Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Inception: Micro-reviewlet

Inception (Two-Disc Edition) [Blu-ray]
It's got the weird non-linear but internally consistent logic of Memento or Mulholland Drive or Primer, and the weird approach to sci-fi which keeps today's tech but makes one major change (e.g. Jurassic Park, or Eternal Sunshine [though it seems that's becoming close to reality]) or Primer) that people can share dreams (reminded me with my fascination with lucid dreaming in college). Unfortunately, it cast the wrong actors, both Leo and Ellen Page are both just too baby faced and sweet for the dark grittiness the film calls for. Still, a very enjoyable, ponder-inducing visually gorgeous heist film.

Monday, November 29, 2010

More manufacturing jobs? Really? Do we really need more stuff?

Something that has bugged me. It has become a bipartisan call (esp in the recent Time issue on Detroit, but also generally) that the US needs more manufacturing jobs. Seriously?

We manufacture today more than we ever did, we're just so good at it, that we don't need many people doing it any more.

So if we had more manufacturing, that means you want us to produce more stuff. Do we really need more stuff?

In a world where 80% of the world has a cell phone, and being in poverty means you are most likely to be obese, most Americans have pretty much all the cell phones, Xboxes, lcd tvs, ikea furniture and food we could want.

Should we manufacture more to export? First of all other countries are producing their own stuff. Second, trading with other countries means getting something in return. So we're still left with more stuff.

What do people need more of? Perhaps better education perhaps, better healthcare, better restaurants, better gyms, better tv shows, better movies, better design, better art, better dance lessons, etc. Basically better services.

People seem to think the production of services is somehow not real. Of course it is real.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists: Brief Note: Daryl Bem and Precognition

Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists: Brief Note: Daryl Bem and Precognition: "In case you missed it, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a flagship APA journal, published a study by Daryl Bem containing ..."

Some nice follow up on Bem's evidence for psychic powers being published in the JPSP (the top social psych journal)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Predictions on Groupon

Yahoo rumored to want to spend $3 billion on Groupon.

This reminded me of a conversation I had recently with a few tech savvy friends that said that Groupon would be the next Big thing in the next year or two. I was skeptical since while I believed the idea was sound, it is an industry with low barriers to entry, and in its inchoate state, it is unclear who will emerge as victor (say Gilt, or one of the dozen other similar companies Yahoo has been partnering with recently).

Does this industry have a buzzwordy name yet, btw, dot-brick perhaps?

My friend replied that the difference is that groupon requires local relationships. Which it could then monopolize. Perhaps.

The Yahoo! deal perhaps suggests my friend was right, though Yahoo also reminds us that a company that looks dominant early on can still fall.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Diegetic Exegesis

Felt compelled to share this from catandgirl:

Friday, October 08, 2010

Evidence for Psychic Powers

Ghostbusters (Widescreen Edition)Forthcoming in the Journal of Social and Personality Psychology--essentially the most prestigious journal in social psychology--is an article by Daryl Bem--one of the most respected social psychologists not just here at Cornell but generally, an article entitled "feeling the future" that tried to show that "psi" or psychic powers exist. He basically replicates that experiment Bill Murray conducted in Ghost Busters (having people predict what's behind cards) but computerized.

I'm actually personally very sympathic to the possibility of magic and psychic powers. But I'm still skeptical here, in part because there have been quite a few literatures esp in psychology that have been shown to be false recently due to poor experimental or statistical procedure (like cognitive dissonance).

But Bem's article is very well written, addressing all of the confounds I can think of on p-values, effect sizes, randomization, etc. I don't think there's anything else he could have written to convince me more.

Still you worry about mistakes in execution. When we say something is 95% significant, it means if you do this 20 times, you will mistakingly find an effect one of those times. It is plausible that Bem and others  tried this experiment 20 times and only the one success gets reported. Bem of course discusses this possibility and dismisses in the paper, but still I remain to be convinced.

The Lost SymbolBut yeah, maybe Dan Brown's pseudo-science, not so pseudo after all?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Joel Stein, Google and Me on Net Neutrality

I never had any strong feelings on net neutrality, but was always annoyed at how superficial the popular debate has been presented in the media, as always a battle between freedom loving techno-hippies and big business profits.

