Friday, September 30, 2011

Reviewlet: Spider man : the musical

Surprisingly (or not) Spiderman's already half priced at tkts, so after Anything Goes sold out minutes before we got there, (an hour before curtain) we got Spiderman instead.

And surprisingly, the musical really was as bad as everyone said it was. Like any origin story, the prologue was slow and tedious. The music was mostly forgettable, like all the b-side U2 songs that never get played. The much vaunted flying was surprisingly boring, and compared quite unfavorably to even the first movie (I guess that would be impossible to live up to) or say Cirque du Soleil, mostly just people swinging back and forth slowly on long ropes, with no sense of speed or acceleration. The only redeeming feature was the sets (Julie Taymor lived up to her hype on that one) which were probably the most clever I've seen out of many clever broadway sets. Nice use of video, and skewed geometries that nicely capture the juxtaposed 2d-3d representational tension inherent in the comic book form (how's that for BS) with deeply skewed viewing angles. Costumes a bit silly, (Adam West Batman style homage to 4-color comics, but worked). And the big finale worked ok, since it really is Amazing to see people fighting midair above you. So I left satisfied but mostly a meh experience.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

us education rankings

It's become a standard talking point that the US education system ranks low in international test scores. I guess I always had a problem with that stylized fact. First of all, there's always an issue of who gets tested--the US has less tracking than other countries where people often get shunted off into vocational education at an early age--though the tests are supposed to account for that. There's also the question of what gets tested. In a (admittedly less reliable CivEd test of civics education), the US ranks quite high, despite conventional wisdom. Finally there's the question of why focus on Math and Science scores alone. The same advocates who use these math and science rankings are also often the same ones that lament education reforms that focus on math and science. What about music and art and sports and things that foster teamwork and innovation and creativity. Where are the rankings for that? By revealed preferences, there is greater movement in the world toward the US style education system than away from it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

nice npr article on civil liberties on otm

It's nice that 10 years on, to hear someone (again at NPR) correct the record on what happened with civil liberties. This is one of the first stories I've heard that noted that things weren't that bad, after a long string of stories in the past 10 years that made the ridiculous claim that W Bush was the worst president in terms of civil liberties ever (Excuse me? FDR and Japanese internment? Lincoln and habeas corpus?), noting for example that Obama has invoked the state secrets clause to avoid disclosure more than any other president. The point being, not that Obama is secretive, but that presidential policies are mostly the same, and our beliefs otherwise are just another example of fundamental attribution errors.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

surrounded by crazy...

You hear interesting conversations while working in coffee shops.

Just today, a writer/director talking about the music for his new play. They started talking abot Jung's ideas about archetypes and moved on to talk about the soundtrack of his play. He has a little device that generates random numbers that deviates from the mean when near humans, especially at plays which generate collective consciousness. He has hooked the digital output to a sound generator and hence crowd generated music.

A rabbi, at least based on his beard and habit, talking about turning people into super conductors to channel spiritual energy, in something he would like to patent, to increase their GC current (like AC, or DC) but GC for godly current (i think, he used a lot of hebrew words). using things like the god particle - the higgs boson - to supress beta waves reducing alpha and omega resistance to zero using room temperature ceramic super-conductors, to increase your alpha to generate spiritual healing.

As a reader of Alan Moore's comics (that imagination must transcend the physical realm Promethea (Book 1)) and Foucault (that our perception of reality is socially constructed ) and Dan Brown (pure crazy: The Lost Symbol) and Neal Stephenson (that the only way to reconcile free will with physics is some kind of supernatural power Anathem), I'm actually quite sympathetic to finding sympathy between magic and science and human-generated reality.

Still interesting how common it is. There's a growing literature in psychology on magical thinking, and I've often pondered my own relationship with luck. I imagine there is a useful theory paper here, combining behavioral models of risk with story based reasoning if I ever have time write it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why Krugman frustrates me

"Unfortunately, Krugman himself is no longer able to separate his own disgust for anything done by someone who labels them self conservative from objective analysis of a situation. "

This post probably is the best summation of why Krugman frustrates me, and probably most economists.

