Wednesday, August 27, 2008

on obama- the fundamental attribution error, median voter theorem, and my pick for president

Watching the Democratic convention now, reaffirmed my general attitude toward presidential elections. I like Obama, I just don't like the Democrats.

This is consistent with some basic political economy. Downs' median voter theorem argues that in order for a candidate to win, they must position themselves at the center.

I think that has been true in past elections. I think it is true the current one.

The first counterexample people point out is that Gore would not have invaded Iraq. My counter to that assertion is that Tony Blair (a Clinton clone) and Joe Lieberman, Gore's VP were staunch supporters of the war as were 79% of the Senate and an even higher percent of Americans. Not to mention Hillary, a partial proxy for Bill Clinton, also supported the war. It is easier for Al Gore to stand outside and claim he would have done something else, but I disagree.

People commit the fundamental attribution error and assume that a president's actions depends on his disposition rather than the situation he is in.

On the issues, Obama and McCain have predictably converged:
  • get out of iraq as expedient
  • close guantanamo and stop torture
  • invest in alternative energy
  • drill off shore
  • reduce carbon emissions
  • provide money to expand health insurance
  • etc.
I think by themselves, I would give Obama the slight advantage for the symbolic value.

The problem is that policy depends not just on the president, but also on Congress (and the Judiciary).

Imagine a continuum
(long readers of the blog will recall the same analysis 4 years ago)
1 25 50 75 100
  • Where 1 is the most left wing policy.
  • 100 is the most right wing policy.
  • 25 is the median Democrat.
  • 75 is the median Republican
  • 50 is the median American policy

I see Obama and McCain at 50. Which is roughly where I am. So I like both their policies.

My preferences are: 50 > 75 > 25

But the problem is that an Obama presidency coupled with a Democratic Congress would lead to policy outcomes closer to 25 than 50. And that I can't accept.

You saw this during the primaries, as Obama renounced his bipartisan rhetoric in favor of debating Clinton on who thinks Republican ideas are worse. The biggest attack each had on the other was that the other once said that Republicans might have good ideas.

Specifically, I remember when Obama gave into the teacher unions by renouncing his previosu position up on merit pay that best exemplified this move.

So that's where I stand.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Globalization and the Olympics

Kinda neat the intermingling of nationalities on display at the olympics. Also heartening to see the mixing on the US team. Shows that the US is still capable of attracting the best talent and hopefully in integrating it. For example:

  • gymnastics, women. winner looks the all-american texas girl, but was born in moscow. 2nd place from iowa has a chinese coach
  • men's gymnastic team, us captain looks Chinese. and the team also has the first south-asian athlete i've seen outside of cricket at an international event
  • us volleyball head coach is a chinese woman
  • in swimming, less so, from what I see. except that it seems that athletes from around the world (like Zimbabwe) all trained in the US. one black swimmer.
  • the distance runner from kenya

Also, nice public diplomacy (the euphemism for propaganda) for the US. Despite the anti-immigrant sentiments that politicians bandy about.

The related amusingstat is that 70 of the competitors in ping pong are either Chinese or Chinese hua-qiao (of the Chinese diaspora)

Though probably the Brazilians play volleyball for Georgia is a bit much, if it is true that they've only spent 2 days in Georgia before hand.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

One of the neatest graphs I've seen in a while

I think principal component analysis is one of the cooler applications of linear algebra (which I learned to analyze corporate bonds), but this is the coolest graph of principal components that I have ever seen. By simply using a matrix manipulation of a dataset based on the genomes of European citizens, you get a representation of the European genetic data based only on genetic data that looks remarkably like the geographical map.

See NYTimes article for more info.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Notes to a High School Senior

I did a career day recently for a high school summer program I did eons ago. I got the question afterward, about what major to pick for someone interested in "mainly math, physics/chemistry, and economics" and interested in graduate studies maybe in economics. I hadn't thought about picking majors in a long time. These were my thoughts, but if anyone else has thoughts...

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter too much what you major in, and you really don't need to know what you will major in, until sophomore or even junior year.

I do think that math is probably a good baseline though, as it gives you a lot of flexibility in the future. Esp if you want to do graduate studies in economics, a math degree with a few econ classes, is probably a good solid flexible preparation (you can take that in a lot of directions, including law school even or finance, which is a typical route people find themselves taking to make a lot of money). But major doesn't really matter.

To do grad studies in economics, you just need a few econ classes and a strong math background (either from a math minor, or a physics degree, or an engineering degree), and then your major can be whatever you discover you like. In high school, it is really hard to know. College is a good time to explore, and consider weird things like cultural studies, anthropology, political science, philosophy, sociology, history, education, etc. I think if you do wind up pursuing economics, or whatever, it's nice to have a solid foundation of different ideas for inspiration.

As for which programs, that's hard to say. I think what you'll learn will be pretty comparable anywhere you go. Heck, all the professors went to the same few grad schools. So I would pick that based on ranking (I do think ranking matters in that it affects the quality of your peers), geography, size of school, etc.