The economics discuss the trade off between regulating the natural monopoly (due to network externalities) of the bandwidth providers, to ensure free entry which is necessary for competitive markets and innovation, versus the benefits that comes with price discrimination (which is generally seen by economists as a good thing) which allows high fixed cost industries like airlines or telecoms to exist while still maximizing the number of people who get to use their services. Economics frames the issues in a useful way but as is typical with economics, doesn't say which is better.

Joel Stein (probably my favorite magazine writer now that David Brooks has diminished himself as a columnist) does a good job in his Awesome Column elevating the net-neutrality debate and helps clarify my thoughts on this.

Stein shares my essentially practical libertarian bias which shows in his column (I also take pride in knowing that we were both Stanford Daily columnists) but makes the case against Net Neutrality well. Especially with "Don't be Evil" google proposing a partial net-neutrality compromise, it seems the tide may be shifting (though google got demonized for it).

I actually participated briefly at the White House when the question came up at the FCC in 2007 (technology was also in my portfolio). At the time the decision was mostly punted, and technically anyway, the White House wasn't supposed to be involved since the FCC is supposed to be independent.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Physicists: "If you need some help with the math, let me know, but that should be enough to get you started! Huh? No, I don't need to read your thesis, I can imagine roughly what it says."

The field of Econo-physics still fascinates me. There are whole journals devoted to answering economic questions using physics. Seems almost as silly as economists trying to solve physics problems using economics.

I have two friends that started doing PhD's in physics, switched to economics believing they would use physics tools to revolutionize economics, but wound up getting "mostly" assimilated by the economics toolset.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

iOS4 and HDR photography

Apple Releases iOS 4.1 for iPhone and iPod Touch: "Right on schedule, Apple has released iOS 4.1 for the iPhone and iPod touch. The update, known as Build 8B117 and available for the iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and second- and third-generation iPod touch models, brings several new featu..."

The feature I'm most excited about is HDR photography. I just returned from a beautiful Maine labor day weekend hiking/climbing in Acadia National Park, boating on a 100 year old schooner, and though I brought my old SLR, I did all my photographs on my iPhone, and I don't think my photos suffered too much.

Partly since my SLR was the 1st consumer dSLR on the market so is almost 10 years old, but also as the fstopper blog shows, an iPhone can take professional photos so long as you have the right lighting, but also, I'm excited with the idea that in the near future, camera upgrades will be primarily based on software rather than hardware, (see this Tech Review article). That should allow much faster innovation.

HDR represents such an innovation. For those who don't know, HDR stands for high dynamic range. Our eyes have a very high dynamic range relative to a camera. Meaning when we are indoors and look out a window, our eyes can see details both in the relatively dark room and in the bright outside at the same time. A camera has to choose.

iPhone4.1 HDR from my office:

One typical sign of amateur photography is a failure to take this into account, for example when a person's face is in shadow (and pitch black) when photographed against a sunny landscape.

One of the advantages of a dSLR over a point and shoot is that it gives you an extra stop or two of dynamic range. But HDR can go far further.

In recent years HDR techniques have made up for this deficiency by having you take several photos and then merging them afterwards. The iPhone apparently now does this automatically.

One thing I did miss this weekend is the polarizer filter I have on my SLR which R- took advantage of, but maybe a future digital tool will make up for it.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The economics of cloning

From marginal revolution: The economics of cloning: "Here is the abstract of a paper I have not yet read:
In this paper, we analyze the extent to which market forces create an incentive for cloning human beings. We show that a market for cloning arises if a large enough fraction of the clone’s income can be appropriated by its model. Only people with the highest ability are cloned, while people at the bottom of the distribution of income specialize in surrogacy. In the short run, cloning reduces inequality. In the long run, it creates a perfectly egalitarian society where all workers have a top ability if fertility is uncorrelated with ability and if the distribution of ability among sexually produced children is the same as among their parents. In such a society, cloning has disappeared….

That is by Gilles Saint-Paul (original paper here) and you will find it discussed here.

I met Giles at a conference in Austria. Had nice dinner table chats. At the time, he was the only European in all of Europe who supported the Iraq war. He also has some nice papers on the economics of the year 3000. I was actually thinking about something quite similar on the economics of Artificial Intelligence after the singularity where robot brains surpass humans, but I certainly don't have the stature to write such papers yet. Assuming AIs adhere to Asimov's 3 laws, and are perfectly productive, then we get some simple things like labor becomes useless, thus wealth is only capital, so we can now have redistribution without consequences...