Monday, September 12, 2011

why time warner cable sucks

Finally got our 4th new cable box, in about as many months. I finally decided to replace the old Scientific Atlanta cable box, which we've had for years (the store is just a 2 blocks from where we live), as the old box would regularly only record half of shows, and was ridiculously slow, fast forwarding or rewinding or just changing channels. Figured summer when no new shows were airing and our dvr queue was as empty as it was ever going to be, was a good time. And we were told there are new model cable boxes available.

Hoping for an upgrade that an earlier salesman had promised me, but the store said they only stock the old used scientific atlanta boxes, I was still relatively happy with the new box (Box 2), for about a week, things worked well until it crashed and would not recover from a reboot. Figured calling a technician (using the online chat which I do really love) would get us a  better box, but instead it got us the same old Scientific Atlanta model. Box 3, worked pretty well except every day or so, one of our DVRed shows would only record the first minute. Sort of annoying when you are forced to miss episodes.

So finally, I went to the store, fortunately, someone else was in there trying to score one of the new black samsung boxes, so the stock guy was out, and he promised to hide a couple in back for us. I went back to the store, and amidst lots of people swapping out boxes, I alone was able to walk out with a shiny new samsung box (though the clerk tried giving me another scientific atlanta box, until I insisted the stock guy had stashed one for me).

Things seem to be working for now... relatively snappy. I appreciate that these boxes allow software upgrades, but the old boxes that seem over a decade old can't handle the current software, not to mention failing hard drives.

Makes the idea of cancelling cable altogether like I did in Ithaca sound more and more attractive. You can buy a lot of shows on iTunes for the $1,500 a year we are forking over. Not to mention netflix streaming.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Very good sentence: on the World Trade Center

From Amy Waldman's latest novel about an architect and 9/11
He had been indifferent to the buildings when they stood, preferring more fluid forms to their stark brutality, their self-conscious monumentalism. But now he wanted to fix their image, their worth, their place. Goliaths that had crushed small businesses, vibrant streetscapes, generational continuities, they were living rebukes to nostalgia, yet it was nostalgia he felt for them. A skyline was a collaboration, if an inadvertent one, between generations; it came to seem as natural as a mountain range that had shuddered up from the earth. This new gap in space had reversed time.
(I also think brutalism is one of the greatest names for a style of architecture.)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

combat hospital on ABC

The new abc summer  filler show, looked to be a MASH meets Grey's Anatomy replacement, basically Afghan military hospital, but the multi-racial cast, with several asian and indian doctors (impressively realistic) and mutl-national cast, and the damn earnestness quickly demonstrated its Candian provenance. (impressively, this is the first non-American show I can think of that airs without adaptation on a US network)

The fascinating thing is the show is often about allocation of scarce resources, where often the right decision is to let somebody die in order to save the greatest number of lives. This is very very much at odds with pretty much all American medical dramas where the right answer is always to do everything possible (see House or Grey's Anatomy of Star Trek) to save a single life.

An interesting reflection of the different health care systems.

Friday, September 09, 2011

patent wars: a new hope

Although my main portfolio was Energy, I also happened to be the patent economist when I was at the White House, and back in 2006, I remember discussing the idea of modeling patent wars with the chief economist at the FTC. This summer, the idea seems to have gone mainstream. The idea is that patents are no longer used to protect innovation in the tech industry, their main use in fact is to use as ammunition in legal battles.

HTC just retaliated in its patent war against Apple who was suing HTC because the HTC tablet looks like an iPad. HTC retaliated by saying the iPad looks like something from the movie 2001, hence prior art. They also just acquired some patents from google to counter sue Apple for patent infringement. The whole patent war issue seems to have gone mainstream this summer, with several multi-billion dollar acquisitions of companies not for technology, but only for patents to be used as ammunition; ostensibly defensively, like some kind of patent WMD. You sue me, I sue you back.

