Sunday, April 5, 2015

science journalism

This is one of those topics that depresses me so much I avoid any contact with it but this quote is too great:
I spent a frustrating thirty minutes stuck in traffic listening to an--admittedly hour-long--NPR show on the higher-than-average rate of suicides among those taking antidepressants without once hearing the moderator ask, “Could this correlation be due to the fact that those on antidepressants are depressed and thus more prone to suicide?” The side benefit of this episode was that my six-year-old son in the back seat got an impromptu lecture on the difference between correlation and causation, similar to that which I received from my mother at about the same age.
More here. (Link stolen from Chris Blattman's blog.)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

libertarian countries?

A few days ago MR addressed an interesting question that I have a great deal of personal interest in: for which country should you vote with your feet if you're libertarian (or social conservative or progressive, but I have less interest in those.) My guess is the United States but with the desperate hope that I'm wrong. Unfortunately, Tyler answers the same.

I could rant in depth about the sadness of this truth, but what really intrigued me about this post was the plethora of comments suggesting alternative answers like Singapore where government spending is only around 15% of GDP*. I don't understand use of government spending as a percentage of GDP as a proxy for libertarianism, at all.

Yes, taxation is the government exercising its monopoly on theft, yadda yadda yadda, but I see that as a necessary evil. I don't feel like my freedoms are being fundamentally violated when the price of doing something is manipulated a bit. I do feel like my freedoms are being fundamentally violated when every 5 minutes I run into another government regulation. Clearly Singapore is very very bad on this dimension, so even if taxes are low, I would rank it very low as a libertarian paradise.

There are two types of laws that I think should be avoided as much as is practically feasible. 1) Nanny laws and 2) preventative laws. Nanny laws are those that try to prevent people from hurting themselves. Preventative laws are laws that make things illegal that might lead to negative externalities if done carelessly or wrong, rather than only making the externality itself illegal. Like, banning dogs in a national park because some people might let their pets attack koalas. I realize that it's often not feasible to rely on only the harm itself being illegal, but regulation in Australia (and the U.S., but less so) is so far from that grey area it's flat out ridiculous.**

So, if my criterion for libertarianism is a commitment to avoid these sorts of regulations, is the US still the answer to the question? Please tell me it's not!