Most Green activities are a waste of time

I've been demonstrating the fact that most green activities people talk about are a waste of time in class for years. Nice to see the message is getting out there finally:

Friday, August 27, 2010

iphone4 cloth case and materiality subversion

I got my new "free" iphone 4 case, (basically apple's I'm sorry case) finally after a several week wait. It does seem to solve the reception issues so far, though it adds bulk so I'm not sure if I will keep it.

Instead of the bumper which just looked clunky, I got the Speck cloth case.

I sort of like it because it subverts our notions of materiality much like the fur covered rotary phone I saw at some museum a few years ago--like how the iphone4 subverts our notion of phone by being a phone that can't make phone calls. 21st century electronics are expected to be smooth/plastic/glass/metal/cold rather than fabric/soft/fuzzy/warm.

Been watching "Work of Art", Bravo's Project Runway/Top Chef spinoff into the art world, so that's amped up my art b---s--- level. I actually like the show in the end and am amused at how it follows their previous shows almost scene for scene, just with contemporary art rather than fashion or food as its subject.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Plants can Think?

From a recent BBC article Plants can Think and Remember
Plants, scientists say, transmit information about light intensity and quality from leaf to leaf in a very similar way to our own nervous systems.
These "electro-chemical signals" are carried by cells that act as "nerves" of the plants.
Not that surprising, but indeed neat. Makes Avatar that much more plausible.

Though yeah, I guess I was already convinced by Godel Escher Bach than an ant colony is not that different than a brain, and by Sum that consciousness is not limited to what goes on in brain cells.

The psychologists at Cornell and elsewhere are all excited about this idea of embodied cognition or environmental cognition, citing recent studies that find that things like the temperature of the cup we are holding or the weight of the clipboard affects how we judge situations (like how nice people are or how serious people are) and make decisions. Some interpret this to mean that we "think" using not just our brain but things outside the body, which I think is taking it too far, but it is an interesting redefinition of cognition.

It also makes one rethink about the ethics of being a vegetarian.

There was an interesting article about that in the New York Times a few months ago. Contemplating the ethics of killing a cow for food compared to killing a broccoli and why it is not clear one is better than the other. I don't buy it. For me it is easy to see why killing a broccoli is better than killing a cow. But still worth asking the question. The question I ask in class is why is it ok to commit genocide against the species Variola (aka the smallpox virus) but not ok to do the same to the spotted owl. The economist Martin Weitzman calls this a bias toward charismatic megafauna.

Monday, August 23, 2010

nifty iphone hiking tool: trailguru

Got back from D- and J-'s wedding in California yesterday. Beautiful wedding. Prepared a speech with 3 of the other groomsmen. At one point we were all there composing / looking stuff up on our smartphones. Remarkably, we all had smart phones, but all different models. Clearly, the blackberry/iphone dominance has come to an end.

I got to try a nice hiking app too, trailguru, now that I have gps on my phone. A bit fussy, you have to make sure the phone doesn't sleep, but keeps track of your hikes/biking/walks on beach quite nicely, and lets you annotate with pictures. Helps you follow maps too.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A smart phone moment

It is strange encountering friends without smartphones, since it is hard to imagine living without one, though for them, it is hard to imagine what the fuss is about. Today, I had to get my muffler fixed, so looked up places last night (picked meineke because of Mr. George Foreman's recommendation) but didn't bother to get directions, just e-mailed the link to my phone. Used phone GPS to get here. Needed a place to hang out for a few hours while car getting fixed. Mechanic recommended the greasy diner across the street in an otherwise desolate suburban wasteland of car parts shops and discount auto repair. Google Maps though showed a gourmet grocery a few blocks away (a suburban Zabar's) and Yelp turned up suburban outposts of Jackson Hole (the Manhattan burger joint manque) and Bathlazar Bakery, and a nice 10 minute walk to a rather pleasant downtown w/ comfortable suburban Starbucks. A nice contrast to the many hours I've spent in greasy diners awaiting car repairs, in the pre-smart phone age (pre-cell phone age even).

