape, so when I played it back, it ran out shortly after the announcer said, "coming up, some surprising new research on the value of an apology").

Apparently they saw me mentioned in the Financial Times column by Tim Harford. Pretty neat.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Do we really need a higher gasoline or carbon tax?

So I'm no climate change denier. I was the energy economist for CEA for the past year. And the chapter I wrote for the Economic Report of the President even obliquely advocates a higher gasoline tax (Mankiw saw through the political phrasing right away)

But honestly, economists are a little bit dogmatic when it comes to advocating a carbon tax or gasoline tax. It is almost a matter of faith, rather than evidence.

If you read the literature on the social cost of carbon, most (including the ipcc) pick an optimal price of carbon of around $14/ton CO2. (And as an aside, in general the studies that find such a value, do not find values statistically different than $0/ton CO2.)

So first, we are ignoring statistics to advocate a positive carbon tax.

And second, we are having faith that such a tax will yield new technology.

$14/ton CO2 is only about 14 cents per gallon of gasoline (1/3 of the current tax on gasoline). Prices of gasoline have increased several hundred cents. Unlikely that that additional 14 cents will have a huge impact on innovation there.

$14/ton CO2 is about 1-2 cents per kWh of electricity (the EPA expects that most ghg reductions would come from this sector).

Yet it is less than the 2 cents tax credit we already give to non-fossil electricity generation. So by that argument, we have already overshot. A tax on carbon would over substitute toward non fossil fuels.

Europe has substantially higher taxes/subsides on carbon already (well beyond what most economists consider optimal; we're talking 3 or 4 times too high) that should be more than enough to spur innovation. It hasn't. Not clear how creating more dead weight loss from an inefficient tax in US would help.

Despite all this you could still argue in favor of a carbon tax. But you should be cognizant that there is little economic evidence to back you up.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Statistical ignorance scores a win for sinophobia

Fueling sinophobic hysterics the most emailed story at nytimes.com earlier this week was a story entitled “As More Toys Are Recalled, Trail Ends in China” accompanies by the typically shoddy economics in the NYtimes Economix column.

Both stories are based on the statistic that China is responsible for 60 percent of all product recalls (Time magazine in a similar story this week reports 48% but whatever). And argue that China and the evils of outsourcing is the source of this menace. Of course this next paragraph in the article provides the useful statistic that China actually produces 80% of the toys sold in the US.

Though these statistics don’t quite match up (one is for products, one is for toys), assuming they did, then elementary statistics would tell you that Chinese products are safer on average than toys produced elsewhere. If you’re producing 80% of the toys, but are responsible for only 50% of the recalls, that must mean you are potentially twice as safe as other companies.

Anyway, a long line of really bad reporting at the nytimes, though partially redeemed by their surprisingly excellent balanced reporting on poverty.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Devil Wears Prada and This I Believe

One of my favorite segments these days is This I believe. Deep-heartfelt convictions by random npr listeners, (and where npr admirably edits out the trash that makes up 99% of listener input into talk radio). In my long commutes listening to podcasts, I have often pondered what I would submit. One likely candidate is, I believe in respect. Something there is too little of I feel in most discourse.

So that's why I liked The Devil Wears Prada (which I just saw). I was worried at times, it would veer into sanctimonious messages about the proper way to live, but it didn't, it ended with respect. A respect for the importance of fashion, as important as "hard journalism," and a respect of the choices we make between career and family. We have to make choices, but the movie respects those who take other paths.

I respect that.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

On Luck

20/20 the other day actually had an interesting episode devoted to the concept of luck. It could have been a fluff piece, but actually echoed many of my views on the matter (I credit the rationalism of JohnStossel for that). I have pondered luck before, in the context of the wild nights of beer and bridge that would last all night back in college. Bridge is an eminently statistical game, and we paid acute attention to the value of your cards. In any random deal of the cards, the average point value of a hand has to be 10. Statistics and the Law of Large Numbers say thateveryone's average should be pretty dead on 10 after just one night, yet over literally thousands of hands, we each had luck reputations. T- was just generally lucky with an average well above 10. J- and I were pretty average. A- averaged a bit below 10, but would really good hands relatively often. C- averaged way below 10, but would have disproportionately lots of spectacularly good hands. Of course all this is nonsense. And rationally, we all knew that, but weal believed it. My conclusion, after much pondering, was that luck was purely a matter of perception.

