Friday, October 28, 2011

United States of Europe?

Planet Money has a story about how Germans feel obliged to bail-out Greece because of guilt over World War II. For me, the story is simpler than that, it is because at least some class of Europeans now identify as European before they identify as German or French or Spanish. You can see it in the film Auberge Espagnole (nominally about a bunch of pan-European kids living in a hostel together in Barcelona, but actually about the dream of European unity as seen by the seemless integration of these young people), you can see it in the graduate schools and research centers, where at least in economics, the lingua franca in the most prestigious european research universities is English, and seminars and research groups are organized along research lines rather than national lines. Finally you see it in a few surprising conversations I've had with Europeans recently from various countries that sounded something like:

European: It's impressive how in the US, New Yorkers are happy to spend money helping flood victims in South Carolina.
Me: Really? You think Parisians wouldn't want to help flood victims in Marseille?
European: Well sure, but people in Berlin would not.
Me: ???

It was surprising how for these Europeans (perhaps the academic-y types), the analogy between New York and South Carolina was Berlin and Marseille.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

college nostalgia

Reading Ready Player One reminded me of Real Genius, which was set in a Cal Tech like school, but still was the reference of what I was in the back of my mind at least when I got to MIT as a freshman. Which in the end, like most of the campus with the exception of the media lab, felt decidedly normal. Though thinking about it now, if you strung together the highlight reel, it wouldn't seem that different--a friend turning orange as he experimented with vitamin supplements; we often seemed to have liquid nitrogen around that people stole from their lab used for shattering vegetables or making jello shots; filling a pumpkin every halloween with gasoline, sneaking to the roof and tossing it off setting it on fire; speed chess marathons with the constant clicking of chess clocks, talking until the sun comes up about topics ranging from free will to building a gravity powered train through the center of the earth; and the constant buzz of start-up machinations at the height of the dot-com boom. Good times.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ready Player One: nostaligia porn for the 80's geek

My review in epinions for Ready Player One reprinted here

Ready Player One is Ernest Cline’s new novel that basically proves that dork culture is officially mainstream, or mainstream enough for a novel like Ready Player One to get glowing reviews from both Time magazine and the NY Times.

I suppose the fact that pretty much every summer blockbuster these days is an Nth degree superhero sequel, the biggest thing in chick flicks is vampires and werewolves, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy wins Oscars shows dork ascendance in pop culture. Novels is the latest frontier.

The premise of Ready Player One is that it is the year 2030, and the inventor of the virtual reality universe that everyone now lives in (because an energy crisis had created a permanent global economic recession) dies and leaves all his money to whoever can find the easter egg in his virtual reality world. The working class nerd boy heroes have to search his VR universe (which includes of course a Star Wars sector, Star Trek, Firefly, Goonies, Dr Who, etc. etc. etc.) to finish the quest. So in this sense, the book follows the classic James Campbell hero cycle that defined many an 80’s epic.

But really the story is just an excuse to relive all the 80’s media that dorks of a certain age grew up with. It references pretty much every geeky movie, video game and D&D product from the 80's that fits into its 300 odd pages. Part of what makes this the most fun I have ever had reading a book is it made reading an amazingly visual and visceral experience, triggering images and flashbacks to scenes and experiences that defined my childhood.

For example, the first quest item the heroes have to find is within the most famous D&D adventure, the Tomb of Horrors,  and can only be obtained by battling the lich king in a game of Joust (the game with the flying birds). Starting with the first paragraph where the chaos of the world is described as “dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria” which brings up images of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, the book allows the reliving memories like placing quarters on arcade games to get next in line, getting lost in a maze of twisty passages in Zork, quoting lines of movies you’ve seen a million times like Monty Python, to dreaming about the technology of Max Headroom. Especially satisfying are the obscure references that resonated with me, like reading BASIC programs off a cassette drive, learning the president and vice president of VR space is Cory Doctorow and Wil Wheaton, hearing the voice of his AI was briefly Majel Barett, or taking a test as hard as the Kobayashi Maru. Often,  find myself thinking something like—that character is just like Jordan in Real Genius—when on the next page, Cline writes, "just like Jordan on Real Genius."

