Tuesday, December 29, 2009

how smart was issac newton?

Marginal Revolution asks what is the probability the person with the most chess aptitude in the world today actually knows how to play chess. The question is how much wasted potential there is out there because people with high aptitude never get the resources to take advantage of that aptitude.

I often think about this type of analysis when trying to figure out how smart Issac Newton was. Sure he had the most success of math as anyone of his day (by a bit, Leibniz discovered much of the same shortly after him), but he was only the best out of the very small set of people born who had access to the resources to become good at math. Let's say 100,000 at the most, or the top 0.001 percentile. Being in the 0.001 percentile these days means there are tens of thousands of people better than you at math in the world, and thus is probably not good enough to get you into a good graduate program in math these days.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Ethics of Killing Brussels Sprouts: And the Ethics of Climate Change

In Krugman's obituary for Paul Samuelson, he mentioned that one of his contributions is he clarified the idea of welfare for economists, and the common good. Economists have a very well defined notion of social welfare, that is entirely human centric, but at least it is clear and well defined.

I do concede that animals and plants must fit in there somewhere, but since I have yet to come across a good definition, I tend not to use use it.

This interesting nytimes article questions whether killing brussels sprouts is any better than killing a pig for food?

This is particularly relevant when it comes to the issue of climate change, since if we just consider the impact of humans, climate change has arguably negligible impact 0 +/- 2% of GDP say the best estimates (of course extreme events are possible). But the impact on plants and animals is tricky. Many animals will die, though plants on the whole stand to benefit. And was it wrong for say the mammals to kill the dinosaurs (as some theories suggest)?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

My Kindle DX Thoughts

Many have asked in various forums for thoughts on the Kindle. Here they are in one place. I mostly got the Kindle DX for work (to read Pdf's). For that, it is passably ok. I have been able to cut down on the stacks of printouts I normally carry around. It is nice for a student to e-mail me a document, and then I can just forward his e-mail to my kindle, and be able to access it just like that. It is annoying there is no folder system (though I wrote a perl script that fakes it reasonably well). Another feature that is useful for commutes is that it can read stuff aloud, which is useful to catch up on random papers, during my long commutes. But the main annoyance is that it is quite slow. Too slow to page quickly through and the keyboard is a bit too fiddly and search too slow. It comes up when trying to find a particular table in a paper, or for paging through the couple magazines I subscribe to that offer pdf versions.

I await new versions with hopefully better contrast, faster load times, touch screen (like the Sony version), and even color, and better keyboard.

It is still pretty great for its main purpose, which is reading novels. For the Kindle formatting books, the contrast is not a problem, the screen is definitely easier to read that a computer screen, and it is so nice to be able to impulse buy books, like iphone apps, and have them right away. Amazon claims that of books that have kindle versions, 40% of its sales are electronic, which I can believe. Formatting is still a bit off, and annoying you can't page through easily, but generally fine for just reading.

Oh, and battery life is awesome. It goes for weeks between charges.

Bottom line, I wouldn't get it yet, I'd wait for a newer version given its hefty price tag. But I have no regrets given it came out of my research budget.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Star Power in Copenhagen and Lots of Lines

Waited in line today 90 minutes in 0 degree C weather to get in for the UN COP\15 Climate Change Conference (people who hadn't registered yet apparently had to wait 5+ hours in the cold yesterday). Leaving tomorrow, which is good because I imagine the logistics will only get more hectic tomorrow. They apparently registered nearly 40,000 people for a confernce center that only holds 15,000.

In some ways, it is a shame I'm leaving, since the star power is starting to heat up today. Up until now, it was all very policy wonkish. (More substantive thoughts in my next post.) But today, after waiting in line to get in, I waited in more lines to see Arnold Schwarzeneger and now I'm seated in a CNN debate with Bjorn Lomborg, Kofi Annan, Thomas Friedman and Darryl Hannah (let's play the Sesame Street game: one of these things is not like the other, three of these things are Kinda the same).

I arrived too late for the Al Gore tickets, but might be able to see part of the opening ceremony for some of the more high powered guests (minsters only now though) the heads of state mostly arrive tomorrow or Thursday.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Copenhagen: First Impressions

Just arrived on red-eye flight, straight to the COP15 conference. Impressed by Copenhagen's airport. Very nice, clean scandinvaian (ie Ikea-style) aesthetic. R- says "i always just think all the nordic countries are like one big ikea...organized, natural looking." Also impressed by how well organized they are for the conference. Special passport lines, lots of conference information booths, special free shuttle buses, nice graphic design of posters, free public transportation passes, free wifi at the conference center, lots of power plugs, impresively good and cheap conference food, even a specially designed iphone app to disseminate news, videos and meeting schedules, lots of stunts makes it a little silly -- WWF drawing cartoons and doing a skit with a giant baloon earth; people carrying around skis, a group in matching red suits. Lots of lines. Long security lines, but lots and lots of scanners unlike at airport.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Shameless Self-promotion: me on NPR

I don't sound as awful as I feared, but I was still too nervous to get through the thing without getting stuck on words. If they had only taped the conversation I had with the other guest (David Biello) while we were waiting in the green room. I was fine there.

The Takeaway: Why It's Not Easy Being Green

The Takeaway is unfortunately one of the new format public radio shows that tapes things live, and doesn't edit out stutters and umm's, as is typical for NPR (technically also, the show is a PRI show, not an NPR show but close enough). The only consolation was that the hosts got stuck over a couple words too while I was there.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Inequality has NOT increased

Professions can have blind spots, and I think one thing that not only have pundits been mistaken on, but economists as a whole may also have been, has been rising inequality. It has become a oft repeated stylized fact that inequality (which has declined for centuries) has been increasing in the United States since the 1970's.

I never believed it. Mostly due to my own prejudices for optimism. Prejudice can be good when it forces you to seek out more information.

A lot of the inequality can be explained by increases in immigration which opened up in the 1970's; inequality amongst American born Americans has declined (Easterbrook). Also, the inequality picture looks a lot better when looking at outcomes like health, where inequality continues to decline, rather than just income (Lomborg).

Yet despite this, most economists still believe that inequality is on the rise, and the profession has mostly come to take this for granted. Two new studies have revisited this (Gordon and Winship):

They emphasize that the measured inequality has really only occurred in the top 1% (bankers and CEOs and movie stars, the superstar winner take all effect that economists like Frank and Rosen have emphasized) of the population, but does not reflect shifts amongst the population as a whole.

Anyway, this could still be a reflection of my own biases for sunny-optimism and that the world is always getting better.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Monday, November 16, 2009

reCaptcha - a genius idea

In general, those words you have to type in to prove you are human before leaving a comment on a blog or e-mailing a nytimes story tend to be annoying because it often takes me several times to get it right. That is why I appreciate the genius of the reCaptcha used now at the NY Times, since they use words from actual scanned documents, that are generally pretty easy for humans to read, but are demonstrably hard for computers since they have failed the standard computer OCR (optical character recognition) programs. The added genius is that not only are these relatively easy to read, they also help collect data for the designers of OCR programs, to make OCR programs better in the future, so you're actually doing useful work by deciphering those letters.


Sunday, November 01, 2009

E-mail Storms

A friend of mine was recently complaining about someone who e-mailed a large distribution list and the two people who hit reply-all.

Reminded me of the early days of e-mail back in the 1990's when such things could last for days and span hundreds of e-mail, when there were mysterious lists that had hundreds of people, and someone would hit reply-all, and and then someone else would hit reply all to tell people not to hit reply-all, and then people would hit reply all to that to lament about the irony, and then lots of people would start hitting reply all out of annoyance to tell people to shut up, and then people would hit reply all to just be part of this weird social phenomenon.

Ah, good times. I haven't seen that in a long time. Always interesting how society interacts with a new technology.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Books that my Kids will definitely be reading: Gardner's AHA and Gotcha!

Well they'll definitely be getting a copy. Who knows if they will actually read them. But these were two of my favorite books as a kid. I was reminded by a recent nytimes blog post about their author Martin Gardner. They really got me excited about math (using comic strips) but using serious math, applying number theory and topological fixed point theorems and things that gave me a second Aha when I learned about them again in grad school.

One I pondered for a long time and still occasionally do was the Pop-Quiz paradox. I recall seeing a resolution in college, and recall trying to apply the epistemic game theory I learned in grad school to the problem. The neat thing is that these ideas have stayed with me throughout and my appreciation has only gotten deeper with time.

I also first encountered the Monty Hall Problem there.