Over the years, I have also pondered the Tao (something I learned about for a paper in high school english) and the general philosophy that if you trust the Tao, things "magically" work out. You create your own luck. The power of positive thinking; thefishoil popular these days peddles by the like of What the Bleep do we know. And yet, I believe it. Without resorting to magic.

The 20/20 episode related interesting research. A researcher tracked people who considered themselves lucky or unlucky, and planted a $20 bill on the street in their path. The lucky people were more likely to notice the money. Their luck was created.

Something worth studying maybe, the relationship between skill and luck. Actually, something that I did with my office mate back at Stanford, using game theory in the context of education. Unfortunately, my arch-nemesis, Steve Levitt apparently is already working on it, playing poker in Vegas.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End - A Reviewet

I mostly agree with this assessment of Pirate's of the Caribbean 3: At World's End, that like Matrix, after the first movie with high promise the series sucked it up, though like Matrix, I have to give the 3rd pirate's some credit for tackling some "Big" ideas (fyi "" should actually be air-quotes and should be interpreted at least semi-ironically).

So the whole series has the standard insidious theme of the fantasy genre these days from Superman to Harry Potter that I hate, that technology and rationality and commerce is bad, and that thievery is good. But I can't fault Pirates too much here because that's true of the entire genre. (Mage: The Ascension and Alan Moore explore this well).

But a nice touch was the (last-minute) introduction of the goddess Calypso. But I liked her because she wasn't just a run of the mill goddess, but the anthropomorphic embodiment of the spirit of nautical adventure (much like Dream in Gaiman's Sandman).

Without her, the seas becamse rational and suitable for commerce, but without her, the seas lost their magic.

As a result, as soon as she was freed, what would have been a rational, orderly by the books naval battle between two fleets, turned into cartoonishly improbable scene of swashbuckling derring-do-well between two ships in a whirlpool. Ridiculous, but fully in line with the film's internal logic of Calypso.

So I actually liked (ridulosity of) the last half an hour or so, but yeah, thought the first two hours were completely disposable prologue.
Final Grade: C+

And as an aside, I thought it was obvious that the end was merely a hook for Pirate's 4, as obvious as Charles Xavier stirring at the end of X-men 3, which despite protestations otherwise, was clearly a hook for X-men 4.

It still blows me away how many not just sequels, but sequels to sequels there are this year (pirate's, shrek, ocean's, spidey, fantastic 4, rush hour, bourne). Not to mention Harry potter and Die Hard which are the 5th and 4th in their series. Maybe next year will the be the year of sequels to sequels to sequels.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Eating on $21/week? No problem.

The latest fad amongst politicians, sparked by Oregon's Governor, is to see what it is like to eat on $21/week (the average subsidy from the food stamp program). I don't see what the big deal is. The governor lamented that he had to go to bed hungry, while an NYU Nutritionist on NPR contended that it was "impossible" to eat healthily on $21/week. Impossible? She later clarified that the only way to do it is if you cooked, and since it is unreasonable to expect Americans to know how to cook, it was impossible!!!

Of course, most of the world lives on far less food than that, and the nutritionist readily conceded that the typical diet in China is healthy and could easily be accommodated in $21/week. But for Americans, it is impossible. Bah!

So I normally spend far more than that for food (mostly due to luxuries like rare tuna steaks and fresh herbs, and eating out for lunch, and dinners), but honestly, I could do quite well on $42 a week (for two people), and still cook and eat the same things.

