Saturday, November 29, 2008

One Degree of Kevin Bacon (and Gossip Girl folk)

one degree of kevin baconI wandered into a Verizon store to check out the touch screen Blackberry, intrigued by the fact that the screen clicks, but the interface was totally befuddling, even to a former computer guy/blackberry devotee like myself, agreeing with Pogue that this was an epic fail in interface design on RIM's part. The upside of this jaunt was that as I was fiddling, the girl next to me who was equally befuddled by the phone, whispered "hey, do you know who Kevin Bacon is?" Having no idea where this going, I just said yes. "he's right over here. gossip girl photo shootSure enough there he was in baseball cap and sunglasses, huddled with phone, trying to look inconspicuous. I surreptitiously snapped a photo, feeling somewhat guilty, but I openly admit to the standard weakness that celebriy inspires.

See also, my Bobby Flay run in, as well as the random sighting of Penn Badgley and Blake Lively of Gossip Girl fame, getting photographed in Central Park.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Another transcendent iPhone moment: a new musical instrument

The iPhone still annoys me, it crashes all the time, and the long litany of annoyances goes on, but it still more than makes up for it with transcendent experiences. One recent one was the latest app, Smule's Ocarina, the top selling app for $0.99.

I remember the summer I spent in Paris, six weeks of glorious travel, but there was a dull emptiness, that I came to appreciate when I walked into a music store, on one of my random excursions perambulating about (flanning) Paris (or perhaps it was Reims), where I picked up a tin whistle, and realized I missed music. I had still been playing clarinet/saxophone regularly back then (something I managed to continue up until mid grad school) but had left it behind on my trip, and realized I missed it. Thereafter, I would pick up flutes (tranverse and otherwise)/recorders and other instruments whenever I traveled. That has something I've mostly left behind but now with my iPhone, I will never be without one.

The Ocarina is an ancient primitive medieval flute, that they have recreated faithfully on the iPhone a real musical instrument, not a game like guitar hero, but an instrument that replicates a classic medieval arcane fingering scheme that you play by blowing into the microphone. Like a real instrument, it responds to subtle shifts in breath and tonguing, and changes timber based on how phone is positioned.

The really magical part of it though is the interactive part of it. It uses the gps to get your location and then broadcasts whatever you are playing around the world. You can switch to a 3-d model of the world, and from points on the globe, you can see streams of music flying into into space which you can zoom into and hear, real people around the world playing their ocarina, magically broadcasting. Some are fumbling like myself, but some are playing recognizable tunes, and I'm sure with time, you will find virtuosic performances, broadcast into the ether, like Link's ocarina of time.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Clinton Foreign Policy = Bush Foreign Policy = Obama Foreign Policy

I have long argued here (and here) that Bush Foreign Policy is not that different from Clinton Foreign Policy. Here is someone else who agrees. I hate Ithaca's NPR station, mostly because they play the most left show (on an already liberal station) I've ever heard on NPR, Democracy Now, which I often wake up to many mornings as my clock radio goes off. It is useful for the different point of view.

In a recent episode, the author is arguing that Bush merely continued the policies of the Clinton administration (extraordinary rendition, unilateral nation building) and it appears that esp with a Clinton under Obama, those policies are likely to continue. Argument again that it is the situation and environment that matters more than president him/herself.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Connoisseurship: Wine, Cheese, Fish, but not Coffee and Beer

Just randomly noted recently that after many years, I have gotten to the point where I can actually start telling different wines apart. What they don't tell you when you start getting into wine is that really, without practice, most wine tastes pretty much the same. A random dinner table factoid I was told was that in a taste test, people couldn't tell the difference between red wine and room temperature white wine. After many years of diligent experimentation, with the help of the habit of earnestly trying to describe each wine, as encouraged by R-, I feel I'm starting to get there. Where, can replicate the tasting notes, a non-random amount of the time, can guess the grape, a statistically significant amount of the time, and can even have a guess as to what country the wine is from, or at least what continent. Of course, not really enough to justify the vast variety on the market, but getting there.