Another that stays with me (which in grad school I learned is an application of a fixed point theorem) is to think about somebody hiking up a mountain. She starts a 9am and arrives at 5pm. She camps out on top, and then starts walking down the same path at 9am, and arrives at the bottom at 5pm. The interesting question: Is there a time when she is at exactly the same point on the mountain at exactly the same time of day.

The answer it is revealed is yes. And you can see this by envisioning a video of the mountain as she walks up and a video of the mountain as she walk down. And then projecting the video simulatenously onto the same screen. At some point she will have to intersect herself.

The same idea can be applied to show that if you take a piece of paper that lying flat, completely fills the bottom of a box. Then you can pick it up and crumple it up however you want. There will always be some point of the paper that is exactly above where it was before when it was lying flat. Alternatively, you also know that at any given time, there is some point on the earth that is the exact same temperature as the point directly opposite it on the other side of the planet.

I remember learning about multiple infinities, and the difference between countable and uncountable.

And the best thing was they were all done in cartoon form. I loved the stick figures and the blatant asymmetric shapes. Ah great memories.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

America owes less money than you think

It is impressive, how much more economic literacy the country has developed in the past 12 months. Just enough to be dangerous. I've often lamented that a little bit of economic knowledge (say from Econ 1) gives people a dangerously distorted view of the world. The recent education people have gotten from newspaper editorials and headlines is perhaps even more distorted. Though I have been impressed with coverage, it still worries me because it gives people a false confidence in their own economic literacy. Many times, I'm sitting in a restaurant, overhearing snippets of conversation at tables next to mine where everyone's talking about the economy with great conviction while at the same time it is quite clear that no one knows what they are talking about.

I was recently waiting at a bus stop recently, and when it came up that I'm an economist, the guy having just seen a movie about the debt starts ranting about how the US debt is unsustainable. And we are headed for doom.


So the national public debt has gone up a lot in the past few months, to around $11 trillion. Is that a lot? Sounds like a lot. On a per capita basis, that's about $110,000 per household.

So 11 trillion is a lot, maybe 80% of GDP. Is that a lot?

Let's put this another way. If your annual income is $100,000, and you take out a mortgage to buy a house that costs $80,000. That seems quite reasonable doesn't it?

There's a bit of a slight of hand there, because GDP is how much money the country as a whole makes, and public debt is just how much the federal government owes. So let's try this another way:

If the US makes about $13 trillion a year, how much does the US as a whole (including government and private companies and individuals) owe to other countries? Note (over half of the federal debt is borrowed from Americans, so when we pay back our creditors, we are giving money to our children). The answer is about $13 trillion. The thing is, the US is also owed $8 trillion by other countries. So on net, the US debt is only about 35% of GDP.

Back to our analogy, that's like someone with an annual income of $100,000 having a mortgage of $100,000 but also holding $65,000 in stocks and other assets. Doesn't sound so untenable.

You might also note that the real problem is not the current debt (as the OMB chief likes to point out) but the size of the obligations to Social Security and Medicare. Which some estimate are in the tens of trillions, most of which is medicare and medicaid. So if you look at the numbers, the deficits in Social Security can be wiped out just by raising the retirement age by a couple years, or by indexing payments to inflation, rather than to wages, meaning that retirees in the future will get as much money as retirees of today, which doesn't sound so bad. Both are still politically difficult, but quite reasonable. Medicare and medicaid costs are the far bigger looming obligation, but those obligations assume that unchecked health expenditures, and given that the US spends more or less twice as much as every other developed country on health care, it is quite plausible that health expenditures can be brought down significantly in the future.

Of course the problem with metaphors is they are always imperfect (for example, if the US really needed to, it could just print more money to pay off its creditors). But many smart people are quite worried about the current levels. But put in perspective they are not as big as people seem to believe.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ways of Seeing (Art)

I guess one main reason I post these publicly instead of keeping them as a private journal is that usually comments from all of you make me think about things in a new way. Recently, comments to a snobbish nytimes article I posted about art made me think about how we visit museums, and the ways of seeing (as an old art history book of mine called it).

The article laments the practice of people who jog through the Louvres, to snap their photo next to the Mona Lisa, without spending more than a few seconds in front of each work.

Nowadays, when i go to a museum, i try to go to the special exhibits, mostly because they are transient, but also because they often tell more of a story, in terms of how they were curated. (Hanging out with art historians, you realize someone puts a ton of thought on these things) I'm also actually sympathetic with the jogging (though R- didn't like the fact I made her do that for her first visit to the louvres). I guess I got that from my art history prof who did that for my first visit. Even though over the course of the 6 week course, we spent pretty much every other day in some Paris museum, we still only saw a tiny fraction, and the prof thought it would be a travesty if we didn't at least see the mona lisa, the venus de milo and the nike. You can see many reproductions, but I've learned that reproductions are always a poor substitute in terms of image fidelity, size, impact, context in terms of other paintings, but also geography, and the other people watching.

Just like watching a movie alone is different than watching it in a theater. I'm also at the end of the day, less judgmental than the article. It is true that for a lot of people, they are there because they feel it is good for them, or because it is a status symbol. saying "hey, i saw the mona lisa last weekend" is similar to driving up in a hybrid car, or giving someone a diamond ring. but maybe that's ok. Americans are more likely to go to a museum than go watch sports, and somewhere along the way, that probably leads to something good.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

I need help rewriting Op-Ed on "We talk too much about the science of climate change!"

I was asked to write an op-ed on social science and climate change. Here's a very preliminary draft. I have lots of changes in mind, but before then, you guys are good at keeping me honest:

There was too much science driving the public debate on climate change. Coming from a former economist for the Bush administration, that kind of sentiment probably immediately raise your alarms, echoing images of a closed minded administration engaged in a War on Science. That kind of sentiment reminds you of everything that you thought was wrong with the Bush administration, and the kind of thinking that the Obama administration was supposed to fix. Yet, I maintain that any administration would be well served to not let science dominate policy decisions.

Let me be clear, I have nothing against science. My parents are scientists. Some of my best friends are scientists. Let me be even more clear, there is a scientific consensus that the earth is warning, and at least part of the warming is due to human activity. We should acknowledge that there are reasonable dissenters on this finding, and that nothing in science can be guaranteed with 100% certainty especially as paradigms shift, but I as a non-scientist think it more than reasonable to go with the consensus scientific opinion and acknowledge mankind’s role in climate change.

However, what we should do about climate change is a very different question, and one which quite possibly, scientists are not the ones with the best expertise. An old adage avers that “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Scientists see climate change as a scientific problem to be solved with a scientific solution. However, good public policy requires many inputs, among them, scientific and engineering understanding, but crucially we also need to understand social science as well.

For far too long, expert opinion within the public debate on climate change was dominated by scientists, and that created a large blind spot when it came to thinking about public policy.

To be fair, the scientists were the ones who identified the problem and have been thinking about the problem for the longest, and up until recently, they have been the ones doing most of the research. For reporters looking for stories on global warming, science was a natural place to turn.

Those who doubted the scientific consensus are pilloried as closed minded slack-jawed yokels, yet the same people that defend science often openly flaunt economic consensus. They advocate policies that fail every conceivable cost benefit analysis test, and claim that regulating carbon will increase economic growth. I know economists may not have the best reputation these days for predicting the macro-economy, but I still think the economic evidence is quite strong that added taxes and regulation while worthy, will likely dampen economic growth.

If you read the economic findings within the same Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that people cite for describing the scientific consensus on climate change, you find the prediction that the economic consequences of implementing climate action to be on the order of trillions of dollars over the next 25 years. Implementing policies to stop climate change has consequences that include increasing poverty by the millions, increasing deaths from conditions associated with the cold such as flu or hypothermia, and decreasing potential growing seasons in large parts of the world like Canada and Russia.

The film An Inconvenient Truth frustrates me because after spending two hours deriding junk science, it ends using the junk economic argument that stopping global warming can be painless and is worth any cost.

But, I do believe that the economic analysis is clear that the potential consequences of doing nothing easily justify these costs. Trillions of dollars sounds big, but accounts for only a percent or two of world output over 25 years.

Some would say that informing people of the truth about the costs of climate policy is ill advised because it will only confuse them. While I share the goals of those who advocate for strong action to address climate change, I still think the public is better served when they are better informed. Especially because a better public understanding can make those climate policies are better designed.

Economists for example are fairly certain about certain principles that should drive climate policy.
Policy should begin modest, and increase with time. Policies should use market based instruments such as taxes or cap and trade which are far more effective that heavy handed regulation. Market based policies help ensure that only actions whose benefits outweigh their costs are taken.