To be clear, snarky answers like "move to Somalia" are not wise enough to be wise-ass. Obviously what I'm looking for is a government of a stable, developed country that chooses to make respect for these freedoms a priority. So underdeveloped countries where the government is entirely preoccupied with more urgent material issues don't count if there's no way of knowing whether they'll adopt a more Norwegian or Texan*** approach as soon as everything else is under control.

~~~

*For comparison, the US is over 40% and France is over 55%. Insanity...

**In a cafe a few days ago, I saw a sign on an outlet stating that due to workplace safety regulations, the outlet was not available to customers. My hope when I moved here is that a country this large with so few people must not have too many reasons to regulate every step you take, but based on the nanny state's extent they seem to be expecting half of China to immigrate here soon.

***And yes I'd love to move to a state similar to Texas in this regard, but that set doesn't overlap Matt's acceptable set.

Monday, March 9, 2015

don't argue from premises you know are false

People cling to any facts that help them argue their opinions, and they refuse to admit any downside to their opinions. But tradeoffs are ubiquitous and denying the existence of a gray area, while it may help you feel more confident in your opinion, it makes your argument less convincing. It obviously hurts your credibility when you bury your head in the sand, but more insidiously, it distracts from the fundamental, important reasons why you hold your view.

In other words, if you support X because of A, and someone else opposes X because of B, you can argue that A is more important than B. If you instead argue that you shouldn't oppose X because B isn't true, anyone who believes in B will ignore you completely and miss the more important issue of A. But people do this even when the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that B is true!

Examples:

  1. I suspect that making immigration to the U.S. will hurt the wages of some low-skilled Americans. But I favor freer immigration anyway because it's overwhelmingly clear that it will make people better off on average, and therefore it's the right thing to do if you care about humans equally. By fixating on small findings that show that in certain special circumstances, unskilled labor immigration helps unskilled American laborers, you allow yourself to be dismissed as soon as any contrary result (which will surely turn up) is found.
  2. I suspect there is probably some health cost to smoking marijuana. I support its legalization anyway, because I strongly believe people should be allowed do whatever the heck they want that doesn't hurt anyone else. Arguing that marijuana should be legal because it's safe undermines this more important issue and, if this argument becomes widely accepted, it will undermine other arguments for legalization of activities that pretty obviously do have (victimless) costs.
  3. I'm pretty sure that increasing the minimum wage will usually reduce overall employment. I don't support minimum wage increases, but for those who do, take note: I can't take you seriously when you claim that the law of supply and demand doesn't apply to labor. It may be true that in certain special circumstances minimum wage increases won't have this effect, but I'm guessing you don't want to restrict minimum wage increases to those scenarios, so stop fixating on those iffy findings as the basis of your argument.
  4. I have no idea what the nature/nuture breakdown is on homosexuality. Nor do I care, when it comes to politics. Equal rights for non-heterosexuals is the right thing regardless of whether sexual orientation is chosen or occurs from birth. Saying "I didn't choose to be this way, so don't discriminate against me!" gives your opponents an opening they shouldn't have: to fixate on any minor correlation between sexuality and upbringing as evidence of choice.
  5. I am an environmentalist not for economic reasons. When we figure out ways to thrive as a species without the natural ecosystem, I will still be a conservationist, because this (sort of, if you can call that a reason). So while in many situations conservation can be easily motivated by economics, I don't want to fixate on that logic because I also want biodiversity and wild lands and beautiful landmarks to be preserved purely for their own sake even if someone managed to argue that it would be worth more in dollars to convert one to a mine.
  6. I'm sure that global warming is happening and that it's causing major problems (already, yes). If you don't like certain political solutions to these problems, then argue why. Don't just deny the problem. It makes you sound crazy. It also immediately cuts you out of the decision making process because everyone trying to address it disagrees with your entire premise that the phenomenon isn't real.
  7. There are all kinds of nutty inconsistent things in the Bible. I couldn't care less. By arguing about them, I imply that I'm not religious because of some contradiction in a particular text, which allows any religious person to dismiss me immediately by coming up with an alternative way to interpret that contradiction (or an alternative text to believe in).
The list can go on infinitely of course.

I understand the temptation of these arguments. If someone objects to opening borders because it will hurt unskilled Americans, it's hard to change the topic entirely to fundamental human rights. We respond to immediate sub-issues. And why do we cling to facts that might be useful in those irrelevant side issues? Because we cling to any facts that make our views a lighter shade of gray.

The truly puzzling thing about this phenomenon is that we continue to do this even when we scoffingly dismiss people who do so on other topics. Democrats scoff at Republicans who claim that tax cuts increase tax revenue based on the Laffer curve, but then they claim minimum wages increase employment based on the equally tenuous finding that in some strange circumstances, however rare, that might be true. I guess I'm forced to conclude that motivated reasoning is so powerful that we don't even realize how selectively we interpret facts and how black and white we're pretending things are.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

ethics reviews gone wild

My next door office neighbor, Paul Frijters, is in the news right now due to being ridiculously harassed over alleged unethical experimental methods. The study used RA's of different races to try to board buses with empty fare cards in order to examine whether drivers are more likely to let white and east asian people ride for free (they are). At issue is whether it is ethical to "defraud" the transit system in such a way.

Note that the RA's did not request a free ride. It was entirely up to the busdrivers how to respond to the RAs having an empty card. And of course the transit system didn't lose any money from the study in the first place because these RAs wouldn't have been taking these 2km rides at all otherwise... But most importantly, the study went through the proper ethical clearance channels and was approved. It's abundantly clear that the reaction of the transit system to the proof of some degree of racism is the only reason the University reacted the way it did. Politics.

Not only do I wholeheartedly agree with Ian Ayres's defense of this research, this incident should be raising enormous red flags about the ludicrous state of ethical clearance for economics research. In so many cases, it serves not to protect the subjects but to cover the asses of the university in the event of any controversial press, especially that which incites ill political will.

This on top of the fact that social science ethical clearance was designed in the tradition of medical research ethical clearance, and is often still handled by the same people, so that the obvious and significant risks inherent to biological testing are looked for in completely benign games that economists have their subjects play in order to study decision making. We've gone from one extreme in which the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments can be run to another extreme in which experimenters aren't allowed to sell things on ebay because people might regret their purchases. And if they eventually can, it's after months and months of back and forth and wasted time dealing with internal review bureaucracies.

Social science is suffering. Australian social science, even more than U.S. social science, far more than European social science*, is suffering. It's time to streamline the ethical review process and bring some common sense back.

Update: I should probably point out*** that despite being affiliated with UQ, I do not speak on their behalf, nor do I know anything about Paul's case other than that which was publicly reported, and all is not said and done. Regardless of what mess of details is involved, however, I 100% support the research program as important and ethical and 100% stand by my assessment of IRBs having gone completely off the rails. The latest anecdote I hear is of a project that was denied because the results might be used to make money. Welp, I guess all of science can call it quits; our job is apparently inherently unethical...