Shopping list: (from local safeway)

One dozen large eggs. $1.79
One gallon milk. $2.75
Safeway Large 32 Oz yogurt. $2.50
12 bananas. $3.00
18 oz Kellogg Corn Flakes (18 servings) $2.00

4 lbs. Green Cabbage. $2.
1 lb. Celery. $1.99
2.5 lbs onions. $1.99
2 lbs carrots. $1.89
1 lbs broccoli $1.50

5 lbs potatoes. $3.29

14 oz skippy peanut butter (12 servings) $1.50
1 loaf 24 oz safeway 12 grain bread $1.69

2 lbs botan calrose rice (20 servings) $2.00
1 lbs barilla pasta (8 servings) $1.00

1 lbs dehydrated black beans (12 servings) $1.19
1.5 lbs perdue boneless/skinless chicken thigh (8 servings) $2.99
1 lb lean ground beef (5 servings). $2.99
8 oz Safeway Cheddar (8 servings) $1.50

2 bulbs garlic. $0.44

Total: $41.10
(plus room for $18 worth of a 20 week supply of corn/sesame oil, vinegar and salt and pepper, and soy sauce and assorted spices/condiments)

It wasn't even hard. My first attempt came in well under. These are all meals that I would normally eat, and with plenty of left overs. Probably would gain weight if I ate everything there. And if I were to adjust probably could cut some carbs in favor of vegetables and more meat. But enough to have (stir-fried) chicken 2 nights. Mexican with refried beans and cheese and sauteed onions and rice and yogurt (yogurt makes a healthy replacement for sour cream). Cheese burgers (1/4 pounders) one night with baked fries and sauteed onions. Beef/Potato Hash another night. Bean/pasta salad for one nights. Baked potatoes with beans and cheese and yogurt on another night. Breakfast is at least maybe 2 eggs each and hash browns, for 3 mornings. With enough cereal, yogurt, bananas, milk on other mornings, to be stuffed. Enough for at least 12 peanut butter and banana sandwiches (could mix it up with grilled cheese) plenty of carrot sticks and celery (with peanut butter). Probably could do a bit more veggies, but I think what I have is not far off from the fairly vegetable heavy diet I normally east. With ~10 lbs of vegetables, that's roughly 60 servings. Could make cabbage cole slaws (using yogurt and vinegar and sesame oil). Diced celery with sesame oil and vinegar is quite good. If I had to rebalance, maybe fewer carbs, more veggies. I count roughly 90 servings of carbs. That's 2 people over 7 days, still about 6 per day.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Be Green: Don't recycle paper.

I worked out yesterday that not-recycling paper is better for the environment than recycling. Aside from the sludge created from washing the ink off used paper, I did some rough calculations using info from the Energy Information Administration, to find that recylcling paper probably leads to more greenhouse gas emissions that recycling. Sure, you get some greenhouse gas savings from the energy savings from recylcing paper (but actually not that much because much of the energy used comes from wood chips, a carbon-neutral source), but you get a huge gain because paper in a landfill sequesters the carbon underground, and not in the atmosphere, just like a forest. And beyond that, not-recycling increases demand for paper (which in the US is made from farmed trees), which hence incresees forest land, further reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Anyway, made me feel a lot better about the huge piles of the largely unread Sunday New York Times (I pretty much subscribe only for the magazine) I toss out each week because my apartment doesn't recycle.

Friday, May 04, 2007

heroes = X-men, Age of Apocalypse, and Go Whedon

So last week's Heroes cribbed from Watchmen. This week was heavy on X-men, and in particular Age of Apocalypse, which like most of X-men hasn't aged well, (I am starting to read them again as they are re-released), though still the favorite x-men storyline from as a kid. But I guess its Jeph Loeb basically cribbing from himself (and current events) so I guess it's ok.

As an aside, picked up volume 3 of Joss Whedon's Astonishing Xmen, and he's finally hitting his stride. Finally bringing x-men up to the level where I'd still read them today, with real stories, and slightly less infantile love stories, and bringing in nice "beats" as my cousin A- calls them, and cinematographic techniques like camera moves, and some reasonable explorations of ideas. You'd think I'd like Whedon as writer, given that he wrote perhaps my favorite tv show of all time, but his past comic book forays (Fray, ala Buffy in the year 3000, Firefly) have all been somewhat flat. So not quite there yet, but definitely good stuff.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A student or a south korean student

One point All things Considered made on the recent virginia tech tragedy, I very much appreciated.

After the recent tragedy in Virginia Tech, the host compared headlines in the US vs overseas, and whereas most foreign press headlines in UK, France, Bangkok, etc. reported the event as "South Korean Student ..." most American headlines reported the event as "Student..." And expressed it as another example where the international press just doesn't understand the US.