In an article in the NY Times about eminent physicist Freeman Dyson who advocates many of these ideas, his ideas are treated with derision and contempt when most of his ideas are in line with economic mainstream.

I should be clear that my frustration comes mostly from the public debate, and not from the experts in the field who are mostly well informed on these issues. Scientists themselves are normally well aware of all of these other issues, though whether they find these other issues interesting enough to care about is another story.

At a meeting hosted by the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future, we were discussing why the electric power grid needs to be upgraded to handle renewable power. While the engineers were focused on the science of upgrading the grid, in terms of determining the optimal location of new power lines, and the science of power transmission, I was reminded of a study by a group of economists at Resources for the Future, who found that it wasn’t money, or technology, or government regulation that was the main impediment to upgrading our power grid, but instead, it is primarily NIMBY. The social phenomenon where locals protest any new construction in their backyard, which often means just obtaining the rights to build a single power line can take decades.

And that I have used the past tense, because in recent months as the debate has taken more center stage in congress, more nuanced debate has emerged, and economic concerns have been mooted for debate.

But public perception is slow to shift. Some concrete examples where bad economics has played a role in the public debate include a favorite politician buzzword: Green Jobs. This term frustrates economists who see it as a dishonest slight of hand. Government policy can create jobs, but in general, the net effect long term effect of government policies and regulations is effectively zero: any green jobs created comes at the expense of jobs lost elsewhere in the economy.

Another peeve of mine is the proposal by a Columbia University biologist who has proposed converting Manhattan skyscrapers into giant greenhouses. I appreciate the sentiment of wanting to reduce transportation costs, but given that land in Iowa costs about a thousand dollar an acre, and office space in Manhattan costs hundreds of millions, it is hard to imagine how growing food in Manhattan skyscrapers vs. Iowa could possibly yield hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental benefits.

Note, that we are all hammers, and while I began my discussion criticizing scientific narrow mindedness, I should be cognizant my own economic-tinged narrow minded. I just urge more humility and open-mindedness in public discourse.

Economists often dream up policies without considering the politics, without accounting for the political difficulties in securing international cooperation and navigating well established international treaties, or with balancing the checks inherent in the democratic political process.

Economists have also largely ignored the power of social movements, of social pressure and moral obligation, to effect change. By incorporating insights from sociology and psychology, behavioral economists like myself, working with some colleagues at CALS, have been working on trying to understand how social pressures, and feelings of guilt, altruism, self-expression, or pride can be marshaled toward the environment.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Augmented Reality on iPhone

Augmented reality is another one of those technologies that I saw demoed at the Media Lab way back in 1997, and finally in 2009 it gets commercialized. (The Kindle and eInk was the other example).

But the new iphone augmented reality apps offers tremendous potential. Yelp already lets you point your iphone camera at stores or restaurants, and it will annotate the image with information about the store. I'm sure Google Earth will soon do the same with even more info including wikipedia entries and photos.

It's like those fancy head's up displays in military aircraft.

But the gaming potential is neat. This upcoming game will put invisible aliens in the world around you, visible only when peering through your iphone screen (like the special sunglasses in that old 80's movie), which you shoot by pointing your phone at them.

Taking advantage of the fact that iPhones connect to the Internet is even more impressive. The video showed shooting aliens in the world around you, but you could also shoot other people also logged in. Your screen revealing the hidden players amongst the people around you. You could play a real FPS in your office or outside in a field. Literally run over powerups, get healed at certain stations, get special weapons, shoot things in the environment like cars to make them blow up, etc. A bunch of Stanford kids tried something similar without the fancy video a year ago, that didn't catch on, and probably the tech is still too slow to really do this well, but it is not far away.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The serious problem of global not-warming (or an application of prospect theory)

I was listening to another hysterical warning about global warming on the radio yesterday. Global warming sounds so much more dire when you frame everything as a loss. But what if you flipped things around.

Here's a new problem the world is facing: global not-warming. If we don't do something to stop the big moneyed special interests led by those like Al Gore who are intent on preventing the world from its current projected warming trend, the world will face the following according to the Nobel Prize winning UN IPCC:
  • $3.5 trillion of economic damages by 2030 (dwarfing the current financial crisis)
  • 50 million people thrust into poverty by 2030 (about equal to the population of France)
  • Shorter growing seasons in large parts of the world
  • Millions of deaths from diseases related to cold: hypothermia, the flu, etc.
  • Many new species would be lost as the course of speciation is altered
  • Less hospitable plant habitat around the world due to less carbon dioxide

All of this will happen if activists get their way, and the world caps carbon emissions as the IPCC recommends.

Now of course, all of this is likely outweighed by the problems associated with global warming, but it helps to put things into perspective, a perspective that is often lost.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Blame Obama (Michelle) for the lack of Tomatoes

One of the joys of moving to Ithaca is simply sublime tomatoes. My roommate in grad school introduced me to "real" tomatoes late in life, with a tomato picked up from Berkeley. I felt like a Platonic cave dweller, for the first time exposed to the true thing. I quickly learned that such perfection is really only available a month or two during the year, and only available from serendipity. Even some of the best restaurants I've been to have not been able to deliver a consistent tomato experience. But Ithaca in late August was always a heavenly time where visits to the farmer's market will yield a pretty good shot at a great tomato (eaten by itself, or maybe toasted with fresh basil and mozzarella on a slice of ciabatta). Not so this year. Most of the north east crop apparently has succumbed to the Blight (a variant to what caused the Irish Potato famine).

Dan Barber - Owner and Chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns (the current contender for the "it" celebrity chef, only chef on Time's 100 most influential list, and probably the chef of the best meal I've ever had) offers an interesting reason why... the expansion of gardening, promoted in part by Michelle Obama which has led to a greater dispersal of globalized tomato plants to untrained amateur home gardens who increased the geographical reach of the disease, but also led to more grown by people who didn't know how to identify and deal with it. To be fair, I think Barber supports very much the trend of home gardening, but still an interesting story.

Friday, September 18, 2009

On the latest guest columnist at the NYTimes: They have a point.

I used to complain about people using They as a substitute for he/she (or the more compact s/he). Which is strange for me, because I tend to be a descriptivist when it comes to language rather than a prescriptivist. But at some point, I caught a NY Times article using They for the singular. which bugged me. This new column argues that using They as singular was common until a feminist grammarian in the 1800's convinced everyone to use He for the genderless singular pronoun.

Up to grad school, I still stuck to the old rules and used he exclusively, but that raised the umbrage of a feminist education prof of mine, so I have adopted the economics standard of alternating, though that normally means defaulting to she especially for people in positions of power. Now, it is nice to know that maybe using They is ok.

And come to think of it, at some point, it became ok to use the 2nd person plural as a singular (You used to be plural, Thee and Thou was the singular form). So why not use They for the singular as well.

(I used to stick to using he/him exclusively as I had been taught in grade school until getting chastised by a feminist professor in grad school, so now I adopt the alternation which seems to be the norm in economics [the norm also requires the gendered pronoun used to defy stereotypes. For example, the manager is always a she])

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The real shocking thing of Wilson's "You Lie": the fact that people find it shocking in the US.

One interesting point made in an op-ed today attacking Joe Wilson, was that this type of behavior is normal in Great Britain. I was actually thinking about that while I was in Australia last week, where on tv, there were clips of a member of the opposition calling the climate minister "Legally Blonde" which made me wonder why of all the legislative bodies in the world, why the US seems to be the only civil one (what with fist fights breaking out in places like Taiwan, Russia, Bolivia, Australia, Japan, Korea, Ukraine, Macedonia, Czech Republic, Turkey, Iraq, Germany, all through Africa and regular insults and shouting matches going on everywhere else).

Saturday, September 12, 2009


(Sorry for the hiatus. Was in Australia. Will post photos and recap some day...)

I had never really understood the fascination people have with the surpreme court (nor with the continuing coverage of the space shuttle though that I can explain to historical path dependence) but people seem to love talking about Nina Totenberg (a favorite answer in nytimes crosswords and this comic) and the latest antics of Scalia or Roberts, or that Thomas never talks, or the excitement over Sotomayor.

Though a recent minor change allowing surpreme court proceedings to be taped may change my mind. Flipping on CSPAN as is my habit on the elliptical, I happened on the latest hearing on campaign finance reform.
From the cold logic of propositional calculus and induction based machine learning, to the somewhat rigorous forms of economic proofs, to the styles of academic argumentation, it amuses me to think formally how conversation/debate/dialectic/dialog works. These other forms are easier for me to follow, but it is interesting to see the logics employed by the supreme court. The reliance on analogy and precedent, the backward induction and strategic consequences of various statements, what is allowable as evidence and what is not.

