Thursday, December 20, 2012

AP Biology and Game of Thrones

One random factoid that stuck with me from learning about Mendel's cross in 9th grade AP biology was that brown hair was a dominant gene to blonde hair and therefore you can make predictions like two blonde parents must have blonde children, and a parent with homozygous brown haired genes can only have brown haired children. I wondered how many TV and movie casting directors knew that fact and for years I was on the look out for that mistake. Decades passed (literally 2 decades) without thinking about it at all, and then (minor spoiler alert) that little factoid shows up as a major plot point for George R R Martin's Game of Thrones. Apparently I wasn't the only person who thought that about the implications of Mendel on fiction.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why is Dungeons and Dragons still fringe?

This time magazine article poses an excellent question "Why is Dungeons & Dragons still considered a fringe subculture after all these years?" after all "In a world where The Hobbit‘s biggest competition for being the most successful movie of the year is Marvel’s The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, that seems almost unbelievable."

I've been sort of shocked recently overhearing a couple senior colleagues talking about HBO's Game of Thrones (my favorite fantasy book back from college) as well as a bunch of old ladies on the train talking about it at length, and reading Amy Poehler's paean to it in Entertainment weekly, (not to mention my mom). That the Hobbit has been hugely anticipated by pretty much everyone except me (doesn't 3 movies seem way too much? and doesn't the commercials just look like lord of the rings retread?). All this makes the question sound plausible.

Though this trend is still a little worrisome. I wandered into the new comic book store near my hip brother's apartment in Brooklyn and instead of finding the safe haven refuge that comic book stores serve as for nerds everywhere, I instead found a hipster fedora'ed salesclerk selling emo comics off stylish sparse scandinavian furniture to girls in skinny jeans with the super hero comics relegated to a small corner in the back. That disturbed me to the core as I backed out slowly then turned around and ran.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Freakonomics: Mass Transit Hysteria

Economists generally hate mass transit, at least in the US. Mostly because despite what's poltically correct, mass transit is usually horribly inefficient. The latest study as reported by freaknomics Mass Transit Hysteria: Full Transcript finds that outside of New York, since most buses and trains run mostly empty, the average mass transit rider generates more emissions than the average driver. Not to mention that the previous studies that finds that mass transit riders tend to have double the commute time.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Why bad gifts are good and the blindspot of behavioral economics and psychology

Waldfogel's book Scroogenomics always gets a lot of play every Christmas these days, (see this Sunstein article for example) but this is also the problem with psychology and much of behavioral economics, it ignores the larger social significance of gifting. I always liked Camerer (AJS 1988) for a reason why gifts (like my own reasoning about apologies) are and *should be* hard to give. If gifts were easy to choose like cash, then they would convey no meaning, or in game theory terms, no information. It is the symbolic signifiers of gift giving that matter.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Luck and Creative Production

A nice recent On the Media story on a new book Magic Hours about the randomness of what books actually get published, and how works by authors like Kafka, Emily Dickenson and Melville were only published through sheer luck, suggesting that much creative output that we think is great, is only a small fraction of the potential of what may be out there.

Although luck is essential for success in most careers, it is especially evident in creative works like books, movies, music. Duncan Watts has a nice Music Lab experiment where he created a number of disjoint online communities but fed them all the same music. He found that what became popular in each sub-community was essentially arbitrary once a certain minimum quality threshold was met.

Malcolm Gladwell makes the point more generally in Outliers, that success in general in any field depends more on luck than people generally appreciate.

The fact that we normally don't think about the luck is just another example of the fundamental attribution error, and just suggests that we should both be more reserved in lauding success and in looking down on failure both in others but also ourselves.

Monday, November 26, 2012

New Paper and my New Erdos Number: 5

Our new paper published on Health Inequality which came about because of a discussion thread on facebook, the best part is that this gives me an Erdos number of 5 through my co-author, Sita Nataraj Slavov's paper with my old adviser, Doug Bernheim.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Presidential Contenders 2016 Oddity

Not sure what to make of the fact that of the 13 Time Magazine Contenders for the Presidency in 2016, all the Democrats are white (mostly white men, admittedly one white hispanic) while all but 1 of the republicans are minorities (and I guess if you count obese as a minority in politics, then all the Republicans are minorities), a black woman, two hispanics, one sikh woman, one indian.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Told ya so: Citizens United didn't matter

For what its worth, as I have argued here and in class since the Citizens United ruling that reduced spending restrictions for campaigns, the ruling wasn't going to matter. Lots of studies find that most corporations don't really spend that much to influence elections and weren't really constrained by the old laws (Ansolbehere, de Figuereido and Snyder ) and that money spent on elections really doesn't matter too much (Levitt).

Campaign spending was a whopping 13% higher in 2012 than in 2008, barely outpacing inflation, and by and large, we got pretty much the same electoral outcome as before too. Yay when social science works. Too bad neither pundits nod the media really care what social science says about elections. Even stats guru Nate Silver mostly ignores the literature to just do ad hoc statistics.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Why Bloomberg's endorsement is wrong and Nixon going to China

In Bloomberg's endorsement of Obama today, he cites climate change as a key factor in favoring Obama over Romney. Yet as Romney's record in Massachusetts shows, he has largely the same personal views on climate change as Obama. Sure Romney has tacked right on that issue in the past 4 years to appease his party, but so too has Obama, largely ignoring the issue for the past 4 years and all throughout the campaign.