College visit might be important, but don't put too much weight on your gut feeling. There is some evidence out there that the weather the day of your college tour is a big determinant of how much you like it there. People like schools much more on sunny days than on rainy days. So things like weather could easily bias your decision.

Hope that helps.

Monday, August 11, 2008

More Energy Insanity: this time from Thomas Friedman

Friedman, never one to let facts get in the way of his argument, says in his latest column the US should follow the example of Denmark, who is energy independent, and has high taxes (sometimes a good idea but probably excessive here) and a lot of senseless regulation (no driving on Sundays, at least once upon a time). (He's also easily impressed by the two button toilets, which I've had in my bathroom for the past year or two).

He says we should follow their example, instead of pursuing dumb ideas like drilling for offshore oil.

Of course, what he neglects to mention is that Denmark produces about 5 times more oil per person than the US, nearly all of it from off shore drilling. If the US had the same amount of off shore oil drilling per capita, it could supply the oil needs for roughly half the world.

Similarly, in Brazil, held up by NPR as the model of using biofuels for energy independence, still produces 7 times more oil than ethanol, and has achieved energy independence largely because of new offshore oil discoveries. (The story also mistakingly fails to account for the energy content of ethanol.)

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Obama on Energy: Justified hypocrisy?

Ugh. The current Democratic sound byte on Energy is that drilling is bad because drilling takes 3-10 years. Therefore we should invest in Renewables.

While that may well be sound policy. The logic is insane. Drilling may take years, but renewables at any significant scale will take decades.

I'm not saying renewables are bad policy. In fact it is good policy and in fact current policy. Just the sound bytes are obnoxious.

At the end of the day, energy policy is fairly simple, and I have little doubt that regardless of who wins, will look for all intens and purposes identical. Once you drill into it, both politicians propose basically the same thing, and once policies are vetted by the bureaucrats (to take out the stupidities both sides are proposing) and pushed through the Congressional process (who will add in their own stupidities), my current take is that they will basically be identical.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Slate on Cinematic Fight Scenes

There is a pretty awesome rundown in Slate magazine on fight scenes in movies, complete with youtube clips. Illustrates nicely the historical development, and chooses some nice exemplars.

From a charmingly quaint scene in Big Country from 1958:
  1. to Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in Return of the Dragon
  2. to the amazingly honest, Rangin Bull
  3. to the perfunctory action scenes of 80's style action ala Die Hard
  4. to the introduction of hong kong cinema
  5. to the "weightless acrobatics" of the Matrix, whom I have often cited.
  6. to the creative use of film making, without resorting to cheesy cgi of Bourne Ultimatum.
Also makes me want to see Oldboy (totally an 8-bit shooter homage)

Amusingly, the writer also calls Batman pop-Nietzchean. So it's not just me (my Wanted Review, my post on Batman Begins). And also overuses/misuses Platonic ideal like me (my review of Firefly, Diamond Age, Legally Blonde)

I love these Slate slideshows (often on architecture or art). Unlike NYtimes which just copies a print segment to the web, Slate really after so long, does demonstrate its original intent (back when it was founded by Microsoft), to really create a new kind of news, a multi-media news that is made possible only by the Internet. (Though to New York Times credit, their recent take on Google Maps Style mashups are pretty cool, like their review of Flushing eats for example.)

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Bush Administration's (non)War on Science

A colleague of mine recently asked my thoughts on the recent reports that the administration is suppressing EPA science. Here was my response:

On the suppression of the EPA report, I don't know the details of the current case, but from my experience, regardless of how it looked from the outside, it was never some anti-science conspiracy, but usually a case where economic and political realities of what most people would say is the common good, trump scientific considerations. Most of the CEA are academics, and hence all Democrats, and yet, I don't think any of us ever felt we were asked to do anything we felt was unethical or goes against economic principles.

So one example I do know of, was when we were trying to suppress an EPA finding that CO2 is a pollutant. Various scientists wanted to, but if we were to accept that, the Clean Air Act, says that emissions of all pollutants that might harm humans have to be reduced AT ANY COST. It would be illegal to take cost into account. Conceivably, lawyers could use such a finding to make driving illegal. Heck, breathing produces CO2, and lawyers could then sue to prevent you from breathing too heavily.

Another example was when the EPA wanted to increase regulations on particulate matter. Again, the regulation failed every conceivable cost benefit analysis, but according to the Clean Air Act, costs couldn't be taken into account. Even the statistics the EPA did to show that the regulations would have any benefit whatsoever (in this case, for asthma reduction), would not have been allowed past any referee in a decent economics journal. They used correlations, and had no instrument for causation. They used data sets with maybe 100 observations, and arbitrarily tossed out outliers.

Again, maybe it was the best science that was available, but it didn't seem like it justified a regulation that would have billions of dollars in actual costs.

So the reporting on this, was probably along the lines of "anti-science bush administration blocks regulation favored by EPA scientists. Curries to big business over the poor asthma sufferers"

But things aren't so clean cut from the inside.

So I'm probably biased on this. But I don't think excessively so.