I guess I knew some of this given that I teach it in class and have been working on a model of malpractice, but it is neat to hear it directly. I imagine allowing the voice recordings will help (a bit) get people more involved in the courts; I'm surprised it took so long.

Though one thing that sadly may be lost, is Nina Totenberg's dramatic re-enanctment of surpreme court debates on NPR, now that we have actual recordings.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tour guiding Nostalgia

I wrote this entry some time ago after reading this article in the MIT magazine.

But was inspired to post it after seeing this rather vapid article on the NY Times most e-mailed list.

We were told not to walk backward way back in 1997. Though I did anyway, since that was the only way I was able to get through my 75 minute spiel.

I swear that tour guiding was responsible for getting me to feel comfortable talking in front of a large audience at length (sometimes over 100 people). Before then, in high school, I came in close to last in the 5 minute speech event required for the Academic Decathalon. The thought of having stuff to say for more than 5 minutes was incomprehensible. Of course, now I regularly do 6 hours of lecture in a single day, it's funny, how life works.

I became a tour guide, inspired by my guide when I first visited MIT as a high school student in 1995, and tried every time to give a tour that went beyond a recitation of the same platitudes about class sizes and TA's that made all the other schools sound the same.

I worked extra hard because I knew that who your tour guide is has a disproportionate effect on which college you choose (the weather on the day you visited also does). I was told by one parent after a tour that they were impressed because tour guides at most colleges are normally pretty girls, and given I was neither, I started with two strikes against me.

I also always tried to dispel the myths people normally have about MIT. Telling people about how we have the most varsity sports in the country (which unfortunately ended this year), with the best civilian pistol team in the country (I always joked that I always thought it was a good thing that West Point beat us at pistol).

I talked about the almost balanced gender ratio in the Ellen "Swallow" Richards lobby (sometimes mentioning the quotes around the words "Swallow" as my favorite hack), and how women have graduated women since the beginning, whereas that school up the street didn't graduate women until 2000 (up until then, women only got degrees from Radcliffe). One of the mothers on a tour noted that I mentioned Harvard at least a dozen times. I was always happy to play up the friendly self-deprecating one-sided rivalry.

I talked about Tetris on IM Pei's Green Building. About the sleepy student discovering a Japanese tourist sketching the urinal in the Alvar Aalto designed Baker Hall one morning, or the moat that reflects light from beneath the Aero Saarinen MIT Chapel, or the 1/8 sphere of his auditorium.

My most memorable tour was for the mayor of Dalian, one of the largest cities in China, which I did in broken Chinese. I felt bad that I was the only representative of MIT his large entourage got to meet.

One of my favorite tours was the ones where only tourists came. And I could just talk about the fun stuff.

Good times.

Glad to see the tradition lives on.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The secret to losing weight

Recently people have emphasized the formula:
[calories eaten minus calories burnt] times 3500 = change in lbs of weight
Which is fine, and a useful tautology to start with, but people interpret this the wrong way.

Time magazine recently came down on the side that reducing calories eaten is all that matters, though others have argued that increasing calories burnt through exercise is all that matters.

The problem is that all of these things are missing a third factor, metabolism. which we don't directly control, but is probably far more important than the other two.

The typical American gains about one pound a year. That corresponds to 3500 calories.

That means over the course of a year where we typically eat around 1 million calories, the difference between calories eaten and calories burnt is only 3500, or or about 0.3%

I do believe that we probably have a fair amount of control over how many calories we eat (not complete, but fair). However, I find it hard to believe that somehow our conscious self manages our activity level to be within 100.3% of that calorie level. Clearly automatic mechanisms in the body are kicking in that regulates how fast we are burning calories.

Thus, as the Time magazine article points out, it is not at all clear that exercise increases calories burnt. It does while you are exercising, but if it causes those automatic mechanisms for metabolism to slow down for the rest of the day, then exercising would achieve nothing at all.

So that's the secret. Find a way to adjust that automatic mechanism and the path to weight loss is clear. Just don't ask me how to do that.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Damn you Congress for ruining my credit line

I still have the same credit card from 2000 back when credit was cheap and interest rates were low and I got offered a credit card with a 7.99% APR. Not that I use it much, but it's nice to know I have a credit line that's almost cheap enough to finance buying a car, or to borrow money to invest in the stock market. So a couple weeks ago, for no apparent reason, they tell me they are doubling my APR to 17%, and if I don't like it, they will cancel the card.

Thanks Congress. Since Congress made it much harder to increase APR in the event of missed payments, the credit card companies reasonably responded by pre-emptively raising APRs on everybody including me.

Stupid populist policies and stupid populist NY Times who thinks this is a good thing. Last time I checked, price discrimination was welfare enhancing, but I guess it doesn't feel fair.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Good times for the car industry

Wrote the paragraph below a few months ago. Just wanted to state for the record, that even with out the Cash for Clunkers program, the car industry is in for good times. The Clunkers program which probably has no redeeming social value except as a very rapid $3 billion stimulus (the last $2 billion are still being debated though) into the economy. I am probably also more annoyed because my "clunker" missed qualifying by just 1 mpg. But otherwise, it is likely bad for the environment, potentially quite wastefully destroying good cars.

Despite the doom and gloom, the short term forecast for the car industry is good times ahead. This article takes a gloomy look, saying that US demand for news cars will fall just like it fell 46% this year from 17 million to 10 million. But the short term effect of that is a huge pent up demand for new cars that is going to help the car industry come roaring back in the next few years. That along with the $60 billion or so in handouts GM alone got, will mean the US car industry should be quite profitable in the short term. Of course, one still has to wonder whether it was worth the $60 billion+ in tax payer money.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Breathtaking performances and thoughts on science funding

On a whim, R- and I went to see the ballet of Midsummer Night's Dream yesterday at Lincoln Center. And while all were quite good, one performer was breathtaking, even for a complete ballet novice like me. And apparently, it wasn't I alone who thought so, given the audience response to his solos and the couple in the seat next to us who came just for him. It reminded me of our recent trips to the opera, most of which were simply whelming, but one performance of La Boheme had a lead that was once again breathtaking (a view confirmed by the nytimes review we read later). And finally, our trip for the year to see the symphony, to see Joshua Bell perform a violin concerto, again breathtaking. Note, it's not like we do this a lot, these are among the handful of times we've been to Lincoln Center, but I expected in every case that these are among the world's best performers, they surely must all be at a level where a novice like me couldn't tell them apart, but there is still clearly a scarcity of true breathtaking talent.

Which again reminds me of my response to all those who constantly call for more scientists and engineers. There isn't much evidence that we need more of either. Both are good at producing new stuff for cheaper, but not at all clear I need any more stuff. (New health stuff is still genuinely useful, but there is already vast funding for health, not at all clear that more money could be efficiently spent).

Maybe what we need are more ballet teachers, and opera singers, and violin teachers. Gladwell's Outliers eloquently makes the point that genius is not born, it is made. And there are no doubt lots more out there who could achieve at such a level. And while we're at it, why not more chefs and artists and designers (I always use the example that it wasn't the iPhone's engineers that made it a hit--Apple is still paying off a patent infringement lawsuit to Creative who had the technology long before--it was its designers). Or even better, government bureaucrats shouldn't be deciding what we need, instead we should maybe let markets figure it out (of course market failures should still be addressed).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Political Theory works: Stop blaming Obama

David Brooks echoes the sentiment of many pundits, that Obama is letting Congressional Democrat leaders determine the agenda, and moving policy far left instead of keeping policy near the center.

This is as dumb as the folks who complained about Bush for moving policy to the right.

Basic median voter agenda setting theory (specifically Cox McCubbins) explains why.

I still believe that both Obama and Bush have policy views close to the median voter. Presidential politics pushes presidents in that direction.

Congress looks like this: (you may recall my past such diagrams here)


With D representing the Democratic median (and thus the Democratic leadership). R the Republican median (and thus the Republican leadership), and m representing the country median (and roughly Obama and Bush).

Under Bush, Congress was mostly under control of R and while the president has some ability to hold policy to the middle through veto threats, in general, R will be able to pull policy to the right. We will denote policy from the Bush years as q.


In this case, Democratic leaders who get to propose the alternative under our system of government, can basically get their way, and propose something far to the left (denoted p), and Obama will go along, even though he might personally prefer something more centrist, he'd still support a far left policy over the current right leaning status quo.