And actually if you really do care about climate change, Romney may have a better chance of getting something passed. There's an old Vulcan Proverb: only Nixon can go to China, referring to the fact that Nixon was able to Nixon was better able to restore relations with China than say the Democrats because of his anti-communist reputation. Similarly, Clinton was able to get welfare reform passed by bringing Democrats over to a Republican issue. In the same way, Romney may have a better chance pulling together a bipartisan majority of Republicans (who will follow because he's a republican) and Democrats (who care deeply on the issue) on the issue of climate change than a Democratic president could.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The economics of frankenstorm

It hasn't even started raining yet and the city is planning for a 2 day shut down. At 1% of the working days for the year, that's very loosely a 1% reduction in annual regional gdp growth, which has huge implications. The flip side is an extra couple days of leisure and there's definitely a very festive atmosphere in the city today, as people seem more excited then annoyed at the impending frankenstorm.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Congratulations Roth and Shapely

The Nobel Prize in Economics went to Al Roth and Lloyd Shapely for their work on matching markets.

Surprisingly practical. I suppose in an era of popular distrust of economics, it is nice to highlight an area of concrete contributions.  It still surprises me a bit since market design is such a new field to get a nobel prize already, even though it was the biggest thing amongst theory PhD students back when I was a grad student, theory seems on the wane and I'm not even sure most economists are even aware of the literature on market design. It is one of the few things I usually can point to though when people ask if economic theory has ever done anything that is demonstrably useful.

I didn't even know Shapley was still around. I learned about his marriage market algorithm as someting received as if from antiquity (the 50's and 60's were basically antiquity in the field of computer science), in computer science algoirthms classes, 6.046 to be precise, and then mostly came across his work in the context of the now mostly defunct Nash bargaining.

Al Roth I always knew as a pioneer of matching markets, but more as an experimental economist more generally these days. So it makes sense that they would be paired together in such a way, but a little surprising.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Reviewlet: Five Year Engagement

Wow. Favorite Rom Com ever. I don't think I've ever said that before. There are only a few works of fiction out there that made me think: wow, that's about my tiny random demographic (e.g. Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, Judd Apatow's Role Models). Set between the Bay Area and U Michigan, this is the only movie I can think of that accurately portrays a academic lead, Emily Blunt (thanks in part to my academic behavioral economist Paige Marta Skiba friend who was interviewed for the movie that was originally going to be about behavioral economics). A rom-com about the two-body two career problem that so many of my friends face. The other lead, Jason Segal, is a chef, providing for lots of foodie references (even a Top Chef joke). The leads have great chemistry, and the problems they deal with smartly and with maturity feel all too real. The humor is a perfectly pitched Mindy Kahlins/How I met your mother-esque Funny-Strange tossed with Apatow style outre-ness. Watching it, I totally expected it to get a tepid reception (which it did), but for those facing these same issues, no other rom-com movie has resonated so much (we're talking as much as the Avengers). Final Grade: A+

Friday, August 31, 2012

Best NPR commercial ever

“There are people who count on you to be witty, at least smart. They don’t know what to think about Goldman Sachs or fracking in the Catskills. They expect you to tell them. And if you let them down, who knows what will happen to the world…or at least New York, which for some people is the world. You owe it to them to listen to WNYC all the time, so please don’t do a half-assed job, that’s not like you. WNYC. Never turn it off.”  (as read by Stanley Tucci, couldn't find a recording online but the ironic smugness in his voice is perfect)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Stupid Debt Ceiling Histrionics

Aaron Sorkin likes to think he understands economics. His president in the show West Wing has a Nobel Prize in Economics (nevermind that a Notre Dame economics professor who wins the Nobel Prize might and someday become president is so absurdly implausible). Still I'm a sucker for Sorkin-esque dialogue and post-partisan idealism, so I've become a watcher of his new show Newsroom.

Excited to see Olivia Munn (whom I've known since she was the co-host on a little game show channel variety show) playing an economist (PhD from Duke, lecturing at Columiba), but just got annoyed and very disappointed whenever her character spoke.

Because she (like Sorkin) speaks not the language of real economists (like the NPR planet money or Freakonomics guys do) but instead the economics of know-it-all pundits like Thomas Friedman, who talk with authority but get most things wrong.

Among them, her (Sorkin's) hyper reaction to the Debt ceiling debate where Republicans asked for a debate on whether the US should be allowed to  borrow more money (which is being talked about again because of Paul Ryan, election season and a few books and tell-alls on the topic), which was full of hyperbolic superlatives that really didn't play out. First, the claim that the debt ceiling is not meant to be debated in Congress is stupid. If Congress really thought so, they could just eliminate it, but they *choose* to tempoarily renew it each time *to allow for debate*.  Second, the idea that playing with the debt ceiling will lead to distrust of US treasury bonds is a theoretically possibility, but empirically, the debt ceiling debates and the S&P downgrades only led to record low interest rates as people fled to American treasury notes because they are still deemed safer than anything else in the world (monetary policy also played a role here of course, but the idea still is that all the political turmoil had at best a 2nd order effect). Finally, as a practical matter, not raising the debt ceiling wouldn't necessitate default. There are lots of short term measures (like withholding social security checks) that would have allowed the US to continue to make its interest payments.

