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 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.


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...


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.