Obama may wish for a policy that is more centrist, but our system of government prevents him from achieving it. (And similarly, Bush was forced into more conservative policies than he would have liked, by the same logic)

Of course, there's a lot more theory can say. For a more thorough analysis, see this article, by my classmate, Jonathan Woon.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

wise latinas do make better decisions

It is a shame that Judge sotomayor felt compelled to retract her statement that wise latinas, through virtue of different life experiences, could make better decisions than the current status quo of white men. Scott Page argues convincingly that diversity leads to better decisions.

It is an easy argument to make. All humans make mistakes (only God is perfect). Given that we are the product of our experiences (see Gladwell's Outliers), likely a latina woman will make different mistakes than a white man. Thus it makes sense to have both when making those decisions.

I'm normally sympathetic to the reverse discrimination criticisms, but in this case, what Sotomayor said is so obviously right, I don't understand why it is so hard for her and others to defend it.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Two recent comics that amused me

This first is a mixture of romance and complete dorkiness which is exactly why I like xkcd.

The second, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, is a comic I just started reading and impressively manages to put up consistently funny usually dorky (often dark) punch lines on a daily basis.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

My interview for Seed Magazine

I just noticed the article from my interview for Seed Magazine got published a few months ago on behavioral economics and climate change. I'm glad I don't sound like an idiot. Though I have no idea who actually reads Seed Magazine, it's certainly not the New York Times but who's counting (the other two junior economists in my department have both recently been written up here and here).

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

New Tv Shows: Virtuality and Glee! (and effortless diversity)

Been taking advantage of hulu recently, given I cancelled cable. And watched two very promising pilots.

Virtuality (watch on hulu) is BSG creator Moore's latest creation, full of sci-fi tropes--a ship alone on a 10 year mission in lonely space (like that kids in space movie from ages ago whose gimmick was a starship on a decades long mission of sub-light travel, so the ship is crewed by children so that they will live long enough), mega-corporations, a creepy corporate man ala Aliens, Star Trek's holodecks, a ghost in the machine ala ghost in the machine or 2001, and Matrix questioning of what is reality, or space as hell like Solaris or more trashily Event Horizon)

I dig the effortless diversity, with blacks and a gay couple and asians, effortlessly integrated, and unmentioned, like Glee. (a huge change from just a few years ago, when West Wing was introduced, when network tv had zero non-white stars, and Dule Hill was later added as token black guy, playing the part of the dutiful servant of course, ironic that even such a liberal show had an all white cast).

The reality tv angle was cool. The conceit is that the megacorporation financing the expedition had made a reality show to help fund the trip. The intro of the show looks like the Real World, and the show is complete with a confessional room.

Given the virtual reality look of the show, gives it a cinema verite. I appreciate that it takes AI to a sophisticated new level (something I'd expect from the BSG creator). But also shows some psychological depth if only cursorily. And given the long format, may be able to explore the big questions about reality that Matrix raised, and actually do them justice.

Hopefully both of these shows will catch on. Virtuality seems to be worthy bsg replacement but currently looks unlikely. Like Whedon's move to the big leagues with Fox, that move is fraught with peril for the smart sci-fi show. Glee has a better chance, and I look forward for its post-cynical take on high school.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Read this article! Finally, a reasonable answer to the health care crisis.

Apparently, this New Yorker article by Atul Gawande has been getting a lot of attention, circulated amongst doctors, and pushed by Obama's team, and frankly I am heartened, because it is the most reasonable response to the health care crisis and the puzzle that I normally devote a lecture of my classes to: Why does US healthcare cost so damn much. Written by Atul Gawande, a Harvard surgeon and long time New Yorker columnist, I've loved his books Complications and Better, because he is a doctor who appreciates the views of economists, but with a healthy dose of skepticism.

To save you some time, Gawande's answer is that the high costs are due to excess healthcare (too many scans, too many procedures, too much surgery). I can believe that, though it may be too simplistic an answer, but I have long argued that the traditional reasons people give for excess costs don't hold up to scrutiny--medical malpractice, insurance administrative costs, paper records, emergency room visits, excess end of life care, these all do lead to waste, but none come anywhere close to explaining why the US spends pretty much twice as much per person more than any other country.

Gawande then argues that as a result, the left's solution--government paid healthcare, and the right's solution--individual paid healthcare, won't work. Since neither gets the incentives right. Gawande is a bit too dismissive of the profit motive--nothing wrong with the profit motive if the incentives are properly aligned as in most industries. But his solution is reasonable nevertheless.

All that said, Gawande doesn't provide any evidence to back up his hypothesis beyond charming anecdotes. There is still reason to believe that actually the US is underspending on healthcare, because while we're spending a lot, we're actually getting a lot of value from it despite what others may claim. However, at least unlike just about everybody else out there, he's not pushing an argument that I know for a fact is patently wrong.

Also, a cool aside on the small world of academia, even though this isn't my field, I know half of the academics he cites in this paper, I happen to know them all pretty well actually. Kate Baicker I worked with at CEA. Amitabh Chandra I chatted with a long time when he came to visit Cornell, and he once co-authored a paper with R-'s classmate. And Woody Powell, I took two seminars with at Stanford.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Michael Jackson: May he Rest in Peace

I was surprisingly affected by the King of Pop's passing the other day (usually celebrities pass, like Farrah or Ed McMahon, and I barely bat an eye). Also, I was never a huge fan--I realized I didn't even have any of his MP3's (so like everyone, I went and bought his Essentials album off iTunes). It wasn't until he died that I realized how much I had been rooting for a come back, so that his legacy would not be the tawdry stuff that I was trying hard to not believe. It seems like after his death, that it is indeed his music that he is being remembered for. (a surprised sentiment shared by the chef of Danos, one of my favorite restaurants who carpooled with us randomly yesterday)

I suppose it is because Michael Jackson, more than anyone else, (though Madonna comes close), provided the soundtrack for my childhood, and for that reason alone, I was and and am wishing him well.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Far better joke than those Old MIT t-shirts

I still have that shirt in my closet somewhere.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Chance Encounters

(back from Asia, so will return to posting the backlog of posts I have)

A friend of mine related to me a few stories of random encounters with people he had not heard from in years. My response is that this happens so often, I am no longer surprised.

A girl I was in marching band with in high school in new jersey, who I never kept in touch with, I later bumped into on a random vacaction in banff canada, and then years later, she turns up as a student at the orientation picnic in the MBA program I teach in.

A key paper I cite in my dissertation, turns out to be written by one of R-'s classmate in med school, who wrote the paper with a darthmouth econ professor, and two weeks ago, the econ prof shows up to give a talk at Cornell. That econ prof's normal collaborator is the economist I worked with at the White House, who went to the same summer school I did in high school, which we found out since we were both being interviewed by the summer school director in the same week.

Sitting in a random starbucks in the upper west side in new york city, there were limited seats, so I shared a table with a guy who asked to borrow the book review from the sunday nytimes I was reading. He was looking for the review of a book he publishes. turns out he's a book agent for social science books. 3 days later, I am having dinner with a visiting harvard prof back in Ithaca, who is talking about his book agent, who sure enough is the guy I chatted with back at Starbucks.

A friend of mine from college, whom I hadn't seen or talked to since college turned out to live on my street in baltimore.

So what are the odds? I guess physicists call this a Fermi problem.

So let's say you have 4,000 acquaintances that you'd recognize and remember. (My high school had 300 people per class, I'd probably recognize all of them, plus a few hundred from adjacent classes. say 1000 total. then 1000 from college. 1000 from grad school. 1000 from work and otherwise).

Assuming most are yuppies, there are maybe 100,000 students who went to a top college per year. so 1,000,000 people within 5 years of you. so you probably know 0.4% of them. and if you include friends of friends, that's probably lots more. so given that you see say 50 yuppies in any given day, you have a 20% (50 * 0.4%) chance of bumping into a random person on any given day in a new place. Which doesn't sound too far off.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Healthy Eating on a Dollar a Day

I have noted here in the past, that it is a fallacy that healthy food is more expensive than junk food (it seems that way because rich people like healthy foods and shop in expensive stores, while poor people like junk food and shop in cheap stores; but there is no particular reason why healthy food has to be expensive, see Chinatown for loads of cheap produce).

I have also noted that it is not that hard to feed yourself well on $3 a day. In response to all of these politicians looking like idiots by living for a week on the money people get for food stamps ($21 a week) and claiming it is impossible and that it leads to weakness and starvation, so in response I made up a shopping list of a variety of meals that aren't that far from what I normally eat for $21 a week.

So nice to know that I'm not alone. In fact this woman claims to be able to do it on $1 a day which impressed me.