Thinking about it, I've come along way with Cheese and Fish too. Cheese, used to be cheese. It was either flat squares of processed American, or it was random unidentified cubes, or goat or blue. So now, starting to learn obvious ones, cheddar, and gouda, and monterray jack. Still lots to learn, but making progress.

Fish, even more so. Not too long ago, fish used to be either Salmon or not-Salmon. Now actually, I have a pretty good sense of most of the fish in the fish counter. I guess it comes from enough experimentation and experience.

Though I must say that on at least two fronts, Beer and Coffee, I haven't made much progress at all. Working on both, but still by and large, they all taste the same to me.

(Addendum, steak is something else I've started to figure out, with fillet vs porterhouse vs rib-eye vs flank vs chuch vs short rib having meaning for me)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Economics of Ethanol

A friend of mine asked me to write a guest post for his blog. Here is it reproduced here.

Ethanol is an immensely complicated issue that requires a detailed institutional background to fully appreciate, and those with a little bit of knowledge often jump to wildly wrong conclusions.

On the Benefits of Ethanol

The environmental benefit of ethanol has been hotly disputed over the years. Various studies have found various things over the years as is typical in science (a recent study finds that 1/3 of the most cited publications in a top medical journal are refuted in just a few years). A meta-analysis of all of these papers shows a clear time trend. Newer studies show greater benefits. The reason for this is simple. While the environmental benefits from corn-based ethanol are arguably small today, they will only grow in the future. Corn yields have been increasing steadily for decades, and there is every reason to expect that to continue. Thus we should get more ethanol per environmental cost each year. Furthermore, new enzymes are being developed again to get more ethanol from the same amount of corn, thereby further increasing the amount of ethanol per given input.

All of this also does not account for the possibility of more dramatic technological shifts that subsides make possible. Current car engines are tuned for gasoline from oil. However, engine tuned for gasoline from ethanol could lead to 25-30% increases in engine efficiency. Furthermore, the infrastructure being developed is helping to pave the way for new biofuels, like biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol that have substantial and already demonstrated environmental benefits.

Finally, environmental analyses ignore the other benefit of ethanol, which is a diversification away from oil consumption. Much of the problem s in the oil markets comes from the monopoly power of the oil industry given the lack of substitutes for oil. By helping develop a viable substitute, there are immense gains beyond just the environment, for example, dampening the geopolitical power of OPEC, and alleviating the resource curse in the Middle East.

On the Ethanol Subsidy.

Many people wrongly assume that the government specifically subsidizes only corn based ethanol. In fact, regular ethanol gets a 51 cent per gallon subsidy, biodiesel gets around 80 cents, cellulosic ethanol gets over $1. Other fuels get subsidized in their own way. And in fact a system of mandates and other tax credits makes total subsides substantially higher and substantially more complicated.

This is not an ideal system. A carbon tax would be much simpler that would replace this myriad of complicated and overlapping policies. But we do not live in an ideal world. So on the simple question of whether we should repeal the ethanol subsidy, we go back to the tools of cost benefit analysis (something I used to teach back at Stanford).

What are the costs of a subsidy? The subsidy is effectively just a transfer from one American to another, so the cost is only the cost associated form the distortions to the economy from raising that 51 cents. A large literature estimates the cost of raising 51 cents to be around one quarter of that, or around 12.5 cents. Is that worth it?

It is first worth noting that mathematically, a subsidy on a good works exactly the same way as a tax on a bad. So if you believe we should increase gasoline taxes by 51 cents, then you should support a 51 subsidy for ethanol.

The benefits of an extra gallon of ethanol are hard to quantify, but if you add it up (the small environmental benefit, the impact of geopolitics, the fostering of technological innovation, the support of an agricultural lifestyle) it is actually fairly easy to find benefits far outweighing 12.5 cents.

Again, subsides for ethanol is messy ugly kludgy policy. But absent a comprehensive gasoline/carbon tax, repealing the subsidy could be even worse.