It has always been a personal project of mine when traveling to ask visible minorities (often Chinese, as often can more easily converse) in places like Australia, Italy, or France, and ask if they feel Australian, Italian or French, and typically the answer is an incredulous "of course not" "what a silly question!" Though for me, the answer was always easy. Though it is far from perfect in the US (and I had to fight for it at a forum for multiculturalism at MIT), I, like the headline writers, have no problem leaving the pre-hyphenated part of -American out.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

heroes .07% = watchmen

Sigh. So I am hooked. A good show despite the fact that it simply recycles the same old plots from an entire genre of post-Watchmen comics. That superpowers if taken seriously could have interesting implications (also Busiek). Of course the Watchmen plot stealing was most blatant this week in 0.7% without quite the same power, oh well, hard to do subtlety like that in tv. (With some Lex Luthor overlay). But still does a good job, good production values, and brings it to a wider audience which can only be good for expanding the genre.

This new half-season is good to. Brings in nice (Ellis multi-generational conspiracy Planetary) overtones. Plus dozens of others that I'm sure I just miss.

Plus something that is rare in fantasy genre movies nowadays, that unlike star wars, harry potter, superman, etc, it is not noble birth, but anyone can be a hero (Ando, Bennett, Suresh...). That the institution matters. "When you need something big, you send the lawyers." It's the lawyers that are the source of real power, not some random genetic mutation.

Good stuff.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Einstein and God

There was a great article in Time magazine about Einstein and God last week.

Einstein is cited by theists because he believed in God, though in his time, he was denounced by organized religion because Einstien himself refused to believe in any God that "meddles" in human affairs.

He seems to articulate my own view pretty well. That humility requires us to be awed and wonderfilled at the possibility that something greater exists.

He also shares my basic view that the world is deterministic and that free will is an illusion, or actually a useful delusion on which human ethics is based on, but like other mathematical abstractions like gausian surfaces or magnetic lines of force, not really there.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Awesome 80’s… Rad!*

So R- had to work on Sunday, so I spent much of the afternoon organizing my music collection in iTunes (which led to an entire evening of fighting off viral infection for my poor computers and playing doctor but that’s another story), but given that the files on my computer are spread over two hard drives and contain the remnants of 5 computers and 6 hard-drives spread out over the past 11 years, the effort to consolidate my mp3 collection was quite the archaeological affair.

The task was made easier by modern tools like iTunes, and Google Search, but they still certainly didn’t make it easy (stupid Apple, with oversimplified programs that miss basic features, and stupid new iPod that crashes every few days). In the process I dug up the first mp3 I ever downloaded “track7.mp3” which (perhaps embarrassingly) was Love Fool by the Cardigans as the movie Romeo+Juliet had just come out. The excavation was of particular concern because somehow in the computer migrations I had lost a playlist full of mp3s from a few albums I downloaded in college: Awesome 80’s, Totally 80’s, and the sound track to Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion Volumes I and II.

Recovering the playlist on my iPod has definitely changed up the sound track of the walking portion of my commute, about an hour each day all together, which has been almost exclusively NPR podcasts. Today, I queued up the old playlist, and found myself having a grand ole time.

I hadn’t even paid much attention to music back then, but somehow the music of the era suffused my life’s experiences, from age 2 to 12. They certainly pervaded the movies that continued to be replayed on network TV for years after the 80’s came to a close. I think they speak to me more just because they are all so optimistic, cheerful, literally upbeat, before Nirvana ruined all of that for the 90’s.

Coming to them now is also new, as I come to them with more bits and pieces of musical theory picked up over the years from high school and college concert band, musical theater in grad school, abortive attempts to take up piano and guitar, a couple music theory classes, late night chats with my musician friend, and classical music concerts. So I better appreciate the key changes, the power chords, the swung eighth notes. A palimpsest** of experiences that have changed the way I hear the same songs (maybe my nice new bose x-mas headphones helped too). Though at the end of the day, R-‘s influence has probably been greatest, most responsible for changing how I relate to the music of my childhood.