But also just emphasized for me again that hunger in America is largely by choice (of course there are exceptions). This American Life story about a couple homeless guys emphatically makes that point that there is so much food available for the homeless that it is impossible to go hungry unless you choose to. As well as this photo I saw in the NY Times a while back, about people who have to skip meals to feed their children. The illustrating photo was a woman who claims she regularly skips dinner so her kids can eat. The thing was, that the woman in the photo was huge; she must have weighed at least 300 pounds.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Humans Can Multi-task!

Lifestyle gurus these days love talking about how multi-tasking is a myth, that people can't multi-task, but instead, just switch their attention rapidly between different tasks. And therefore we should do only one thing at a time.


That is multi-tasking. At least that's how computers do multi-tasking. (ok, there are exceptions, especially as computers take advantage of multiple processors) but that is by and large how all personal computers have handled multi-tasking. (that was one of the first lessons I learned about computers back when we were first upgrading from DOS to Windows 3.0... not even 3.1).

And if that kind of multi-tasking has worked for computers, I don't see why that's an argument that humans can't do the same.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A very dumb idea: make b-school like law/med school

The idea that we should "professionalize" business school so that it is more like med school or law school has been making the rounds recently (e.g. Time, NY Times, NPR, etc.). Whereas a true profession like law or medicine has a code of ethics designed to serve the greater good, business school is different because no such code exist.

Very large red alarms goes off for the economist in me at this idea. Because whereas others see professions as something noble, the economist sees a cartel. The standard view of professional societies (stemming from the medieval guilds) is that by regulating who can enter the market, they create a cartel that keep prices high by keeping people out. As Time noted, professionalization implies "a professional exam, a licensing board and exposure to malpractice," as institutions quickly become cooped by government. Economically, these institutions use government's coercive power to maintain their high prices. Some of the largest sources of dead weight loss and inefficiences in the economy are associated with the legal and medical industries.

That said, I am sympathetic to the benefits of monopolies. Like a benevolent dictator, a benevolent monopoly can often do the right thing, where a competitive market cannot (see Google for example). So maybe the lawyer and the medical cartel is justified, but the idea of professionalizing business so that you would need government approval to run any company is more than a little scary.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Star Trek Reviewlet

Saw it the other night. Sort of had to with a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. I normally don't like movies with that time travel premise (perhaps the only exceptions are Harry Potter and 12 Monkeys) but aside from that I enjoyed it. It was a satisfying experience though the plot had much of the same campiness as the original show. The casting was pretty spot on. They are indeed trying to create a new franchise though it that might be weird having a series of movies where the actors are all doing impressions of the previous crew. This one was fine as an homage and I enjoyed the plentiful references, but not sure if they can do it again. Good special effects which is a first for star trek. Still lame a$$ fight choreography. Sulu's (played by Harold sans Kumar) allusion to fencing (see Naked Time from the original series) could have been awesome but was poorly executed.

An easily likable (hence the 98% rotten tomatoes score) but not a great movie.

Final Grade: B

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

When politicians argue, what they really believe rarely matters, all that matters is what they want.

Obama announced the intention to raise the requirements for average fuel economy standards.

Note this is much the same as the plan I helped develop for the Bush administration that got pooh poohed by the press. Obama wants 35mpg by 2016 and its get called historic, (we proposed a similar level by 2017, and the compromise with Congress came to 35 mpg by 2020).

The frustrating thing is that part of the defense for the increase that Obama and pundits have been using is that they are merely homogenizing standards since allowing different states to have different standards is highly inefficient.

Of course when Bush used that reasoning to block California from setting their own standards, this was roundly bashed by Obama and the media as impeding progress. The only reason different standards exist is because Obama overturned the Bush ruling.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How to fix the economy: On Transparency

When people ask my opinion as to what to do about the economy, I mostly punt the question. Arguing that is a macro question, and I gave up on studying it, because I think it is too hard a problem, not only for me to figure out, but even for the profession. I'm not sure anyone knows. But if pressed, one reform that does seem to be pretty easy to advocate is to increase transparency (this is a favorite prescription proposed by my students). Or perhaps not. As Truman famously lamented, there's no such thing as a one handed economist.

On the surface, transparency is good. It increases the free flow of information, and economic theory has told us that more information is almost always good, theory says that perfectly efficient markets depend on perfect information. And when information is hidden (i.e. when there is asymmetric information) you get market failures and inefficiencies. A practical implemenation of this idea in the financial sector that is often tossed around is to make more securities traded openly on exchanges rather than over the counter.

Of course thinking a little more deeply, there are problems with transparency. Partly, is the practical matter of standardizing incredibly complicated securities to put on an exchange. But more fundamentally there is the problem that transparency impedes the firms abilities to maintain trade secrets. Trade secrets, like patents, are another form of intellectual property protection (some argue they are the primary form of intellectual property protection given that the patent system is so broken), and though all intellectual property protection is bad for competition because it creates monopoly power and higher prices, it is good for innovation. So a byproduct of greater transparency could well be less innovation.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Two novel reasons for the industrial revolution: no sex and coffee

I listen to a lot of podcasts on my commutes. One that is not particularly good, but fills the time is a BBC podcast on recent pop-sociology called Thinking Allowed.

A couple recent episodes though postulated two novel reasons for the industrial revolution.

This is an oft studied question, since it seems to be a key piece of economic development. China led the world in economic development up until as late as 1800 when the industrial revolution allowed the UK and the Anglo- world to take a commanding lead, which it has yet to give up.

Donald (now Deirdre) McCloskey argues that it was the enclosure movement, the idea that whereas before fields were all public land, changes in law that made land private created the incentives for investment, and thus the revolution.

The two that were thrown out in recent episodes of Thinking Allowed:

1) No sex. The Victorian ethos that led to sexual repression created a torrent of creative energy that had no other outlet for release except in productivity. As Newton aprocryphally said on his deathbed that his greatest achievement was dying a virgin.

2) Coffee. The arrival of coffee from the New World and the spread of coffeehouses which replaced wine as the drink dujour was responsible for the great gains in productivity.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

More reason to abolish the words billion and trillion from policy: Or why Gingrich and Waxman are morons.

I multi-task whenever I can, so at the gym, I normally do the elliptical with something to read, and then have tv on in the background, often c-span. So on a recent house hearing about climate change the following debate came up between Gingrich (uber-Republican) and Waxman (the Democratic sponsor of the climate change bill), I got more evidence why million, billion and trillion should be abolished from policy (see also here and here).

Gingrich: Your bill is going to cost Americans, half a trillion dollars over 10 years
Waxman: You are misinformed it is going to cost each person 40 cents per day
Gingrich: No, it's half a trillion!
Waxman: No it is 40 cents!
Gingrich: Poopy face
Waxman: Stupid Head
Ok, so they didn't use those words exactly, but that's what it sounded like. Of course 40 cents per American per day over 10 years is [drumroll please...] half a trillion dollars, but of course.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

On Bull Shit: When Bull Shit has meaning.

While this article is a little harsh on the rarefied obtuse language favored by the literary theorists, it's still an interesting article.

While it is true that the language of literary theory is often obfuscating and it is often hard to tell good theory from bad theory so long as the same fancy words are used, as demonstrated by the column's writer, or by the physicist (Alan Sokol) that got what he called mumbo jumbo published in a literary theory journal, that doesn't mean it is all bad, it just means that it is an inexact art.

Reading what Sokol wrote which tried to combine ideas from quantum physics with words from literary theory, I actually think it contained useful ideas despite the author's protestations, and it doesn't demonstrate that literary theory is all bull shit.

What literary theory taught us is that the meaning of a work can be disconnected from the author's intentions. And many novels, works of music, paintings, have power and meaning far beyond what the original author foresaw. And there is nothing wrong in that. There is beauty in the stars without the need for intention (unless you want to claim that the beauty of the stars is evidence for God).

Also, I recently came across the Journal of Wine Economics (I was shocked that such a thing existed) and read an article on how in randomized controlled experiments, nearly all the judges at the most prestigious US wine competition gave identical wines significantly different scores, even when tasting then from the same flight. (This was a useful antidote from having to worry too much about taking wine too seriously).

However, while this study shows that taste is inexact, it doesn't show that there's no such thing as good wine and bad wine, just that there's a lot of noise.

And so just like it may be hard to judge good vs bad literary theory, it doesn't mean that all bull shit is without meaning.