Having wrong-headed ideas is one thing. Having wrong-headed ideas wrapped up in trademarked Sorkin-style supercillious righteous indignation is just annoying.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Apple, Amazon and Google : Tax Evaders

Masters of Tax Evasion
Created by:
I was asked to post the following infographic that someone made. I don't endorse their site in any way, but I think their graphics are quite pretty and it makes an excellent point (though I find it odd it leaves off the tax rate on oil companies who pay amongst the highest tax rates). A nice counterpoint to the kerfuffle over Romney taking advantage of tax laws. Since Apple does the same.

Although I would add that everyone that buys or uses google, amazon or apple products are complicit because while the government suffers from the loss in tax revenue, the consumers (along with Apple shareholders) share in the benefits. Whether it is consumers or shareholders who benefit more depends on the relative elasticities (essentially, the more consumers are willing to trade their Apple phone for a Google phone, the more they benefit from lower taxes on Apple and Google).

There is also good reason why maybe apple should pay less in taxes. As the recent NPR planet money pointed out, economists are largely agreed that (in an ideal world) corporations (and people living off capital income) should pay essentially zero in taxes. This is particularly true for corporations engaged in innovation, which arguably characterizes google, apple and amazon.

(See my nerdwallet post or any textbook on public finance for more on both of these issues)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Little evidence exists thus far that corporations are rushing into the fray [of campaign spending]" - Time

"Little evidence exists thus far that corporations are rushing into the fray [of campaign spending]" - Time

This line from last week's Time Magazine struck me because it comports to my intial reaction to the Citizens United ruling. I thought the histrionic reactions were ridiculous because I expected the ruling to have minmial effect. This is not really my field of study anymore, but all the research I am aware of argues that previous limits against corporate campaign spending were not binding because corporate spending was so low (Ansolabehre, de Figuereido, Snyder), that what spending there is does little to sway how a politician votes (ibid, and the empirical tests of Grossman-Helpman) and that money is largely not very effective at buying votes (Levitt). (For those political scientists out there, please correct me if there are other papers I should be aware of)

Thus it makes perfect sense that the ruling would have minimal effect on corporate spending despite all the media and pundit bloviation. There has been a lot of spending by wealthy individuals this season, but as Time noted, this is nothing new, for example George Soros spent a ton of money attacking Bush in 2004. Perhaps the ruling made wealthy individuals think they could hide their spending more easily but that also largely seem not to have been the case as intrepid reporters have been good ferreting out the sources.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

My online course: Energy and Environmental Economics

For those who are interested, an online version of my course on Energy and Environmental Economics is now available for free at

Friday, August 03, 2012

The Economic Consensus : Planet Money Style

I talk about the Economic Consensus all the time in class and other venues. There are so many policies that economists across the political spectrum would almost all agree on that don't get adopted, mostly for political reasons. Planet Money did a good job (and picked great people) laying out a 6 plank platform that most every economist would get behind but pretty much no politician would.

1. eliminate the mortgage tax deduction
2. eliminate the health care tax deduction
3. eliminate corporate taxes
4. replace income and payroll taxes with consumption taxes
5. tax carbon
6. legalize marijuana (not sure about this one)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Plot free reviewlet of Dark Knight Rises

Institutions matter (whether it is the power of an idea, or the rule of law). If I had to articulate a theme for Nolan's Dark Knight. Though the third movie didn't voice it as coherently as the first two. The movie didn't make a compelling case (at least to me) of the reasonableness of Bane and his Occupy Gotham phiosophy even though the movie tried. Instead, the movie highlighted the goodness of institutions like the police and rule of law. This foci is consistent with Frank Miller's Batman, that mobs are nasty, short and brutish, and need powerful institutions (structures) and Batman's to keep them in line, but Miller did a better job giving the post modernists a voice: that these institutions we valorize and Batman defends may be inherently corrupt. The movies also grappled but diverged a bit from Miller's theme of Nietzche's ubermensch, that unlike Superman's vision of freedoms and individual liberties, only some have the Will to Power. Nolan's Batman believes a bit more in the inherent goodness and power of ordinary people. All in all, I just felt the movie was a bit too easy, a bit too Hollywood (especially the ending). Giving easy answers instead of leaving you with questions.

I wrote this before reading Manohol Dargis' NY Times review, and was amused that she hit on many of the same themes (maybe there is some validity to Lit Theory), though unlike Dargis, I didn't like the Tale of Two Cities quote, because while the evocation of the French Revolution makes sense, the context of the quote felt a bit off, though I suppose it fits if you don't think too much about it.

Anyway, still a great movie. Probably the most thoughtful of any Superhero movie franchise (including Watchmen), but for me, Avengers still wins for best superhero movie in recent memory due to sheer awesomeness.

