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.

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

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 to my own web host (free hosting at 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:

And for the photo blog:

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's Freakonomics blog

- Gratuitous self-promotion -

So I got asked to write something about global warming for the 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.