I also have to give a shout out to the latest google maps functionality I noticed, which is that it selectively labels restaurants, businesses on the map based I am assuming on some variant of its page rank algorithm for search results. This means that looking at the map in a crowded manhattan street, it uses its limits viewing space to label only the restaurants you most likely want to know about.

For example, turned away at Ippudo's Ramen by the 2 hour wait list, it was easy to see that Momofuku Ssam bar was only 3 blocks away, google maps knowing to label that restaurant rather than the dozen or so forgettable restaurants that were closer.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Travel Time Map

Something I'd like to see would be a map of say the United States, where one inch on the map does not represent miles, but rather minutes of travel time (say as measured by google maps driving calculator). I think about this in terms of New York when people think about agglomeration economies, and the benefits of cities in bringing ideas and people into close proximity, yet in terms of travel time, New York City is not so small. You can travel clear across New Jersey in the time it takes to get from say where I live in the upper west side to my grandmother's house in flushing, Queens. So in such a map, New York City should be bigger than the state of New Jersey.

I've googled for this a bit, and have found such a travel-time map for say Japan, but not the US. Seems like a fun and easy enough project to take on.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Behavioral Economics Behaving Badly

I agree 100% with Loewenstein and Ubel's Op-Ed that behavioral economics is overused. I just think all of their examples are rubbish and reflect poor economics.

Like obesity. Obesity is only a problem if you believe people have self-control issues; thus you need behavioral economics. There is little evidence that obesity causes externalities. And the impact of corn subsides on the price of processed foods is negligible. In fact, it is precisely distortionary tariffs on sugar (that economists also hate) that make sugar (and corn syrup) prices too high relative to what they should be in a market system, not too low.

On sunshine provisions, I agree there is scant evidence that these work well, but it is hard for an economist to believe that they are a bad idea. Also, I don't know the literature on pharmaceutical industry gifts, but I suspect the econometric identification is poor on them. I do know the literature on lobbying, and know that there is scant conclusive evidence that lobbing is a problem.

It is also strange that the only health care reform it proposes, requiring patients to pay out of pocket, seems at odds with the rest of their message. That patients are unable to make smart choices when given information.

I agree with them that a gasoline tax as well but they neglect to think about magnitudes. If you look at the elasticity estimates for the impact of an optimal gasoline tax (maybe 25 to 50 cents more than today according to Parry et al's AER paper), the likely reduction in gasoline use is is also on the order of a couple percent (typical long run elasticity estimate of oil is maybe 0.4, so a 10% increase in price is a 4% decrease in quantity, actually less than that if supply adjusts which it should), very similar to the oPower behavioral economics based information about neighbors experiment, which the authors scoff at.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Master of Electrical Engineering (Ha!)

Small victories.

Out 3 year old 42" Philips Plasma TV died a couple months ago. It was $2,000 new. Found out it'd cost like $500 to repair, while a new tv only costs $600 these days. Went online and found this is a common problem caused by bad capacitors. So we bought the new TV anyway, but not wanting to just throw this $2,000 tv away, I opened up the back myself.

Went to the radio shack (literally across the street from our apartment--which I only found out after searching on google maps), bought a soldering iron and solder for $10 (which I haven't touched in 13 years), ordered the replacement capacitors from online for $2 each, they arrived in two days. De-soldered, re-soldered:


To small victories.
(Bonus points if you can identify the popped caps in the photo.)

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Comic on PD of Morality

June 05, 2010: "

This pretty much sums up a lecture I do in all of the classes that I teach.

Monday, June 28, 2010

How hard is economics?

Tyler Cowen and others discuss a short essay by Kartik Athreya asking How hard is economics?

I am very sympathetic with Athreya (a Fed economist) who says that it is hard to believe that economics bloggers provide any useful information to the public, since the issues are too complicated for the public to deal with. I personally think think they are too complicated for me to pass judgment on, after having devoted nearly half my life to studying economics, so I agree that it is silly to think the public can figure this stuff out. Not just on issues of macroeconomics, but on most issues of economic policy.

But I have two important caveats:

DEMOCRACY AND EDUCATION (UPDATED w/LINKED TOC)1) In a Democracy, we need accountability and cannot delegate all decisions to experts. Maskin and Tirole have a nice game theory paper on this. Also, John Dewey makes the nice point that since artists can convey very complicated ideas and emotions to the general public, why can't social scientists learn to do the same?