On the Ethanol Tariff

Many people (including free-market economists) decry the 54 cent tariff on imported ethanol, without really understanding the institutional background for the tariff. First of all, most imported ethanol falls under various free trade agreements that makes them exempt from the tariff. Second of all, while it is true that we place a tariff on Brazilian ethanol, Brazilian ethanol also enjoys the 51 cent subsidy, hence leaving Brazilian ethanol producers no better or worse off than in a free market environment. The main purpose of the tariff is just to make sure only American ethanol producers get the subsidy.

Whether this is fair from a global justice perspective is debatable but from a standard economic cost-benefit analysis, it is eminently reasonable. Recall that a transfer between two Americans is not considered an economic cost from the point of view of America since it has no net effect on American social welfare (only the dead weight loss of raising the taxes is considered a cost). However, a transfer from American tax payers to a Brazilian producer is considered a cost.

On Ethanol and Food Prices:

It is incredibly difficult to estimate the impact of biofuels on food prices. This is why most respectable economists decline to give exact numbers. I was asked to do such an analysis for the White House in 2007, and found that drought and crop failure combined with rising energy costs (a major input in production) and increased meat consumption in places like China, account for a far larger share of the price increase. This may have changed in 2008 (though I doubt it), though either way, the argument seems strange to me.

I find it incredibly odd that the same economists (like those at even Oxfam) who have for years been decrying farm subsides for depressing food prices and therefore hurting developing world farmers are today decrying biofuel subsides for increasing food prices. It is hard to say whether the developing world would prefer lower or higher food prices, though one would think that since developing countries tend to have a comparative advantage (note I said comparative, not absolute advantage) in agriculture (seen by the fact that they devote most of their labor force to agriculture), then increasing food prices leads to a favorable shift in their terms of trade, which means it should be good for developing countries overall (yes it hurts the non-farmers in these countries, but it helps all of the farmers who tend to out-number the non-farmers, leading to a net gain).

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Time magazine and Abe Lincoln on Attribution Bias

Time magazine had a good article last week.
They only look as if they inhabit our galaxy. In truth, the men who would be President have been running for months in a parallel universe, a place where a Chief Executive changes laws by waving a hand and reorders society at the stroke of a pen. "When I am President," the candidates declare — and off they go into dreamspeak, describing tax codes down to the last decimal point and sketching health-care reforms far beyond the power of any single person to enact. In their imaginary, reassuring cosmos, America is always a mere 10 years — and one new President — away from energy independence. And the ills of the federal budget can be cured simply by having an eagle-eyed leader go through it line by line.

Then one of them wins the election.

In an instant, the winner is sucked through a wormhole back into the real world. A world in which Congress, not the President, writes all the laws and gets the last word on the budget. Where consumers decide which cars to drive and how many lights to burn. And where the clash of powerful interest groups makes it easier to do nothing about big problems than to tackle them.
It's good to see this message get out, because though I've been complaining about attribution bias on this blog (e.g. here and here), it's something the media rarely considers.

The article also had this nice quote by Lincoln: "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

Later in that issue, they quoted a seemingly non-partisan pundit (he attacked both sides) who gives another reason to worry about Obama's campaign promises. Obama promised to abide by campaign financing limits, but reneged on that promise as soon as it was expedient. In fact, Obama has had no history of sticking up against his party for his own principles. Doesn't give much confidence that he will follow through with any of his promises now.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Worries for a new administration

A friend of mine used Krehbiel's Pivotal Politics model to analyze the implications of a Democratic Congress and Presidency. He finds the scene is set for substantial policy change.

That was a good time to reflect on the perils of an Obama administration.

Higher trade barriers (which will mostly hurt the poor in developing countries and the poor Walmart customers in the US), more frivolous lawsuits (something the current administration has been fighting behind the scenes), more wasted bureaucracy, less school choice and school reform, slower growth (see QJE paper by a former classmate of mine), regulation that leads to less home ownership, higher minimum wage (which hurts the poor through more unemployment and increases the prices at places they shop most like walmart). Could be good as well, but I worry. could be quite bad for the people who need help the most.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Confronting Prejudice: A message to Obama supporters

The two McCain voters I talked to yesterday both expressed concern that they were uncomfortable revealing their vote to their friends, and probably wouldn’t do so. I know the feeling. I wrote about it in the Stanford Daily in 2004. Back then, I declared that one of my main reasons for voting for Bush was to use it to confront people with their own anti-Republican prejudices.

