Friday, February 27, 2009 - 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 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.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Already the disillusionment

The Republican Senator who was tapped as Obama's Secretary of Commerce nominee pulled out, citing that he has to come to realize that he has irreconcilable differences with the President. I can see where Gregg's coming from. When Obama was elected, I like most everyone was hopeful and expectant of a new kind of politics. But the process surrounding the stimulus bill has felt a lot more like "more of the same" rather than "change."

Apparently I'm not alone. When both Paul Krugman and David Brooks are both disillusioned, that is a powerful message.

Though unlike those two., I remain sanguine and optimistic about the economy, perhaps Panglossianly so. Still, while I agree the stimulus package is probably far from ideal, I still think that government has minimal effect anyway, and the economy will right itself soon enough, I'm still predicting, in time for Obama to claim credit for an easy re-election. It may be a sucky year or so until then, but 2012 is plenty of time for the economy to recover.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

More Finance Schadenfreude

This nytimes article reports a finding by economists at EPI that Wall St pay has only been out of line with other professional pay (Doctors, Lawyers, and presumably, academics, though academics I learned at a recent seminar are paid significantly less than doctors and lawyers, but still on the same order of magnitude at least) for two periods in the past 100 years, that was the period leading up to the stock market crash of 1929, and the past 10 years.

So nice to have hard numbers backing up the sense of schadenfreude this has given me, making me feel less regret for giving up on Wall St. 8 years ago. Of course, if I had stayed, I might have made my $10 million by now (F^*& U money as Stephenson calls it). But who knows. Probably not.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

the apotheosis of Thriller

Just an odd convergence, seeing Michael Jackson's video Thriller show up in the oddest places. NPR recently compared it to Spartacus. As well as my favorite online comic strip. But most surprisingly, R- and I made it to the opera last weekend (standing room tickets for $20!) and saw one of the oldest operas still performed, Orfeo et Eurydice, which amusingly, in addition to have a Greek Chorus that included people like Mao and Gandhi, also had as Orpheus descended into Hades, he was surrounded by a troop of dancers representing the dead spirits that I swear were using choreography taken directly from the vernacular pioneered by, you guessed it, the zombies of Michael Jackson's Thriller.

(and as an aside, Neil Gaiman seems to be doing pretty well going mainstream with a win for the Newberry award, along with the new Coraline movie)