Final Grade: A-

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Coincidences and Rhymes

Richard Feynamn famously said, we need to tell more stories like... "I was sitting by the phone last night, thinking about my sister, when suddenly the phone rang, and it was... a telemarketer." The point being that in stories, you expect the phone call would be from her sister, because that's how stories work, stories revel in coincidence (paul auster called them rhymes on radio lab), and thus they make the world feel a little magical. And while rationalists love ranting against reading too much into coincidence, so much of fiction depends on them. And while rationalists scream that these events are just random chance, the random rhymes illuminate something fundamental about people we work, and the underlying patterns that humans are programmed to see, even if those patterns sometimes are just pure coincidence.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

The nature of genius

Reading Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, like Bel Canto about opera singing genius, this is about scientific genius where she compares a mygologist to Van Gogh. . But I think its view of science is totally wrong. The Great Man Theory is great for stories but doesn't fit with my view of science anyway, or the scientists I know. A nice recent radio lab points out that while our stories of science always involves great people as the protagonists, in fact, the people themselves are ancillary to the system. That Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent for the phone just an hour ahead of his competitor. That Edison's lightbulb was just one of dozens of lightbulbs invented at the same time. For me, my favorite examples was always Newton's invention of calculus which was matched by Leibniz or Einstein's theory of special relativity, which really was a small tweak on the equations that Lorenz had already derived.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Remapping the Macbook keyboard for Windows

So I've been super impressed with how well the MacBook Air manages to run Windows and Mac OS simultaneously using Parallel, much better than my MacBook Pro, both seem to run effortlessly even for graphic intensive applications. But took a while to figure out how to remap the keyboards. So here, mostly for my memory in case I need to do it again

First I needed PC Keyboard Hack which is only necessary to remap Caps Locks. But that's important for me since I have adapted the Unix convention of using that for Ctrl. If you don't care about that you can bypass this first step.

First I disabled caps locks, under the keyboard options.

Then used pckeyboardhack to (mac osx allows some limited remapping functionality of caps locks, but their version creates some delay issues)

remap Caps lock to Control_r

This solves the remapping problem for Windows, but for Mac OS, I'd want Caps Locks to be Command rather than Control, (e.g. copy and paste in windows is ctrl-C, ctrl-V, but it is command-C and command-V in macOS).

So then I installed keyremapformacbook with the following options selected

Command l to option l (only in virtual machine)
Option l to command l only in virtual machine

So that Command L acts as Alt in the virtual machine (otherwise the default Parallels mapping has the location of Alt and Win reversed)

Command r to home
Option r to end

Since home and end are not on the keyboard, and using Fn is annoying especially when I use shift or ctrl with home or end.

Command arrow and command delete work differently in Mac-OS. Option Arrow and Option Delete have the same functionality so:

command delete to option delete
command arrow to option_l arrow

To fix Caps Locks for within MacOS, I want the following option which for some reason is not a default option.

control_r to command_r (except in virtual machine)

Fortunately, Keyboard Remap offer an extensive XML language that lets you create your own re-mappings.
<?xml version="1.0"?>
    <name>Control_R to Command_R (except in virtual machine, RDC)</name>
    <autogen>--KeyToKey-- KeyCode::CONTROL_R, KeyCode::COMMAND_R</autogen>
Finally, to make up for the missing Page Up and Page Down keys, I used Sharpkeys in Windows to Remap F11 and F12. F11 and F12 seem to key in MacOS to remap universally, but I use Ctrl-Page Up and Ctrl Page Down to much in Chrome, so I added the application shortcut Ctrl-F11 and Ctrl-F12 in MacOS to select Next and Previous Tab within Chrome. It still frustrates me that unlike Windows, where every menu item is accessible by keyboard, MacOS is just the opposite, it at least allows nice flexibility in creating keyboard shortcuts. I lastly remapped Option/Alt F, to select the menu bar as well.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Government shouldn't pick winners: lessons from Solyndra

Cleaning out my inbox I was reminded of this NY Times article about Solyndra, the solar panel company that got on the order of a $billion in loan guarantees that went bankrupt. One of the guiding principles of our policy proposals when I was at the White House was that government shouldn't be picking winners, which makes government loan guarantee programs a bad form of government policy. Politicians like loan guarantees because if all goes well they appear to be "free" but of course they are only free if company doesn't go bankrupt. If the company does go bankrupt, then the government is out half a billion dollars (by point of comparison, adjusted for inflation, the Manhattan Project only cost around $4 billion). In the end, we reluctantly did endorse the loan guarantee in the 2007 Energy Act, because we were convinced that maybe there was a capital market failure in the financing of large energy products, but only with a lot of reluctance because we never fully believed that the capital market failures existed. Now it seems perfectly reasonable that companies like Solyndra couldn't borrow money from the markets, not because of a market failure but because it was a bad investment.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My thoughts on Finance

Economics Nobel Prize winner, the psychologist Danny Kahneman had a nice piece in the New York Times not too long ago that describes well his take on the evidence arguing that traders and fund managers on Wall St. don't do any better than a monkey throwing darts. His argument is a little bit blunt, and I think as a psychologist he doesn't care about some of the niceties economists care about when debating the efficient market hypothesis, but I largely agree. Though sometimes I think the only reason I agree is to make myself feel better about not stick to finance.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Medicine Reconsidered

Came across three articles today on the perils of conventional medical thinking which often is based on convention rather than solid evidence, and the few papers that exist often show only correlations not causations. Notably:
1) there's nothing wrong with salt, in fact the recommended levels of salt can be dangerously low (well Alton Brown convinced me of that)
2) we don't need annual physicals (I actually learned that in college when I got laughed at for inquiring about physicals at the health center)
3) the majority of medical studies are wrong (I've actually been following Ioannidas' work for a while now)