Ah Rad* times. Like Totally!

* PS. The inclusion of Rad, another relic of the 80’s, is thanks to my current cultural hipster brother A-, which must mean that the word is going to be coming back into style again. Figured I’d get in ahead of the curve.

** PPS. In the context of all these archaeological metaphors, I was trying really hard to work in the most obscure word I know: palimpsest.

PPS. Actually, having been programming computers since I was 6, I'm actually fairly careful about how I organize files, but still hard to really keep it up. In theory, if you gave me enough time, I could find every e-mail I have ever received in the past 11 years.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Battlestar Galactica: Gah... the temerity!

Gah. The already much abbreviated season of Battlestar Galactica ended last week with the words "Returning in 2008." Gah, the temerity. As far as I know, only the Sopranos had the gall to wait so long between seasons. 9 months at least. I guess it is a chance to allow dvd sales percolate and attract new fans, giving them a chance to catch up.

I did like the last episode (not as much as the episode that made me go Wow, this was more just Gah). Sort of ended in a very Kubrik/Clarke 2001 (echoed in AI) trippy sort of spacey way. The reveal was interesting, I wonder if it was planned all along, gives dedicated fans an excuse to rewatch earlier episodes. The social commentary was a bit much though. The points were good, I like how ALL of the characters are morally flawed, (As my cousin A- pointed out, having only watched the first two seasons, "Is there anyone in the show who hasn't committed treason"). The President's flawed righteous morality especially annoys me. So it is good for the show to acknowledge that point, but the soliloquies were a bit overlong and overmuch.

Anyway, so I wait.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Chicken or the Egg?

It's time to end this debate once and for all. The old canard, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" has long been answered by modern science.

Clearly, the egg.

If we take by egg to mean chicken egg, then we know well that evolution happens through random mutation. Thus while every chicken alive must have been born from a chicken egg, the first chicken egg was layed by the chicken's evolutionary ancestor.

Of course there are always difficulties with properly defining species, but I believe this logic holds.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Syllabus for Death and Spiritual Aetheism in Contemporary Fiction

One of my favorite parts about flying is that you get an excuse to watch lots of crappy movies. On my flight back from hong kong, I watched Aronsky's (Pi guy) The Fountain. Something I've wanted to watch despite tepid reviews. I'll concur with those tepid reviews. Highish concept (a love story between the same two people that plays out over thousands of years,starting with the spanish inquisition), pretty visuals, boring execution.

But its main message struck a chord, as I've seen it repeated often recently. Basically, a spirtual aethistic view of death. That death is something we should accept at the end of a good life, instead of dreaming/clinging to the idea of an afterlife, or using science to prolong misery.

While I personally intend on living forever (through a brain upload perhaps), I do like the message espoused by Albom's Tuesday's with Morrie that death is best accepted rather than dreaded (though I am somewhat put off by how Albom shifted from sports writer to spiritual guru).

The message was also echoed in the children's book trilogy His Dark Materials. Billed as the atheists' Harry Potter (though I never thought Harry Potter was especially Deist), His Dark Materials was a smart fantasy, with little girls and armored polar bears and alternative universes and human souls that manifest as pet familiars (in the D&D sense). It preached the same message (more subtlely and engagingly than The Fountain or Tuesday's) and should be coming to theaters soon.

If I ever somehow find myself teaching a course in this topic, I now have the beginnings of a syllabus.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Philip Glass' Life

R- and I attended the East Coast premier by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra of Philip Glass' latest, Life, a collaboration with nature photographer Franz Lanting (who was sort of unfriendly when we asked him to sign the $50 book of his that we bought) that sets to music Lanting's photo essay that tries to capture the history of life on earth through photographs taken today. A neat concept, just as William Blake sought:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
Like Blake, Lanting sought to see the entire history of life (eternity), through photographs of the world around us (an hour).

I and many of my classical music dabbling friends have often remarked that watching ballet is particularly nice because though classical music is nice, with nothing visual, the stimulation of just one sense is not sufficiently engaging for the dilettante. I think the BSO and others have caught on, the last performance we saw paired a slide-show of the development of a particular Matisse painting with Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor.