This American Life / Planet Money had a nice show about it, which pointed out amongst other things that the great "innovator" Nathan Myhrvold's new idea lab has not many any money from any of its inventions. It in fact makes all its money from sueing people using patents it acquires.

Do Republicans need more Econ 101

Justin Wolfers on Marketplace:
"But the idea that in the midst of near-record unemployment that what we should do is cut back on government spending and fire more teachers and policemen is completely absurd. Never in my life have I felt a greater disjunction between the standard approach to economics and political discourse."

But what if you took econ 101 (I literally teach econ 101) and learned about ricardian equivalence, or used the standard 101 textbook by Mankiw who argues that the multiplier for spending is much lower than the multiplier for tax cuts, and hence cutting spending to finance tax cuts is a net benefit for the economy. And then, you listen to mainstream economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin who argues that what matters is not consumer confidence but producer confidence, and producers worry about long term deficits, and thus cutting deficits can increase investment and job growth?

Are doctors paid too much?

A recent health affairs study has been asking if doctors are paid too much?

R-'s and many others reaction to the story was that doctors have to be paid more to pay off student loan debt, to which I say, bah. Doctor salaries in the US are roughly twice what they are in other countries. Which means roughly an extra $100,000 a year. or maybe $60,000... after taxes. Doesn't matter how gigantic your student loans are, that's more than enough to pay back those debts in just a few years.

I agree though that doctor salaries alone dont explain healthcare costs. the truth is, nothing by itself does. Everything in the US is more expensive. end of life care is more expensive, but so is non-end of life care. Doctors are more expensive but so are nurses and administrators. Liability is more expensive, but by itself only accounts for a tiny fraction of healthcare costs. In the end there are no easy answers.

Even though the question itself is important since it is probably the only part of the US budget problem that doesn't have an easy solution.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Why I'm an Optimist

Matt Ridley's Rational Optimist was highly recommended by one of my favorite economics blogs. It basically says what I would say if I had to defend my optimism. 

Esp the chapter based on John Stuart mills quote from the 1700s

“I have observed that not the man who hopes, when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

He does a good job documenting the history of pessimism in every generation for hundreds of years from Malthus and beyond. Even though statistically pretty much everything has been and is continuing to get better. The book is more of a string of anecdotes than data, but I do think his argument is right. It is rare to find a book in the book store that is optimistic (another favorite of mine, Lomborg's Skeptical Environmentalist is an exception that proves the rule--it got him widely and unfairly smeared by error strewn ignorant articles written in Scientific American and other venues). 

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Compromise is good? Compromise is Bad.

I just read another op-ed about how Obama compromises too much so that we don't know what he stands for.

While I disagree with the premise that Obama compromises too much an W Bush never compromises (I can think of many counter examples of both, and think such choices depend more on political circumstance than politician character) I am amused that the media narrative under an Obama administration is that compromise is bad while under the Bush administration compromise is good. Just another example of confirmation bias in the media.

Kudos again to NPR's linguist for pointing this out for also noting our schizophrenia about compromise.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

yes, farm subsides can't explain obesity

This npr story illustrates another of my typical rants, and on the list of "everything that I rant about, probably most economists rant about too."

The issue is whether farm subsides affect obesity (like Michael Pollan and even some economists insist). It illustrates a mistake that even economists make, of confusing an effect that directionally exists with one that has what we call economic significance.

The problem with blaming farm subsides on obesity (and on the national debt as has also become popular) is that farm subsides only add up to about $20 billion a year, which is a lot of money but tiny compared to the size of the debt and tiny compared to the size of the global food market. Americans spend over a trillion dollars on food each year. Those $20 billion are unlikely to have any significant effect.

Especially since most of the time pundits are complaining that food prices of staple grains are too high due to ethanol (also not true), we now have similar pundits complaining that food prices are too low due to subsides. Both can't be true.

Anyway, kudos for npr for being the first news story I've heard to get this right.