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (The Institution for Social and Policy St)2) While there is little hope for the public to understand the technical science behind economics, there is the possibility as Cowen suggests for people to understand the underlying intuittions. James C Scott calls these distinctions techne vs metis and articulates very well for the importance of intuition.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Waiting in Central Park with iPhone 4 to see Pacino in Merchant of Venice

Waiting in line in Central Park since 6am for tickets to see Al Pacino in Shakespeare in the Park's Merchant of Venice, June 25, 2010. Made video while waiting using nothing more than iMovie on brand new iPhone 4. (Note, video quality actually much better, but the phone only e-mails out compressed versions. Will try to fix later.)

The play was quite good. It was fresh for me, since I think I've seen it, but have only vague memories of even the plot. Didn't feel as coherent as the Twelfth Night production Anne Hathaway was in last year, which felt as light and airy as a Meg Ryan Rom Com's (which is impressive for Shakespeare).

Merchant felt disjoint, slap-dash. With scattered bits of topsy turvy plot like some Romantic opera. Where Shylock dies in Act 4, leaving a full 5th act for awkward merriment.

I guess someone said Shakespeare's plays can be categorized into tragedy (where everyone dies) or comedy (where everyone gets married), and then there is Merchant of Venice. Everyone gets married, but yet, the character with the most sympathetic (and most quoted) soliloquy dies in tragedy.

I wonder if this ambivalence was there in Shakespeare's time or just a product of our modern feelings toward anti-Semitism. I feel Shaks must have, given Shylock is so well developed, and the "heroes" are mostly made to be foppish fools. The production (which incidentally had an amazing circular stage design which evoked Victorian trading floors and sumptuous palaces simultaneously) certainly embraced the ambivalence well, bringing Shylock into the 5th act through his daughter Jessica, and ending with emphasis on the line "I am sure you are not satisfied."

Pacino was great, as hunched Shylock, doing a yiddish accent with the classic sing-song Pacino cadence that impressionists love.

All in all, 7 hours of line sitting well spent. Beautiful weather, lazing in the park. Even got some work done.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Day Trips in the Northeastern US

DSC_1850A friend of mine asked about things to see between DC and Boston. At this point having lived in DC, Baltimore, New Jersey, New York,and Boston (never thought about that until now), I think R- and I have done just about every day trip between DC and Boston. This is what I suggested:

I'll mention some of my favorites going from south to north following roughly the path of route I-95 (which I think is nifty since it extends from the tip of the Florida Keys to Maine). 36 hours NY Times is a good resource for all of these places.

Just south of DC. Shenandoah's a great national park (though best time to go is fall for amazing foliage)

If you do stop in Baltimore, there is of course the touristy inner harbor, but fell's point is a more interesting neighborhood, and fort mchenry is a pretty spot where the star spangled banner was written, and has a great local crab shack (LP Steamers) nearby. Also the american visionary arts museum is a unique art museum (features amateur art), enroute to ft mchenry.

Eastern shore of Maryland, has some quiet sleepy classic east coast beach towns. Rehoboth beach and ocean city are the main ones. and some really beauittful national parks, assatague and chincoteague form these beautiful spits (islands) ringing the seashore (some ocean city assateague photos). Closer to 95 (so less of a detour, ocean city could be a several hour detour) there's st michael's which is a cute small town.

Directly enroute near Delaware, there's Kennett Square in the Brandywine Valley, mushroom capital of the us. a minor foodie destination. one of the hardest places to get a reservation in the US apaprently is there. Talula's table. the famous-ish longwood gardens are nearby. small town tourist attractions like the Wyeth museum (American impressionist) and horseback riding.

Another worthy detour might be Fallingwater (a few hours drive off into pennsylvania). Worth it if you're at all into frank lloyd wright. also, nice parks around there, and amazingly a pretty amazing molecular gastronomy style restaurant basically in the middle of nowhere in the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort.

Of course there's Philadelphia. Not much to say except went to Morimoto a couple times there and it was a disappointment both times, and dated now. And Pat's and Genos are the classic places to get cheese steaks.

Atlantic City really is a pale and more expensive imitation of las vegas, so I wouldn't necessarily recommend it except the boardwalk is nice and nearby cape may is a nice jersey beach town. If you detour to ocean city on maryland's eastern shore, you can take a car ferry over to cape may new jersey near atlantic city, saving a lot of driving. Further north along the jersey shore you can visit the site of the MTV tv show, but I've never been.