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Activist Mischief: Pink Slime

Who wants to eat Pink Slime? The ammonia treated meat scraps the beef industry sells as a cheaper alternative to ground beef. Activists led by Jamie Oliver (who I generally like) have made the pink slime name stick and now it is being eliminated from school lunches nation wide. The thing is not only is Pink Slime cheaper, it is healthier (it contains less fat than ground beef and the ammonia kills bacteria), and tastes better at least according to this informal NY Times taste test

A good case study for my class on the powers and perils of activist politics where choices are driven based on the wisdom of crowds sometimes for the better but sometimes for the worse. (Also kudos to whoever coined the term pink slime for making it stick.)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why is Facebook's IPO called a failure?

So Facebook's share price closed about 15% lower than what it was offered at. Google's share price closed about 15% higher than what it was offered at. Yet while Google was business as usual, facebook is considered a monumental flop (Ok facebook has dropped more since then) but still I find it odd that IPOs are presumed to be underpriced, when it seems a more reasonable presumption is that if markets were efficient, IPO mispricings should be normally distributed around around zero.

Friday, May 25, 2012

meeting bo xilai

All the news about the downfall of (corrupt?) Chinese reformer Bo Xilai has reminded me of when I gave him a tour as an undergraduate tour guide 13 years ago. Even then he was an up and coming reformist mayor of Dalian, and I felt really bad when I was the only representative of MIT to greet his entourage of dozens of people when he came to visit. I felt even worse giving my standard tour in bad Chinese (I gave them the option of the english version or the bad chinese version). The only upside was that I was able to answer his question about MIT's operating budget, (around $2 billion if I recall, which impressed him.. it took a to translate billion into chinese having to recount the zeroes but I think I got it right).

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Junk Economics by Climate Scientist in the NYTimes

It is incredibly frustrating when green activists and even mainstream news media complain about Republican use of junk science when those very same activists freely engage in junk [economic] science. In an Op-Ed in the NY Times recently, James Hansen--a leading advocate for curbing carbon emissions said that "Economic losses [of tar sand oil] would be incalculable". This is blatantly wrong and ignorant of most economic studies done by people that have been doing the calculations of the economic losses due to climate change for years, which are substantial but not catastrophic. See Tol (2009) for a review paper, or the many studies led by Nordhaus and others. Hysterical exaggeration and junk science are typical from all sides.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Data Science?

So called Data Science or "Big Data" has been getting a lot of play in the news recently. With recent articles in the NY Times about Target tracking its customers to how data analysis is changing all parts of the business world. The same trend has shifted the economics profession. But I recently got a solicitation for this $3000 class at General Assembly to learn from a Data Scientist. The problem is that its taught by the "Data Scientist" from OkCupid whose blog posts were very cute and very attention getting, but always hopelessly amateurish. It's embarassing to call it "Science."

Friday, May 04, 2012

Keynote on Online Education

Lots of articles (e.g. David Brooks, Vassar's president on NPR) all of a sudden in the past couple days on online education. The timing just struck me since I just gave the keynote a couple weeks ago at Vassar's Teaching with technology forum talking about the economics of online education and some of my personal experiences teaching for's faculty project. My basic thoughts were just that education always suffers from Baumol's cost disease (e.g. a Mozart sonata that took 4 musicians 4'17" to produce 200 years ago still takes 4 musicians 4'17" today, while a farmer produces several orders of magnitude more food today than 200 years ago). Online education could change that, and thus I have been using to learn about it, though I don't think the high-touch liberal arts education is going away any time soon.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Magic, Faith and Science

Here's a nice post by Stanley Fish (who I often disagree with) about the similarities between Science and Religion that seemed to cause a lot of controversy. Both rely heavily on faith, and both are suited to answering life's problems, just different problems.

This is something I talk about when talking about the science of climate change. People always wonder about the power of climate change deniers, but I ask how people can be so certain that climate change is real, and the implicit faith they have in the sources of knowledge they trust. People believe that as "rational thinker" they can tell science from non-science, but really when examined, most of what people know they take on faith.

Much of my thinking on this was shaped by comic books, and specifically Alan Moore, (and indirectly by post-modernism ala Foucault) so it is nice to see the philosophical basis of the same ideas. That science and magic can be equally real and depend on our beliefs.

Hunger Games Books 2 and 3 Thoughts (Reviewlet?)

Katniss is an Ends not a Means. Just finished Book 3 (minor spoiler alerts), where Katniss echoes Kant's indictment of utilitarianism (hm i wonder if it is conicidence that Katniss is spells liked Kant). Although more broadly speaking, a clever rule utilitarian could point out that a system that promotes the instrumental rights of individual liberty and autonomy that Kant wanted, like capitalism, yields higher utility over all.

I liked Book 3 more than Book 2, which seemed too much like Book 1. But I've heard people complain about Book 3 for being too different. It definitely falls into the more traditional 'war is hell' genre though in a somewhat retro vietnam/wwII era sense, ala Starship Troopers or the Forever War. How war is senseless and total war changes everything. It feels quite nostalgic in the modern era of limited war and smart bombs. And there's also something quite naive about the propoganda campaign that seems to fit more the 1940's and Starship Troopers and feels weird given our more media savvy population. But it is plausible that the people of the future, exposed only to State-run TV would be media naive.