Voting is 99.9999% symbolic anyway (there is a tiny percent chance you influence the election, but essentially zero). So it is the symbolism that matters most.

This time, I voted for Obama, because ever since I outed myself as a Republican sympathizer (partly by my CEA job, though that really shouldn’t count since most of my colleagues were Democrat), no one could believe that it is possible to be both a Republican sympathizer and an Obama supporter. I’d really like to advocate the position that both sides deserve sympathy and respect. And that it’s awful that people should feel uncomfortable discussing how they feel.

Of course, I’m not saying this is the only form of prejudice out there, or even amongst the more important ones, but it is one that people rarely talk about.

Why I like Bush. Why I like Palin.

In response to comments from elsewhere as to why anyone could like Bush, my answer reposted here: “long 7 year economic expansion (which the president really has minimal control over, but just to counter Clinton's claims to his economic record). no terrorist attacks on American soil for the past 7 years (unlike under Clinton). fundamental reform of US education. expansion of free trade. continued unprecedented growth in productivity. converting two autocratic regimes into democracies. (unlike Clinton's attempts at nation building by unilateral invasion which are largely forgotten), tremendous funding for addressing AIDS and malaria, more spending on alternative energy than the manhattan project, higher emissions standards for cars and trucks (the fruits of both will pay off in the next 8 years, and hence Obama will get the credit). Europe has pretty much elected all pro-US heads of state, so arguably stronger ties to Europe.”

In response to comments on how anyone could like Palin: “she has more executive experience than Obama, is less prone to mistakes than Biden, and has social policy preferences which I don't necessarily agree with but matches the majority of Americans.”

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Bush's staffers and the kool-aid

The New York Times ran a mostly touching (and rare) piece about the positive parts of Bush's legacy. One quote rang true:
Then she looked directly at me and said, “But it’s all worth it, because I so believe in the president.”

It would have been easy for me to dismiss Ms. Perino as a bright and likable but ultimately Kool-Aid-stricken peddler of talking points, were it not for two things. First, my interviews with current and former Bush staffers constantly veered off into similar testimonials. Their belief in Mr. Bush transcended ideology: as much as anything else, they just loved the guy.
I also often use the kool-aid line myself, when people ask what I thought about the President (a friend of mine remarked that it was odd that I call him "the President" as opposed to Bush, or Dub-ya, habit I picked up while there I guess).

But I generally say that I didn't know him really well personally, but I respected the opinions of the people who interacted with him every day, and they all respected the guy. Of course, maybe they had "drank the Kool-Aid" but that must count.

And it wasn't just staffers, it "transcended ideology." I remember talking to a Washington Post White House correspondant (and Democrat) after a talk she gave when I was in grad school who also said she respected the President's abilities quite a bit.

Anyway, just my two cents.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Our insignificance in the Cosmos

The New York Times reported a student at Dartmouth asking: How do you keep from despairing at the immensity of space and the smallness of us?

I remember having the exact same question back in high school, learning about cosmology, the age and shape and size of the universe, thinking about space-time (roughly 15 billion light years wide in at least 4 dimensions) and how insignificant any one life is (whose theoretical limit of one light-lifespan). And indeed I did despair for a time.

My answer at the time was that while one human is mortal, humanity is potentially immortal, and information and knowledge, would outlive even the life of the last man. As was the theme of the Shakespearean sonnets I had to memorize back freshman year. "So long as men can breathe, and eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

So my answer to the vastness of space back in high school, was to become part of the cloud of knowledge achieved by humanity.

Haven't thought about that in a while. I used to think about it more. Even used it on my first date with R-. Not sure if that helped or hurt.