Not quite sold out, (much to our benefit. I am on the e-mail list that sells discounted tickets for under-subscribed shows), we enjoyed the performance. Though at times, it could be accused of being cheesy. The photographs belie Lanting's background as a National Geographic commercial photographer rather than as an art photographer, and the themes while sweeping are simplistic: Elements (earth, wind, fire, water), Life (single-celled, multi-celled; invertebrates, vertebrates; fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals) etc. The presentation, on 3 large screens over the orchestra was nice, but the succession of animated static images verged on looking like a glorified PowerPoint. Also, the music while well executed and perfectly matched to the subject, ran the risk of coming too close to the John Williams movie music trifles, the genre with which Glass is more and more associated these days.

But in the end, while maybe more commercial than art, it still was thoroughly satisfying, with Glass' signature layering of intricately diverse repeated motifs and stunning photos of the splendors of Nature, under direction of the new first ever female conductor of a major symphony orchestra, Marin Alsop. Good stuff.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Battlestar Galactica: Wow... almost.

This week's episode reiterated why Battlestar Galactica (BSG) is the best show on tv. A show that took my breath away. And then in the last 5 minutes, it suddenly let me down, just because the show is always like that. Imperfect.

But for the first 55 minutes, I was blown away. Without picking sides, it highlights the never discussed dirty side of a democracy in wartime. The marxist ideas, followed by Veblen and others, of how a capitalist system gets subverted by the military industrial complex during wartime, to perpetuate class lines. A necessity the best computer game ever--Civ II--highlighted, of switching to a "fundamentalist" (corporatist) system during wartime, since a Democracy will be out produced. And entirely consistent with the US during WWII and other major wars. And using a visual language reminiscent of the labor photography of Lewis Hine. Having Baltar be the Marx figure, the intellectual instigator. Genius. The show has the audacity to not pick sides. The Admiral's gambit at the end was even better.

And then, in the last 5 minutes, the show let me down. By picking the happy happy sit-com scooby-doo ending, it shuffled all the complexities (that a meritocracy and an aristocracy are not so far apart) under the rug, and made it all too easy to resolve, that allowing unions who aren't allowed to strike solves everything. And we can walk away, comfitted, at peace with the world, whereas what I really wanted was to walk away discomfitted by the world's complexities.

Ah well.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Word of the day: Statistic

There has been a lot of Sound and Fury recently over a Statistic that appeared on the front page of the New York Times. That more than half of women in America are without spouse.

One of the key parts of every economist's training is a very deep understanding of statistics. It was in one of those fundamental classes, pondering the definition of the term sufficient statistic, that I got a better appreciation of just what exactly a "Statistic" actually is. A statistic is a way to represent one set of numbers drawn from the real world (data) using another set of numbers drawn from a more manageable subset. If that other set is "sufficient" then it tells you everything you need to know about the data. Unfortunately that is typically impossible.

The problem is the data you care about is typically multi-dimensional. Very multi-dimensional. To understand whether the coupling habits of American women are changing with time requires a very complex rich data set, with at least the age distribution of women (+2 dimensions), over time (+1 dim). That's 3 dimensions at least. A more complete picture would include whether these women were widowed (+1 dimension), gay (+1 dimension), living longer (+2 dimension for the life expectancies of each age cohort). In fact, to really get a complete picture, some would say you need to understand the stories of each of the 150 million women in America (+150 million dimensions), each with their own set of characteristics and life histories (++++ dimensions).

The problem is that humans can barely picture 3 dimensions (the real world), can only readily print 2 dimensions (a graph), and really only a 1 dimensional statistic (a number) can fit into a headline. And if you want to make that headline snappy, you make it 0-dimensional (a binary yes-no factoid).

Which is where the new york times article caused so many problems. They tried to make a big deal out of this arbitrary 0 dimensional statistic (that > 50% of women are without spouse), which is what newspapers and the media often do and which I quickly dismissed. And so they were hit with people bringing up all the dimensions they miss.