The Peeta-Gale question was a little too easily answered. It became quickly obvious (to me anyway) who she would pick, who she had to pick given the theme of the story. But maybe that was just me.

A friend of mine once contrasted Harry Potter to the Golden Compass. Whereas Harry Potter focused mostly on characters and growing up, Golden Compass is more traditional sci-fi in that it was about big ideas. I feel Hunger Games started off more along the Harry Potter axis (character driven) and shifted by Book 3 to the big ideas.

That may not appeal to everyone, but I liked it. I was a bit stupefied, in a good way, when it all came to an end. Final Grade: A-

Friday, April 06, 2012

Book Reviewlet: Hunger Games Book I

This book is pure catnip for the "young adult reader" and I ate up every word of it.

The main character Katniss Everdeen is a kicka-- but vulnerable tomboy, who beats people up in a gladitorial death match, but also gets her Oprah style pretty-ugly girl makeover, her dramatic prom-like scene, her high school rom-com love triangle, her turn as reality tv star, and on top of all that, she gets to be all political because she's representing the 99%.

The premise, of an authoritarian government forcing children to fight to the death to assert their authority really is a knock off of the Japanese film Battle Royale, though I suppose the trope dates back to Rome's bread and circus gladitorial games (which I just realized while googling the attribution of bread and circus, that the Roman allusion is reinforced in the name of the ficitonal country Hunger Games takes place in, Panem), just updated with pneumatic teenage protagonists and reality tv. Thus you could argue the movie owes as much to Gladiator as Battle Royale.

The books have been lauded for the social commentary, which to be honest, felt mostly in the background in book 1, but seem to come more to the forefront in the sequels, which I am still working through with much anticipation.

Grade: A

Saturday, March 31, 2012

I don't believe in Facts

NPR's This American Life Retraction of the Mike Daisey story about Apple's labor practices in China was a missed opportunity.If you missed it, the show had played an amazingly compelling excerpt from Mike  Daisey's trip to China to interview workers at the iPad factory in Shenzhen.  Daisey related how he drove up to the factory in a taxi, and interviewed child workers, illegal union members, workers who suffered from chemical poisoning. The problem wasn't that these people didn't exist--Apple and other sources confirm their existence, the problem was that it was revealed by someone who tracked down  Daisey's interpreter that he invented his meetings with them.

Invented dialog has long been part of essays since Plato, part of biographies, documentaries, memoirs. It's a staple of the stories of David Sedaris, one of This American Life's most frequent contributors, whose stories are presented as non-fiction. There has been much discussion already on this subject recently in the media due to the publication of "The Lifespan of a Fact" about a true debate between a magazine writer and a factchecker on what constitutes a fact (although the dialog in this book presented as non-fiction is also invented). I have always been annoyed at the tone of sites like or the regular fact checking these days on network news that pretend that they have the absolute authority on truth, when in fact, the definition of a fact is always open for interpretation. (this critique also applies but in a more complicated way to climate scientists).

I'm not defending Daisey. Someone pointed out it is his deliberate deception of TAL's staff that matters, not the stories themselves that matter. I also think it was deceptive to make people believe that such awful labor practices are so common one can find them just by driving up to the factory gates. I also think that most attacks on Chinese labor practices are wholly wrong-headed. But I do think the notion that a fact is a fact has been too much taken for granted.

Of course, as someone who studies apologies, I know that if This American Life had gone this route in its apology and retraction, it could easily be seen as defensive and thus insincere if done poorly. However, I still feel like it was an opportunity missed.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

extinct retail stores

Visiting a music store the other day, it occurred to me this is the first music store I've seen in a while. Video rental stores are not far off though a blockbuster across from our apartment seems to insist on hanging on. Bookstores are not far behind, Memphis came close. I wonder how long before media becomes completely divorced from physical objects.

It's surprising that the dream of the ubiquitous information tablet in sci fi like star trek seemed as improbable as a Jupiter space program in 2001, or teleporters, it's already far more common seeing someone reading an ipad or a kindle in manhattan that it is seeing someone read a book.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Movie Reviewlet: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Changing things up, R- and I tried the indie movie theater at Lincoln Center, and decided to make a sushi night of it, with the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and then Sushi at nearby Blue Ribbon. About sushi chef Jiro Ono who has a sushi counter in a forlorn corner of a Tokyo subway station, that recently received 3 michelin stars, who at 85 years old, makes him the oldest chef to win that distinction. Prices start at $300 per person for a meal that might last only 15 minutes (sushi is intended as fast food).

It really has this Japanese (and Chinese) attitude of Kaizen, continuous improvement, that if you just work hard enough at something your whole life, you can achieve godlike mastery. Like the ninjas who are so stealthy they turn invisible, or so light they walk on water, or bruce lee who supposedly could punch a man across a room with only one inch of momentum. Thinking about NBA free throw shooting recently, I've concluded that no amount work will let you achieve such superhuman abilities, there are in fact hard limits to human ability, given that the top humans with million dollar incentives to never miss, miss quite often.