(I've been meaning to read the book On Bullshit, been carrying it around, but haven't gotten around to it yet).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

It isn't Easy being Green: and how feel-good environmentalism is usually dumb

In class, I talk about how hard it is to figure out which activities are good for the environment, once the entire supply chain is factored in. And how common strategies to reduce your footprint are often dumb. In class, I talk about how ridiculous policies like banning bottled water (ala San Francisco) or banning air conditioning (Japanese government) are just incredibly dumb.

Part of the problem is that once you calculate the entire supply chain, it is unclear what practice is better for the environment. This recent nytimes article argues that steel water bottles are better than disposable plastic if you use it at least 50 times, though if you read the article carefully, if you wash your water bottle with hot water, then there is no benefit at all. The same is true for local food. Though you are not shipping your produce from Mexico, the fact that local food is often brought in smaller trucks and you drive more to buy it, means it is often worse for the environment.

The other part of the problem is that there are much cheaper and simpler ways to help the environment. For example, for about $20 you can take a ton of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Companies like Terra Pass will take your money and use it to plant trees or reduce landfill emissions or buy more fuel efficient stoves in poor countries.

So yes, you can reduce your carbon footprint by about a ton a year if you give up meat, or you can achieve the same effect for $20. If you value meat at less than $20 per year, than go ahead, but otherwise, that's not the best approach. There are of course other reasons to be vegetarian, just like I love local food.

Given the complexities, how do we make figure out what's right. Of course the easy economic approach is to make sure you pay for the carbon you are responsible for. This can be accomplished most simply with a carbon tax, or a little less simply with the cap and trade proposals currently on the table. That way all you have to worry about is the price, which encapsulates all the environmental costs within it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Obama = Bush on trading liberty for safety

I have often used this forum to note that Bush = Gore and Bush = Kerry (note by transitivity, this implies that Obama=Bush=Gore=Kerry). Or in other words, people tend to commit the fundamental attribution error when evaluating presidents. They tend to attribute actions by presidents to the president's disposition, when in fact president's actions are often determined by circumstance, and thus different presidents often will make the same decision.

For example, while Bush was much lambasted by the media and by Obama for warrant-less wiretapping, presidential signing statements, extraordinary rendition, etc. Obama in his first few months have not only continued all of those practices by expanded their use.

Some are concerned, if not outraged and terrified. Though my interpretation is that if there is action (like warrant-less wiretapping) that two seemingly very different president's both agree on once in power, then maybe they have information on this we don't, and therefore maybe that means it is a very good idea.

For those concerned that we are trading "essential liberties" for "temporary safety" as Ben Franklin admonished, I just say the definition of essential is a mutable term, and is reevaluated with each generation. Just like our freedom of speech has been modified and adjusted over the years (you can't yell fire in a crowded theater, you can't threaten the life of a president, you can't spew racist speech, you can't libel, etc.) other rights are similarly re-evaluated with each generation. The constitution provides the president with the power to test these limits, though of course, it also provides for checks on this power.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

new policy wonk blog KeithHennessey.com

Keith Hennessey, someone I used to work/with for at the White House (also a Stanford alumni) has been making the morning talking heads circuits recently. He was the National Economic Adviser, the position that Larry Summers now holds. To complement his punditry in today's new media age, he has a new blog.

This is his blog entry on gas prices based on a memo I wrote.

His latest entry on counting the under-insured is quite interesting, and contains lots of the other side of the story that we worked on producing under the W White House, but rarely gets play in the press. For example, he notes that of the 45 million without insurance, about a quarter are non-citizens, another quarter are automatically covered by government insurance even though they may not know it know it, but would if they walked into any hospital, and another quarter are young or with above average income.

Reminds me of another useful stat we found on minimum wage. Of those making minimum wage only 20% are in poverty, and only 20% of those in poverty make the minimum wage. Essentially most are well-off teenagers or people who may not really need the money.

Monday, April 06, 2009

An Economic Theory of Super Villains

Watching Watchmen (my Watchmen review here) recently reminded me of a theme of Batman (at least of the higher brow batman) found in Miller's Dark Knight Returns, and the more recent movie version, The Dark Knight, is that Batman "creates" his enemies. In Miller's Dark Knight Returns, it was a post-modern form of creation, a Hegelian thesis creating its antithesis (this was in the heyday of post-modernism, when people believed that the rules of literature could somehow be applied to reality). In Burton's film, it was a literal creation, Batman, dropped Jack Nicholson into a vat of chemicals, that turned him into the Joker. In the recent movie with Heath Ledger, it was somewhere in between, less literal, but also less literary, more sociological perhaps.

But I was wondering, could we have an economic theory of super villains. What would happen in our society if a super hero suddenly showed up. Can we think about this, Gary Becker Economics of Crimes and Punishments style. In some sense, a Batman, would effectively massively up the productivity of crime fighting technology, putting most crooks out of business. Essentially, by shifting up, the marginal cost of crime, Batman reduces the quantity of crime, but that also increases the marginal benefit of crime. Then, it becomes quite plausible that if the payoff to crime has gone up, the impact of Batman will cause talented people in other fields to shift professions, to take advantage of the high marginal benefits. Thus creating supervillains, villains who would have stayed out of crime before because the competition with the small time crooks kept profits in the crime industry too low.

This makes us wonder if it is possible then, that Batman actually makes crime worse. In a static world no. We are still at a low equilibrium for the quantity of crime. However, if talented people (who would otherwise have been at hedge funds or something) have now shifted to crime, and find that they are exceptionally good at it, thereby shifting the MB curve out, or the MC curve in, then maybe Batman can make things worse.

Monday, March 23, 2009

An Art Criticism Generator

So a few friends of mine have started doing this annual creativity retreat, where they get a bunch of non-artists to just spend a weekend, doing art stuff. Here was my contribution: an art criticism generator, which also can be called ante-meta-art (or anti-meta-art), since meta art is about-art, ante-meta-art is about-art as art.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Movie Reviewlet: Watchmen

I liked it, I didn't love it. It looked quite pretty, and had a good visual style. Not as good as 300 or Sin City, but a much harder subject matter, to translate the cheesy 4 colors of the original Alan Moore comic. It was a bit heavy-handed in its 80's references and its symbolism and its use of 80's music (which was a bit too obvious, a bit too loud; the nytimes was especially bemused by its use of 99 luft ballons. Even the normally background-y minimalist music it used called attention to itself given that it was a famous Philip Glass piece). I was especially amused by its blatant use putting the World Trade Center in the background of several scenes, with the express purpose of building the mood of unease that pervades the original book (albeit anachronistically, given the symbolism of the towers has changed much since 1985; also interesting contrast to spider man II which went out of its way to go back and digitally scrub all images of the World Trade Center from its movie).

As others all say, I agree, the opening montage was nice, and nice fake cameos of minor 80's celebs, like Annie Leibowitz, who serve as powerful signifiers. And as others have said, Rorsharch was especially well acted, he was the one part of the ending that moved me. And yes, the silk spectre-nite owl relationship was painful.

As for the new ending that was much talked about, it really maintained the same flavor as the original. Which is important because the ending is the heart of the movie. I also thought the ending was appropriate. a tidier way to do it, without introducing the deus ex machina of aliens. Though the ending fell flat for me. Perhaps because it is the kind of ending that once you know it, doesn't work for you anymore--you lose the oh shit-ness of it. Or perhaps because the movie dragged, or perhaps because it was the one part of the movie that didn't copy its dialogue from Alan Moore.

AO Scott called the ending juvenile, not just this movie, but the book as well. I remember being blown away by the concept when i was young. But maybe it is juvenile. I don't think so. But it forces me to reconsider. Because while it packs a helluva a bunch as narrative, it doesn't hold together upon further reflection. Human nature is not as simple or easily quelled as Moore implies.

This movie also made me appreciate the connection with Batman. Rorsharch and Nite Owl are two reflections of Batman, Nite Owl for his gadgets, Rorsharch for his Nietzchean upermensch sense of justice. This was highlighted by the use of the original 1980's burton batman theme song, and with the scene of Rorsharch enjoying the antagonism of his fellow inmates, echoing the scene in Batman Begins.

With time, my esteem of the movie has gone up. Reading the original again, I am amused at how close he stays to the original book. Probably the most faithful adaptation of any comic book. But it mostly works. Still, you walk away feeling you are missing impact, if that can be fixed, perhaps with more gore, perhaps with tighter writing, perhaps with tighter editing of the fatuous love scenes that slow the film down.

