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.