If only we were built to picture n-dimensional hyperspaces and could fit them into a headline. We wouldn't have this problem. Edward Tufte (admittedly) has come closest, going so far as to try to fit highly multidimensional data in-line with text.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Time magazine discovers a new concept: "Evidence"

Time Magazine has identified a revolutionary new idea in medicine: basing your opinions on evidence. One of the most frustrating things about medicine is how skeptical they are of Evidence. In a world where those that deny evidence for evolution or who deny evidence for climate change are sneeringly derided, doctors often still base decisions, as the article says on "faith, bias or even an educated guess."

The book Complications discussed the difficulties in convincing doctors to accept studies that question doctors' judgment in favor of "evidence-based medicine." Studies that find computers are better at reading EKGs for example.

To be fair to R-'s profession, however, is that it is not so much that they distrust all scientific evidence, it is just that much evidence cannot be trusted. The last study flip flops all the time, with cholesterol being bad then good, low fat diets now not necessarily good, estrogen bad then good, even that overweight people live longer than not overweight people. Ioannidis reports in JAMA that as many as 1/3 of the most cited studies in JAMA in the 90's have already been refuted.

But what the article rightly points out is that this rediscovery is not limited to medicine, but also to many areas like education or climate change. Development economists are gaining prominence in pushing the revolutionary idea that development programs should be based on evidence. It is scary that the idea of "evidence" has to be rediscovered. A concept that predates the invention of science by at least 1600 years, to Aristotle and before. Part of it is a post-modern rejection of objective reality. Part of it is just the poor quality of evidence at these new borders of knowledge.

It's about time.

Monday, February 12, 2007

I do sound silly don't I.

Stanford Business Magazine somehow found my column for the Chronicle of Higher Education and wrote about it.
(See here for article)

My friends from undergrad days never tire of haranguing me for a line I wrote in a column for the MIT newspaper, about John Glenn, and the "re-penetration of our vast firmament."

Hopefully, my writing has gotten better with age, but I still overly like my verbiage, the overly precious turns-of-phrase. By picking out the most quotable/egregious examples for their article, it really hits home...

Ah well, I never aspired to be a writer anyway.

Friday, February 02, 2007

an exegesis on comic strips (whatever that means)

I recently read a piece on the death of comic strips
http://powerwordblog.blogspot.com/2007/01/white-elephant-oo-comics-page.html

So I haven't read comics in ages. The only newspaper I get is the Sunday nytimes. I remember there once was a time when subscribing to a newspaper without a comics page was anathema to me. (Though I have recently started to appreciate the high-brow funny pages the nytimes magazine has put in, as a clever ploy to get us internet users to actually subscribe. Well it worked. The last was boring, but the Sprott series by Seth I’ve loved, with its Pulp Fiction-esque non-linearity, and its personal 4th wall breaking narration. I’m also excited about Chabon’s new literary D&D serialized novella which was just launched in the magazine. The first installment was great, full of unreasonably obscure references, that Chabon made easily accessible in context, but still had to think about it. It ended rather clichéd, but was a lot of fun. End Digression)

But last time I checked (which admittedly was long ago), Foxtrot and Over the Hedge were still pretty on top of things (I appreciate the physics/trekkie/ifruity humor esp). And Over the Hedge carried on the full panel, boxless glory that Calvin and Hobbes brought back in its late years.

And I have a friend who swears by mary worth and prince valiant. I think those are only meaningful to those who have been following them for decades, and read them with a proper sense of irony.

A lot of good comic strips have gone online. Some crazy stat I recall hearing that more comic strips are viewed that way than in news papers (even my friend the Mary Worth reader gets his comics online).

My favorite is http://www.phdcomics.com/ (written by a fellow stanford phd student while I was there, he was an engineer though, but captures grad school life perfectly.)

Duvall clued me into http://www.catandgirl.com/ which captures disaffected po-po-mo twenty something new york (asian-american) youth. I liked it enough to send money directly to the author for an original panel. http://catandgirl.com/dderby/?m=200509

Something I never would have done for any of the old fashioned conventional strips.

The proverbial long tail; niche market.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

News Fads: Free Will is an Illusion

Given I subscribe to something like 8 magazines, I have noticed for sometime how news outlets tend to report the same stories at the same time, even when nothing new happened to trigger it. Whether it was too much homework for kids (bah!), or shark attacks, editors seize on an idea and you get a quick succession of simultaneous cover stories.