Then of course there's NYC. of course, tons of recommendations for nyc if you want.

45 min north of NYC, there's probably my favorite restaurant anywhere at this point. which is blue hill at stone barns. Opposite philosophy of the whole molecular gastronomy thing, but even ferran adria calls it one of the best restaurants in the world. The restaurant is on a farm, and all of the food is from the farm, much of it picked that day.

Another 4 hour detour will take you to ithaca in the finger lakes, which has really beautiful hikes, waterfalls, gorges, pretty great food with great local produce, and surprisingly good wineries. (there are wineries all throughout from virginia to boston, and i've found nearly all to be pretty much unpalatable, except for the finger lakes, and maybe long island)

Mystic seaport is along the way in Connecticut. Though i haven't been since i was a kid but doesn't seem super exciting.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The other World championship: Starcraft

Blizzard Starcraft with Brood Wars ExpansionSomeone just sent me this video for the Starcraft World Championship. I've maybe seen a game twice in the past 10 years.
I love how espn-lke the commentators sound.
Scary thing is I recognize a lot of the strategies,

* from the first corsair -> observer attack,
* the fact that dragoons are weak against small units,
* the dark templar probe anihilation
* the starter overlord scout

And that the jargon is still the same after all these years:

* cracklings - (speed and double attack upgraded zerglins) i was always a fan
* naturals (expansion)
* turtling
* gateway rushes
* cannon rush

I recognize the micromanaging (e.g. scourge vs corsair, and the probe vs probe micro), which i was never good at, hence my attraction to crackling.

Almost sad if the upcoming starcraft 2, kills the original starcraft. It'd be nice if it develops a timelessness like chess. I like how the game is exactly the same as I remember it.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Risk, Climate Change and Alien Doomsdays

It is pretty much the consensus amongst climate economists that the expected economic impact of climate change is a loss of only a couple percent (see Tol 2009 and IPCC). Mean IPCC forecasts of a few degrees of warming, a few inches of sea level rise, etc. harm some economies but help others. The net effect is small.

However, a number of prominent economists, like Krugman and Weitzman have argued that though the mean estimates are small, it is the black swans in the tails that we should be wary of. The small but non-negligible unquantifiable risk of catastrophe (antarctic melting, irreversible tipping points, reversal of ocean currents, etc.) means that we should essentially buy insurance, implementing cap and trade and other measures to curtail emissions.

My problem with this argument is that there are lots of small but real unquantifiable risks of catastrophe:
  • A flu/TB pandemic that decimates the human population.
  • Terrorist sparked nuclear armageddon
  • Persistent global Depression due to financial system collapse
  • Asteroid impact extinction level event
  • Computers become sentient and try to exterminate humanity
  • Alien Invasion

Outbreak (Snap Case)The TerminatorDeep Impact (Special Collector's Edition)
    Bring in a few hollywood screenwriters and I'm sure they can come up with 100 more. If we spend 1% of GDP on each, that's pretty much everything. What makes climate change deserve so much attention? The science that climate change will have some effect is quite strong, but the science of climate change induced catastrophe is not so well established.

    Tuesday, June 01, 2010

    This American Life vs 5 years of Econ grad school

    This Amerian Life is my favorite NPR show, the one that got me hooked, and as my cousin E- calls it, the epitome of NPR. It has managed to stay fresh and engaging for the decade+ that I have been a fan, though in the past couple of years, the show has grown a bit tired. I attributed that in part to the new tv show which may have diverted their attentions. But they also have grown more ambitious, where instead of just focusing on quirks of daily life, they have started engaging with policy esp their planet money spinoff. The most well cited was perhaps the best reporting on the financial crisis anywhere. Healthcare was so-so. And some of the reporting on derivatives and shorts was just plain wrong.

    But last week's show on Haiti summed up very well I think the most important thing I learned about economic development from 5 years of grad school (after all, trying to figure out how to fix countries like Haiti was the main reason I went to grad school to begin with). The dilemma between structure and agency. Between aid and capacity building. Good stuff.

    Tuesday, May 25, 2010

    Lost and hard nosed mysticism

    A lot of my more techie (rather than fuzzy friends, using Stanford parlance) have been complaining about the Lost Finale. Lamenting that the hard-nosed sci-fi aspect was lost, in favor of less-grounded topics like mysticism.

    Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (Vintage)But I believe mysticism can be grounded. I really liked Sum, a recent book written by a neuro-scientist with 40 vignettes about the afterlife, such as reliving your life with all your activities summed up (months of sleeping followed by weeks of joy, followed by months of despair, followed by days of brushing your teeth, etc.) or discovering that God is the god of amoebas, and just does not comprehend you, any more than we comprehend galaxies, or the idea that after you die, you live on in the consciousness of everyone who knows you, which makes a lot of sense, given that probably the best definition of somebody is just the information patterns in their brain, and that lives on as mental models that neuro science tells us our brains build of those around us.

    AnathemAlso, Stephenson's last few novels like Anathem have tried to reconcile mysticism with science, and his Baroque Cycle books which describe how Newton and Leibniz essentially invented science (and modern economics) out of alchemy and mysticism, and that reason and mysticism are actually not so different.

    Thursday, May 20, 2010

    Cat And Girl comic: Maladaptive

    ComicKind of cool, combined my ambivalence of liking NPR music (because of the weird combination of identity signaling and counter-signaling that I've thought a lot about) and the theory of organizational ecology, a sociological organizational behavior theory that was pretty dominant back at Stanford but I haven't thought about much since grad school.

    Wednesday, May 19, 2010

    Tell me a Story

    One thing I remember from when I was around 10 years old (the setting was usually the car ride by the Quik Chek in Morristown) was my mom always asking me to talk about my day, and making me start over if I didn't tell it right. In the end, I think that was a useful exercise. Apparently she was not the only one who thought so.

    Tuesday, May 11, 2010

    Web-comics as harbinger for New Media

    It is interesting reading about how web comic artists make money, since it could be a harbinger for the business model of all future content whether it is music, to tv, to movies, to news. Where the content is given away for free, as a way to sell ancillary products and services like concerts for bands or consulting services for software. The main webcomics I read, xkcd and order of the stick, seem to follow exclusively, use the comics to sell books and t-shirts model.

    Saturday, April 24, 2010

    CFL Lightbulbs and Non-Behavioral Economics

    GE Lamps 48690 100-Watt A19 Reveal Bulbs, 4 PackWe are covering Behavioral Economics in my Energy/Environmental class this week, and people in general like to point out the slow adoption of CFL (florescent) light bulbs as evidence that people are irrational, and thus justifying the law that banned incandescent lightbulbs. (for those of who are not aware, Congress passed a law in 2007 that will ban regular lightbulbs by 2014.)

    Still, studies that say CFL light bulbs are obviously better, depend on the assumption that they don't burn out, thus justifying their much much higher prices. Today, I had the third that's burnt out in less than a year of use, and now I have to again figure out how to recycle the d$@# thing. I wonder what the full costs are of government and activists trying to "fix" our irrationality.

    Tuesday, April 20, 2010

    Postman Reviewlet

    The PostmanI watched Kevin Costner's much derided Postman recently. I normally try to work on my long bus commutes, but sometimes that's hard when I wind up on the crappy bus so movies pass the time.

    So I bought the DVD (out of a bargain bin) because I loved the concept. And while the movie lived up to its crappy reputation, it also delivered on the excellence of its fundamental premise: the power of institutions.

    In a post-apocalyptic mad max world, where civilization has returned to a Hobbseian State of Nature where might makes right. The premise is that terrorizing dictators can be overcome not by violence, but by an institution: the idea of the postal service, in this case representing the idea of the United States and the idea of democracy.

    Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade (Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions)Using Greif's framework for analyzing institutions, the hero in the movie, the Postman (played by Costner), wins over dictatorship by establishing a new institution with two key institutional components, 1) the belief that the dictatorial institution is going to end, and 2) introduction of a simple Rule, that a postman can create a new postman.

    I think the credit mostly goes to the source material, David Brin, sci-fi novelist, who has consistently made great points along these lines. I've never read his books but two of his essays have influenced me a lot on how in Lord of the Ring, the elitist aritocracy of elves and rangers wins over Sauron's meritocratic (and even democratizing) forces of technology; and similarly, how Star Wars glorifies the elite master race of Jedi, over the democratic institutions of the Republic that the Emperor represents.