Final Grade: B+

Friday, March 13, 2009

My name on Amazon.com

Actually, it is my friend Reza and his fiancee that has their book China in an Era of Transition: Understanding Contemporary State and Society Actors being published, but my quote is on the book jacket and thus on amazon.com, which is almost as cool:
“It is impossible to understand China's impact on global relations without understanding the interplay of the power structures that shape Chinese society. China in an Era of Transition provides important micro-analyses – on topics that range from intellectuals and ethnic minorities, to entrepreneurs and internet bloggers – illuminating the tensions that underlie the Chinese economic juggernaut; and in so doing, shatters the myth of the monolithic and unitary China.”
Quite bombastic, but figured that's appropriate for this sort of thing. Buy the book here, and I get a cut of the profits.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Two Visions of Healthcare reform: Bush v. Obama

The NY Times recently laid out succinctly Obama's plan for healthcare. Something that sounds eminently reasonable, especially to an economist. Roll out a national system of electronic healthcare records, which will create a dataset that the government can spend $1 billion to analyze, so that they can design the proper incentives system to give doctors the right incentives to treat patients efficiently.

It all sounds very reasonable, especially to an economist. Because economists don't have tools to understand its central flaws: big government projects tend to screw up. A national electronic records system sounds eminently sensible, but the industry that creates such software systems (Enterprise Resource Planning ERP) is more known for its multi-billion dollar failures than its successes. The FAA has been trying to computerize for the past 40 years but so far is still using 40 year old technology. Plus, assuming that underpaid government bureaucrats can properly interpret the data and create the right incentives is a heroic assumption.

Seeing the Bush plan, first hand, you see a clear difference. It favored electronic records but it was hesitant to mandate a national system, preferring to make ways for private enterprise like google to solve the problem. It recognizes the failings of the free market (failings economists are quick to recognize) such as moral hazard, adverse selection, externalities, myopia, but also recognizes the main advantage, that competition leads to cost minimization, whereas lack of competition such as the case of government bureaucracy leads to potentially massive waste.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Play Magazine - RIP

Play magazine appears to be a casualty of the financial crisis which has hit the newspaper industry hard. And that is quite sad. Play is one of the magazines that the New York Times puts out 4 or so times each year, so that on any given Sunday, the New York Times comes both with its main magazine, and one of its targeted ones (e.g. Travel, Design, Style, etc.) and Play which covered Sports. The magazines are the main reason I subscribe to the Times.

I was recently reminded how way out of touch with sports I've become, while watching the superbowl. Back in college, still most of my friends followed sports, so I wound up watching as well, or at least keeping up so that I could talk about it. But for the past 8 years, I guess I've mostly been hanging out with academic types, who never talk about sports, which I'm cool with, but Play magazine was a nice way to stay somewhat in touch.

Play magazine was basically the sports magazine for over intelectualizing npr/nytimes readers. Its writers included people like David Foster Wallace and Steve Levitt who looked at how sports betting worked. Its articles dissected plays, analyzed the game theory of football play calling, and the physiology of sports.

You can see evidence of the cancellation by the articles appearing the regular magazine: the business of Roller Derby, or the use of serious statistics to analyze basketball; the article on NBA star Shane Battier by Michael Lewis was as much a lesson on conditional probability and marginal analysis as it was about basketball. So at least the articles are still being written hopefully.

Oh, and the magazine was pretty.

Great stuff. But I guess not much of a market. Ah well.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Diddit.com - The Ultimate for the Modern Obsession to Quantify all Experience

People have oft lamented the current generation's obsession to quantify all of its achievements. I remember when a friend of mine setup an online page to track how many UNESCO World Heritage sites his friends had been to, and how compelling it was to rack up a higher "score." Books for 1001 places to see/things to eat, etc before you die fill the bestseller list. Some may lament this obsession--I'm sure Sontag would, arguing we should live life in a state of Being as opposed to always counting--but I am happy that the new site diddit.com embraces it. It is a site of lists of life's experiences, designed to help you figure out new things to try, primarily by incentivizing you to fill up lists with your accomplishments. And of course, being a new web startup, in throws in a mix of social networking and Web 2.0.

I dunno, as an economist, I think quantification of stuff is great. It was nice going through a list of things to do before you die. I have always felt I've lived a pretty full life, but nice to see that out of the top 100 for example, I've done 80+, from try scuba, to dine at the White House, to be on tv, to see the redwoods of California, ride a horse, take a dance class, go hawaii, learn html, hit 21 playing blackjack, etc. Part of it is just quantification to make yourself feel good, but it does also introduce new things I want to do (run a marathon, visit the pyramids, visit every continent, go to the olympics, etc.) that I may not have thought of. Also a good chance to sit back and reflect on good memories, and good times.

The list of 100 things to eat is also fun, each bringing back a rush of memories (my first "real" tomato, fresh berries with R's aunt and uncle atop a mountain we spent 8 hours hiking, root beer floats with my grandmother in Taiwan at age 8, vodka shots at a party freshman year, grasshoppers at part of Jose Andres' contempo empire, shark's fin soup on my night in Beijing, single malt scotch at the scotch bar with R-'s friends in Baltimore, Abalone at our Hong Kong wedding banquet, the tasting menu at Jean Georges, Goulash in Hungary, rose water ice cream where I accidentally ate the cloth rose petal, Sacher Torte at the hotel Sacher in Vienna, deep frieds Snake from the art festival in Baltimore, GiFilte Fish with a couple jewish friends during passover, baked alaska on the cruise ship).

Kinda neat.

(And relevant to my research, there is a "showing" off angle to it. It is interesting to think about how conspicuous consumption works with experiential goods. Well you can still use experiential goods to signal, you just need the right opportunity to talk about it.)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Giving an A for effort

A recent NY Times article laments the fact that students these days have come to expect an A for effort.

Thinking about it, I'm actually ok with the idea of A for effort (there's the Marxist in me again), Assuming of course we could measure effort accurately, and they really put in sufficient effort. From a contract theory point of view, arguably grades are designed just to incentivize effort, and if they really put in maximum effort then an A makes sense.

Also, from a Rawlsian distributive justice point of view, it also makes sense. There's an interesting paper by John Roemer on how in a fair Rawlsian economy wages should be based only on effort. and things like innate ability and privleged background should all be subtracted out.

The only reason not to give the A for effort is if we believe our job is to provide accurate signals for employers or if it would be unfair to other students. Though perhaps the ability to put in effort is the only dimension that employers really care about. That is far more useful to them, than the ability to write essays about the fall of carthage or to derive Legrangians for maximization problems. There is evidence (that gladwell for example popularizes in his latest book) that innate ability doesn't matter too much, and that people we call geniuses like Mozart, are people who just had a low cost of effort. They only became geniuses after 10 years of hard effort and practice.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The virtues of Vista and the bounds of Smart Computing

I've been meaning to write an entry extolling the virtues of Windows Vista. On the whole, it is not especially whelming, though I do think that the degree of disdain it has received has been wholly unfair. I have two vista computers (clean installs) and neither has ever crashed. Whereas my iPhone crashes about once a week.

The main benefit is that it incorporates indexing into its directory system, so that searching files is fast. This has allowed me to adopt the google philosophy of "search, don't sort" which has saved me tons of time. Of course google desktop allowed you to do that in Windows XP, but this is just neater. After years of developing careful file saving habits (starting with our first DOS based x286 back when I was 10 or so), it is still nice to not have to worry so much any more. (I still am nostalgic sometimes for the abbreviations I developed back when file names were limited to 8 letters)

The other neat thing I discovered recently is that they now seem to incorporate some kind of "smart sorting" algorithm when you alphabetize a directory's contents. If you look at the picture, the files are sorted as:

While this is not strictly alphabetical (lecture10 should come after lecture1 and before lecture2) it is far more useful.

I used to be more diligent in naming things lecture01 and lecture02 to avoid this problem.

I used to worry when software tries to be "smart" and try to do things for me, because when software is smart, it makes it harder for me to be smart, and forces me to be lazy and stupid and just accept what it is doing for me. In this case, when I ask it to alphabetize, it doesn't really alphabetize, but instead tries to guess what I intend. But in this subtle way, I am quite pleased.

Google, too. I used to appreciate the elegance of google's original pagerank where sites were ranked based on how many other sites linked to it. It wasn't the perfect algorithm, but if you understood how it ranked pages, you could know its weaknesses, and could think for yourself how to be smart enough to circumvent them. Since it came out, google's search has adopted lots of proprietary algorithms that it hides from me, but on the whole, that's ok, because it works, so I don't mind being lazy.

Apple, though, goes too far in being "smart." It frustrates me that it thinks features like copy and paste and customization of just about anything on the iphone would be too confusing for me, and so it just decides what it think is best for me, instead of giving me a choice.

I guess it depends on personal preference. Hopefully there will always be room in the market for both.

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