Friday, January 25, 2008

Any Thai readers out there?

While R- randomly was googling my website came across this site, a Thai blog that mentions my home page, my dissertation, and my cv. I used this site for a very rough translation, and still sort of intrigued.

No english speakers know about me, but neat to see that I show up on the blogs of south-east asian speakers. My website showed up on another blog a while back in an unidentified south-east asian language. Kinda funny how things spread on the internet.

The writers there seem well informed. They also mention my friend Saum, and correctly note that he is currently interviewing for jobs, and so don't know where he'll wind up. Weird.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Why Hillary and Obama suck.

Happened to see the Fiery democratic debates last night where Hillary and Obama took turns attacking each other for everything I once liked about both of them, and busy backpedaling about their past statements.

I liked both because both have said in the past that they believed in bipartisanship and in taking the best ideas from both sides of the aisle. In Clinton this is seen in Clintonian triangulation and her support for the Iraq war. In Obama, this was the heart of his rhetoric and the main point (from the excerpts I read) of the audacity of hope.

In the debate, they both attacked each other on these points, and both quickly retracted their past statements, both adamantly insisting that ALL Republicans are bad!

Argh. Of course this is simply the nature of the primary process, and Downsian shifting to the median primary voter, but still pisses me off.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Why John Edwards Two Americas is Dumb

I do agree that inequality is a problem. But the facts have to be kept straight. A quote I just saw in Time magazine from John Edwards Two Americas speech highlights why he's dumb. Edwards: "One America does the work while another Ameirca reaps the reward... One America pays the taxes while another America gets the tax breaks."

Both of these are just diametrically wrong. The bottom quintile pays only 5% of their income in taxes (or 1.1% of total tax receipts), while the top quintile pays 27% of their income (2/3 of total tax receipts).

Those in the bottom quintile account for only 4% of total hours worked (say maybe 10 hours a week). Those in the top quintile account for 1/3 of total hours worked (at say 60 hours per week).

Inequality does suck, but it is the top quintile paying the taxes, and it is the top quintile doing all the work.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Restaurant Review: Commander's Palace: A classy cosmopolitan cajun cure to cookie cutter contemporary cooking

I think R-, my brother and I have all started to get jaded by upscale restaurants. The New-Contemporary American, more new-International, that Bobo's around the world are flocking to, with their asymmetrical white table settings, the sleek stark interior designs, their multi-course tasting menus, their international wine pairings, their timid nod to the same few fusion flavors (yuzu, satsuma, mole, sashimi, truffle oil, olive oil ice cream), and the ubiquitous sesame crusted rare wasabi tuna steak (though this has shifted more downmarket of late).

My brother and I were watching a new food network show where these D-list star chefs/star designers made over these restaurants in the same universal international contempo image. It is inescapable. I've been to these same contempo restaurants in places as far removed as Dublin, Budapest and Istanbul.

That's why Commander's Palace in the Garden District of New Orleans is very refreshing change of pace. A restaurant that renewed my jaded appetite, all for under $100 per person (a steal for what the restaurant offers).

On Sundays, they offer a Jazz Brunch, with live music. In New Orleans, they do their brunches right, with 3 courses complete with cocktails and wines. I had a leisurely walk to a charming neighborhood of New Orleans, miles away from the rowdiness frivolity of Bourbon Street. Like its Bourbon Street counterpart (Brennan's), your entrance is greeted with an avalanche of servers, but here, the servers are professional and respectful, whereas at Brennan's, the service felt unpolished.

The food though is the most important feature of a restaurant, and here, they served New Orleans classics, while still being classy and cosmopolitan. I started with a cocktail, an Abilene Swizzle, characterized by the bitters that helped New Orleans invent cocktails. I later followed with the New Orleans classic, the Sazerac, and finished with a creamy, licorice-y Absinthe concoction. (Absinthe, having just been legalized, was evident throughout the menu). I had also recently become disillusioned with cocktails, essentially swearing off of them, as they are almost universally saccharine and vile, but Commander's Palace renewed my faith in the profession of mixology (I actually dislike that term, as I think it more elicits the craft of DJs rater than bartenders).

My first course was a trio of soups, a turtle soup, perfected over the past one hundred years, a shrimp and absinthe creme soup, and the most amazing chicken and oyster gumbo finished with brandy, the oysters having the perfect creamy texture. My main was a chicory coffee encrusted quail with a corn and oyster dressing accompanied by a satsuma marmalade. The delicate quail meet delightfully taking on the flavors of the chicory and the corn, while the satsuma providing a nod to duck a l'orange. I finished with their signature bread pudding souflee topped with a whiskey sauce. I always have a soft spot for bread pudding, but this one was topped with a magnificent souflee, defying gravity, of a beautiful airy consistency that I've never seen matched.

All in all, New Orleans is a great food town, with fantastic and inexpensive Gumbos and Jambalayas and Po Boys and Oysters. But Commander's Palace shows they can do all that with class, and mix it up with the best the world has to offer, without breaking the bank.


Monday, January 07, 2008

Ban the words "million" and "billion"

I am starting my campaign to ban the words million, billion and trillion from journalism. They are used all the time and for the most part, completely meaningless. Take for example, energy, which I know well.

You could say, the president's energy plan will save an incredible 20 billion gallons of gasoline per year by 2017. Or you could say the president's plan will only save 20 billion gallons of gasoline by 2017. You could write both and since noone really understands what a billion means, the public is clueless. How these numbers are manipulated is ridiculous.

More useful is to say 20 billion gallons amounts to 200 gallons per household. Or one eighth of our gasoline use. Or one eighth of our imports. Of course each of these makes it sound like a lot or a little. I am especially a fan of the "per household" number which is never used especially since it is easy to calculate given the 100 million US households.

Another common one is, "Our national debt is $9 trillion!!!" That number is meaningless to basically everyone. More meaningful perhaps is a per household number. Or most useful is as a percent of GDP. People are all worked up over this number but it is not especially high compared to other countries like France, Germany, Italy or Japan all of whom have a much larger debt relative to GDP. While we're making analogies, 9 trillion is only about 75% of our GDP. Commercials like saying we are burdening our children to penury. When really, it's more like someone who makes $60,000 a year, who owes $45,000 on his mortgage for his house. No one would say that's irresponsible. (that analogy is not quite right, but it is not too far off.)

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

To Buy or Not To Buy: The Mortgage question

The lure of home ownership is strong in the US. But is it really worth it. From a portfolio stand point, it shouldn't matter if you buy a house as an investment, or rent a place, and use your savings, to invest in a diversified portfolio. In fact, buying a house, being decided not diversified, would be significantly worse. So why buy?

In Ithaca, part of the attraction is the mismatched supply and demand between renters and buyers. The high student population makes rental demand higher, and thus more expensive than buying.

But other reasons don't hold. There is the tax credit, but given the value of the tax credit is mostly capitalized into the value of the house, that shouldn't be a compelling reason either. (That is, the fact that I get a tax credit makes the house more expensive, and in an efficient market, that should cancel. There is a second order effect if my tax benefit is somehow higher than the tax benefit from the average buyer, but that is unlikely.)

Roger Lowenstein in the NY Times cites a Shiller and Case paper for another reason that I still need to ponder. That a mortgage is still a low cost loan that gives people a low cost loan that most stockholders don't have access to. (Makes me think I should be borrowing more; I don't have enough debt in my portfolio). Will have to think whether this makes sense. For now, I am using the need for more debt as a compelling excuse to buy a new car. But I don't think that really makes sense.

Oh, and to my few dear readers, Happy New Year!