Also, recent research in the economics and psychology of food and taste (by my friends and students amongst others), has shown that so much of what we call taste, is arbitrary and is easily influenced by mood and story and price. Price has a significant effect on the neural experience of pleasure, and even the expert wine judges at the most prestigious wine competition n the US can't tell when they are drinking the exact same wine, giving the same wine radically different scores in a blind experiment.

Still it is sometimes nice to honor this idea of human mastery and achievement (like Man on Wire ). In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, we honor Jiro Ono for achieving the pinnacle of the sushi form. At the same time exploring what it takes to make masterful food: from the obsessive fish mongers at the market to the apprentices who massage the octopi for 50 minutes each day, to his 50 year son hand drying every piece of seaweed on charcoals in a subway station hallway, to parenting (Jiro does not believe in safety nets, telling his children that once they leave home, they can never interesting counterpoint to today's Boomerang Kid culture). All the way exploring the motivations of the craftsperson (like the engineers in Kidder's The Soul of A New Machine ) who are motivated by art and relationships rather than money.

But mostly it is about the food. Like the food manga Oishinbo, this is samurai eating and food preparation--food as Zen Mastery. And plenty of food porn, effectively using music from Mozart to mostly Philip Glass to bring the sushi alive.

Final Grade: B+

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

the hipstamatic and beats headphones: why style beats fidelity

As my recent photos will attest, I am a fan of the hipstamatic. Recently some critics have argued it cheapens photojournalism now that hipstamatic photos are regularly published in major publications (Time, NY Times, etc) and winning major photojournalism awards, but I think the lesson is that people don't care about fidelity. Digital photography surpassed a decade ago the level of fidelity that any human could possibly detect. And yet the the number of megapixels keep growing. The hipstamatic showed, that it is megapixels that matter but style.

Similarly, when Dr Dre's beats headphones were introduced they were roundly bashed, as having the lowest fidelity of any high end head phone. But just a quick survey on people on the subway show that people don't care. It is style, both in the look, but also in the frequency response (the booming base that makes the headphones sing), that people are drawn to.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Reviewlet: The Price of Altruism

On the surface, The Price of Altriusm by Oreh Harman is two books in one. The first, the biography of an idea, the mathematical formulation for the evolution of human altruism; the second, an impressively detailed biography of a person, George Price, a fairly minor figure in the history of this scientific pursuit. Being someone who researches and teaches the mathematics of altruism, I was rather interested in the former, but rather put off by the latter; why pick such a minor contributor to the science of altruism. But by books end, it was clear that neither biography could be complete without the other, and the life of George Price is the perfect vehicle to understand human altruism.

George Price is an odd figure, who spent much of his life studying the mathematical basis of the evolution of altruism, but had an odd family life, largely abandoning his family, never really holding down any job, before giving away every thing he owned to helpless homeless alcoholics before dying in a homeless shelter himself. Along the way, he befriended several Nobel prize winners and published a few seminal papers in Nature on what later became the Price Equation and Evolutionary Steady State in game theory.

I was skeptical at first about the discussion on the mathematics of altruism, because part of my interpretation on the literature is that while the mathematics and evolution can offer some solid insights into animal behavior, and maybe some rough intuition about human behavior, but human behavior at the very least includes some notions of reciprocity (more what I study) and to fully understand, requires far deeper understanding of the human condition than math can currently provide.

And that's the brilliance, because the point is that it acknowledges the boundaries of mathematics and science, "Wittgenstein's wall" the book calls it call it, similarly James C Scott calls it Metis (or wisdom), and Dewey remarked on the remarkable ability of art to capture and communicate far more complicated ideas than math cannot. To mine the deeper truths of altruism, science is insufficient, and thus the book turns to the lessons as reflected in George Price's complicated, messy, altruistic life. His depression, his delusions, but ultimately his humanity. His life conveys nuances and depths about altruism that science never can.

Along the way, you learn about the vagaries and arbitrariness of scientific peer review (heartening for someone who's career depends on that process). You learn about life in Stuyvessant High School in the 30's, and life at Harvard and Chicago during World War II. (Randomly Price grew up on the street I currently live on, and later lived in the town I grew up in.) The real heated debates about psychic power that took place in the pages of Science and Nature (that Price published on arguing both sides). It was also fascinating for someone who last took a biology class almost 20 years ago, when I was 14, to learn about theoretical biology and how much it paralleled theoretical economics, and we learn about the collaborations and interactions between some of the great names in economics (von Neumann, Samuelson, even Bob Frank...) and those in biology (Hamilton, Maynard-Smith), and for a profession like economics that largely ignores the history of our ideas, it was fascinating to learn how these ideas that I use and teach were developed. It was also useful to learn that I wasn't the only person that objected to Hamilton's kin selection formula which we learned in AP biology, that I should only save my brother if the cost is 50%, because we share 50% of the same genes... but we actually share much more than 50% of the the same genes since our parents likely shared mostly the same genes. And that George Price was the one who made that correction to the literature.