While satisfying, it also feels a little pathetic. The players spend 100's of hours of their lives watching and re-watching, playing and replaying 80's media to solve the quest, which sounds painful and pathetic until I realize I've read and seen pretty much everything they have. Which in the end reminds you that you are not alone. The author, the reviewers at Time and NY Times, and all the readers who have pushed this book up best seller lists probably did the same thing.

Admittedly, there is little depth here. For trashy sci-fi that provides enough thought provoking material to fill a graduate seminar, I turn to Neal Stephenson. But the reading and story is appropriately satisfying. It is also impressive that despite the fantastic premise, it is actually quite plausible. Most of the VR technology mentioned—like spheres that let you jog in, glasses that project images onto your retina, haptic gloves—exist today, and the social structure of the virtual world is similar to Second Life today. The real world economics a bit off, the prices of virtual goods should be much closer to marginal cost (i.e. zero) than they are, and the predictions of the world’s gasoline running out abruptly so that people had to abandon cars on the highway is simply ridiculous. But these are minor and besides the point.
The point of the book is to share in the joys of the media so many of us consumed in our childhood. Ready Player One provides an amazingly visceral reading experience and more importantly helps all of us who loved these dorky things feel a little less alone. The genre I suppose is not new—the NY Times aptly pointed out Kevin Smith has been doing this for decades—but this is the first I’ve seen in novel form, and this is seriously the most fun I’ve had reading in a very long time.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

extreme correlation between social groups and behaviors

A colleague mentioned the other day when we were talking about adopting google calendar, "doesn't everybody use gmail" which reminded me that yeah, pretty much everyone I know uses gmail, which is interesting because overall, gmail only accounts for 7% of email accounts, and even amongst online e-mail services, gmail is third behind hotmail, and yahoo mail (4th if you count apple mail which has 11%).

The example I use in class is NASCAR. Since no one in the classes I teach watch NASCAR even though by some measures, NASCAR has the highest attendance of any sport in the US.

Class warfare without Class and the Virtue of Laziness.

Time TV critic argues that class warfare has returned to TV by citing two examples: Two Broke Girls where two well off college educated girls live as broke hipsters in Williamsburg. You can tell they are hipsters because they constantly make fun of hipsters. The second example is Revenge, about an upper class girl who decides to take revenge on the upper class neighbors who destroyed her life.

To say these shows are about class is plainly absurd. In both cases, it is about upper class girls who happen to be without money at the moment, but not having money does not make them lower class. For Bourdieu, class is about habitus, or having the cultural capital to be able to move unnoticed in an upper class world. That is clearly true for Two Broke Girls (college by itself puts you in the top half of the income distribution and one went to Wharton), and that is the premise of Revenge.

In economics there is a similar concept when we speak of wages. People routinely mistake how much money you have for how well off you are. However, someone's wages are properly how much money they could be making, not how much they actually are. A fresh grad who turns down a $50,000 a year job doing something unpleasant like accounting, to get paid $10,000 making cupcakes or pickles in Williamsburg, is actually making $50,000 per year, its just $40,000 of that compensation is being paid in the form of the non-pecuniary benefits like hanging out with hipsters.

This is important because as Joel Stein noted in the same Time magazine issue, we as a nation have become generally more lazy. We are retiring earlier, we are asking for less responsibility on the job, we are willing to carry less. A farmer who decided to forgo Mexican guest workers to hire some of the many local unemployed had most of them quit the $10.50 an hour job in the first six hours.

Despite Obama complaining that we've been getting Soft, that's actually a good thing. I've calculated that I've turned down quite a substantial amount of money to have a job where I can set my own hours, work on the projects I want and live in an academic environment. It shows that we as a nation have gotten to the point where we appreciate that money is not the most important thing in the world.