In the last month it has been free will and consciousness, though really not much has changed since my late night sophomoric debates as a college sophomore. I happened to get into a big debate about a couple months ago, and now out pop on the cover of time and the economist and prominent in the times.

New York Times: Free Will: Now you have it, Now you don't
Time: The Myster of Consciousness
Economist: I think, therefore I am, I think

Monday, January 15, 2007

Moto: Not only Post-Modern Dining but Old Friend Service

The most remarkable part of our dining experience at the ultra-hip leader of the avant-garde in cooking, Moto, in Chicago, was something quite traditional: impeccable service.

Chef Homaro Cantu is known for being a leader in what he calls "post-modern" cooking. (R- commented that it would give Top Chef contestant, foam and gelee loving Marcel, a ....-on). He goes well beyond the foams that are almost becoming de rigeur nowadays.

Though to be fair, nothing was quite as off the wall as some of the inventive designs from protege Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 in New York (an experience that included a squeeze tube of yogurt that transformed into noodles when squeezed into piping hot chocolate broth, and a vertical medallion of foie gras, that erupted with its sauce, when sliced down the middle, its two circular halfs forming a geometric flower, in the edible pea soil.)

What Chef Homaro Cantu achieves though is that the flavors were on par with the best we have had. (At least until the desserts, which are clearly not Moto's forte, and it certainly wasn't helped that the desserts only came after 14 previous courses.) Twelve glass wine pairing (designed to highlight the range of wine to echo the extremes of the food), with the 20 course Grand Tour of Moto "GTM" were quite overwhelming, starting with the steaming copper kettle filled with boiling liquid nitrogen and sesame oil, and a rabbit course splattered pollack with a thick impasto of brown sauce on a vertical canvas, augmented with metal silverware wrapped around rosemary for its aroma notes. There was cotton candy 2d and 3d, including cotton candy printout of a cartoon of cotton candy. Grilled fish, grilled by a liquid nitrogen dipped metal grille. Goat cheese snow, mixed with shaved goat cheese. One of the most exciting was the menu, freshly printed on a piece of sesame sun-dried tomato flatbread, personalized so that the menu ended with the line "Moto welcomes Benjamin Ho." The experience of seeing a yummy crunchy printed Ariel printed menu with bite marks set the tone perfectly. One of the desserts that worked with the carrot planet, that they brought out 3 courses before it was due, a perfectly smooth globe of carrot mousse, that slowly melted and mutated before our eyes while our other courses came by. A couple dishes featured carbonated orange (more curious than good) and the chicken-fried truffle mac and cheese was over-salted. But all in all delightful.

But what still impressed me in particular was the service, with none of the stuffiness that often come with meals of that price, none of the stuffy snob factor. Of course you don't have to go post-modern for such service. One of the things I liked about more traditional Jean-George (one of New York's 3, Michelin 3-star restaurants) was that I never felt looked down upon. The customer was always made to feel comfortable. However, I did feel out of place at Jean-Georges where the average age of the clientèle felt like it was probably nearly twice mine. Whereas at Moto, the youngish staff, who are all aspiring chefs that rotate through the front of the house and back, all acted as felt as if they would fit in perfectly amongst my friends. Whether that was really the case, or just a well-honed act, doesn't really matter.

They were great about explaining carefully explaining the wines in a way readily accessible. They also cheerfully brought us down to see the magic in the kitchen (a nice complement to the perfectly designed food experience) where we wore laser goggles and watched them laze orange-starch into a gas captured in a wine glass to infuse our wine.

As the nice quote from the nytimes, Apple and Whole Foods have effectively redesigned their shopping experience. Moto is doing the same for haute cuisine.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Cool Quote

From the Ny Times a few weeks ago:

"The fashion industry has not been able to create a new shopping experience equal in its fun and sense of surprise to that of Whole Foods or Apple"

There really is something special about Whole Foods and Apple. Interesting to see it in print. The unexplainable something that makes me keep going back even though really, there's not much at the Apple Store that I really would buy.

I always like seeing innovation and :technology" in something not technical, and those who lament the decline in science education somewhat fetishize science over other areas of human advance.

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