However I mostly appreciated the way the book synthesizes two very different paths to knowledge (entwined like a double helix, the author notes) on its quest to understand altruism, it unabashedly discusses the technical and mathematic, but also the innately human as well.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Why do we Tell Stories? according to oots

From my favorite webcomic Order of the Stick, in answer to the question, why do we tell stories:
Stories are cool and exciting, funny or sad, silly or deep. They don't need a reason to exist. 
Though listening to stories does give us new insights into the human condition, and it is from this vicariously gained understanding that we construct meaning from the randomness of our own lives. 
But really it's mostly the "cool" thing I mentioned.
I actually think roughly these thoughts whenever I decide to take a break from journal articles or even non-fiction to read some fantasy.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Alain de Botton : Atheism 2.0

Alain de Botton is perhaps my favorite pop-philosopher. I've read a few of his previous books on Status (very much based on the economics of status), Architecture, Travel (very flaneur like). This talk is a nice take on the functionalist nature of religion. Some nice economics by Iannacone and my former classmate Jared Rubin who use game theory to model how religion's role in society. Botton points to some nice ideas, of community, of sermons for learning, of rituals, that can be adopted for a humanist canon based on literature, art and philosophy.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"Dependence on XXXXXX Oil" and the State of the Union

A recent npr story talks about the US dependence on foreign oil. It misuses a quote from the Bush state of the union address in 2006 that probably no one except for a handful people recognize the significance of, but was part of a significant debate when I was at the White House.

The quote npr uses is that the US is "addicted to oil which is often imported from unstable parts of the world."

The original quote which the economists successfully changed was "addicted to foreign oil"

If you go back and look at all major federal speeches during my tenure at the White House from 2006 to 2007 you should find that the words "dependence on foreign oil" or "addicted to foreign oil" were never used. It was part of my job at the White House to change all such references to "dependence on oil" and "addicted to oil."

The reason is that the fundamental economic problems associated with oil (national security, environmental, etc.) do not depend at all on whether the oil is produced domestically or abroad.

If the price of oil suddenly spikes, consumers in the United States are hurt just as much as consumers in Canada which is a net oil exporter. It doesn't matter whether the oil is foreign or domestic.

The problem is that we use oil, not whether the oil is foreign or domestic.

Thus the White House economists worked hard to change that language in the State of the Union. It's clear from that npr story that nobody noticed.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Is Government an Inferior Good?

There seems to be a assumption by most Democrats and indeed a tacit assumption by most economists that government is a normal good in the formal economic sense (i.e. the share of income we spend on government should be constant as we get richer) when they say that right now taxes are too low because the percent of GDP devoted to taxes has been decreasing.

But a perfectly reasonable alternative assumption that most economists might agree to is that if government is primarily to provide for the necessities in life, and not the luxuries, then government should be an "inferior good" in that the share of income we spend on government should be decreasing as we get richer.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Marvel wins 10 year federal court case to assert that mutants (e.g. the X-men) are not human.

There was a nice radio lab story about a recent court case where Marvel asserted that the X-men are not human--the irony being that the X-men story line is all about them fighting to be recognized as human.

The reason for the court case is that human shaped dolls (e.g. Barbie) are taxed at 12%. While non-human shaped dolls (e.g. Furbies) are taxed at 6%. So Marvel was fighting for X-men dolls to be classified as non-human.

The important economic point is just to highlight the inefficiencies and the dead weight loss (e.g. court fees, but also too many xmen and too few barbies being sold, as well as the lobbying costs) from the arbitrary import duty system.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

thoughts: game of thrones

Just finished volume 3 of Game of Thrones, my favorite fantasy novel from college that just became an impressive HBO adaptation. One scene struck a chord with me that highlights a central theme of the book.
“May I leave you with a bit of a riddle, Lord Tyrion?” He did not wait for an answer. “In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me—who lives and who dies?” 
“The king, the priest, the rich man—who lives and who dies? Who will the swordsman obey? It’s a riddle without an answer, or rather, too many answers. All depends on the man with the sword.” “And yet he is no one,” Varys said. “He has neither crown nor gold nor favor of the gods, only a piece of pointed steel.” “That piece of steel is the power of life and death.” “Just so . . . yet if it is the swordsmen who rule us in truth, why do we pretend our kings hold the power?
The question it really is asking has been posed by political philosophers for centuries: What is the source of power?

Calvert (1992) and Gibbons and Rutten have nice mathematical models to illustrate the answers of folks like Hobbes and Hume. Fun to think about these questions again.

The other thing that struck me about the books was that they remind me of Diplomacy and other war strategy boardgames from childhood. Diplomacy mostly because it was the most pure and you could be so confident in the marshalling of your strength and yet be totally unaware that a hidden alliance could in 1 turn totally wipe you out by capturing your homeland.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Protesters and Information

Just read the nice Time Magazine Persons of the year story. They picked the protester and picked a gripping narrative connecting the Arab Spring to the european proto-communist revolutions of the 1860's or the social upheavals of the 1960's. Of course I heard about it in bits but to hear the whole year from Arab Spring to Occupy Wall St connected into a narrative does make the whole thing sound impressive. Though maybe Time is too early to judge properly as the Color revolutions (rose, orange, cedar, blue, etc.) of 2004 was less monumental than they first appeared, at least at first. Though the importance of social media, both in spreading the ideas of revolution in the 1860's (newspapers and telegraphs back then), to connecting the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall St today (3/4 of Tunisian internet users are on facebook?!) reminded me of Neal Stephenson's (my favorite novelists) prescient 1999 novel Cryptonomicon whose premise was that if you found a way to make information free, autocracy cannot survive. Now if there were only a way to sneak internet into North Korea.

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