What's important about this macroeconomically speaking is that these non-pecuniary shifts have largely gone unmeasured as we point to wage figures that appear to show stagnation. It's funny that those very people that complain that people care too much about money are also the ones who complain that wages are not growing fast enough.

Monday, October 17, 2011

obama memo on killing a us citizen

Just another example of how policies do not really depend on the president as much as we would like to believe.

Monday, October 10, 2011

spontaneous order and the provision of public goods

A couple interesting examples on planet money recently on what the economist Sugden calls spontaneous order, or probably more accurately how the philosopher Dewey envisioned Democracy, not as voting which is deeply problematic but of group decisions made through some percolating consensus of the masses . One is the hacker group Anonymous that just meets in a massive chat room where people non-hierarchically just throw out ideas of who to attack next until some kind of vague consensus emerges and the other is the Occupy Wall St group which I haven't been able to figure out what they want, and I guess Planet Money's point is that they don't know what policy they want but they want some consensus based participatory democracy where you get a mass of people together and a group consensus somehow emerges. Reminds me of the Prairie dogs who "vote" where to move based oh where heads are facing.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The problem that is Ken Burns

"How could a nation built on rights go so wrong." Referring to Prohibition. I see that ad on the subway nearly every day for Ken Burns' new PBS documentary. Watching it now makes my respect for Burns and TV documentaries and PBS plummet (it had been quite high before). It makes me appreciate how much smart sounding Public TV is as nonsense filled as a typical Michael Moore movie. I thought PBS was above that. It's not at all clear that Prohibition was bad, and doesn't seem so different than many anti drug laws we have today, which is perhaps the point, but it's just really poor social science. I was thinking this even before my friend Emily Owen's (who does research in this area) wrote her commentary for the NY Times.

Friday, October 07, 2011

How bad is the energy apocalypse?

A lot of post-apocalyptic fiction and non-fiction coming out recently premised on the world running out of energy/oil (e.g. the 80's dorky nostalgia fest Ready Player One) and even though I don't buy that premise--people have been predicting the end of oil for a hundred years, while new technology has led to reserves growing not shrinking in that time--even if it were true, it's worth soberly noting just how bad it could be. The US spends about 10% of GDP (about $1 trillion) on energy. If we ran out of fossil fuels there are literally dozens of sources of renewable energy that could be tapped to replace fossil fuels if we're willing to pay twice as much. A trillion dollars is a whole lot and so we shouldn't jump into it lightly. But at the very worst, it will cost a trillion dollars per year. That would set back GDP by about 10% (or about 5 years of GDP growth) but that's about it. We're talking 5 years, not mad max in thunderdome.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Most science is wrong

More evidence that published results are not to be trusted published in Nature. Ionnides found long ago that a large fraction of top medical studies are reversed in five years, and now a study finds that a majority of medical studies in top journals cannot be replicated. Bem's recent demonstration of psychic powers in Cornell undergradutes published in the top psych journal has forced to re-evaluate all experimental data, precisely because he did everything by the book. I've long found that more and more well established results esp in psychology have not held up under scrutiny. Johnathan Schooler has argued the absurdity in Nature of all places this is because the universe reacts whenever humans discover something, when the far more obvious conclusion is that biases in scientific publishing lead us to over-report false positives.

I would like to think economics does better, just because the standards (at least at top journals) are so high that people take years to publish, but I'm sure that if it is better, its only marginally better.

I suppose the only defense I have for Schooler's idea is that this was the premise of Second Foundation, the Asimov sci-fi book that helped inspire me to become an economist, whose precedent was that a bunch of meddling mathematicians (i.e. economists) were secretly manipulating the universe, so the rules of the universe did seem to react to human discoveries. And I suppose even less crazy, since Edmund Phelps won the Nobel Prize in Economics for showing that the Philips Curve (relationship between unemployment and inflation) stops working once people become aware that the Federal Reserve is aware of it. But there the mechanism is clear.