~~~

*Internal review boards don't even exist in Switzerland. Doesn't matter - unethical research has no chance of getting published so self-regulation works well, in the same way that economists sustain much better experimental practices than psychologists. But you do see particularly cool studies** coming from Europe :)

**Before you start objecting that killing mice is actually unethical so clearly IRBs are needed in Switzerland, read further. The researchers took research mice that were slated for killing already and gave people the option to pay to save their lives. Armin Falk is now taking care of some of the most spoiled mice in Europe as a result. It was not possible for any mouse to be worse off as a result of the experiment.

***It has been gently pointed out to me, by a few people actually, that Australia does not guarantee freedom of speech. (Or privacy. Don't get me started.) I knew that but I think I'm going to continue taking the enormous risk of blogging for all two dozen of my readers :)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

the rationality of heuristics

I recently joined a very interesting reading group and we're working our way through the new book "Evolution and Rationality: Decisions, Co-operation and Strategic Behaviour". The discussion about chapter 5 (by Brighton and Gigerenzer) was very thought-provoking. The chapter discusses the difference between "small world" and "large world" problems. The former are problems in which we are certain of the underlying processes, such as playing roulette. Large worlds are too complicated to be certain of the underlying probabilistic processes, perhaps too complicated to be certain of which processes are relevant at all, and the whole thing may not even be stationary. For example, playing the stock market.

The gist of the paper is that trying to model behavior in large worlds by deriving the optimal, rational thing to do, is misguided. This approach works well in small worlds but in large worlds it's highly likely that you'll specify the problem incorrectly. Heuristics can work better than complicated statistical bayesian reasoning. There's a great example of guessing which of two German cities is larger, based on a vector of attributes such as whether it has a university, whether it's on a river, whether it's located in the industrial belt, etc. In this case, a simple take-the-best heuristic, which looks only at the most relevant attribute that can distinguish between the two towns in question, outperforms an SVM.

This is a strong statement: not only can you understand actual choices better if you allow yourself to consider non-bayesian agents, you may understand what is actually optimal better.

I'll say that again a different way because I think it's that important: When we observe people behaving in a way that seems suboptimal, we should not infer that people are violating the rational/bayesian/vNM agent model. We should first question whether we truly understand the problem as well as we think we do.

This means that one very common response to psychologists' claims that people are non-(Bayesian/vNM/rational) by economists who are trying to rescue homo economicus, while clearly true in many cases, is sometimes not even necessary to resort to. In particular, heuristics are often seen to be rational because they are the optimal balance between mental calculation costs and accuracy. As the German city example proves, heuristics may in fact be a better approach to large world problems than a more sophisticated statistical analysis.*

Heuristics therefore definitely belong in the basket of reasons behind one of my favorite soapboxes: respect revealed preferences! Behavioral economics is too often seen as an excuse for all kinds of intervention in choices in order to "help" people optimize. But trying to do that is problematic for all kinds of reasons, including that it is very hard to prove that people are actually making mistakes. Observing demand for commitment devices is one of the rare cases where we can definitely say that restricting the choices of some people would make them better off. Such clear cases are few and far between.**

~~~

*My other objection to this frequent assertion (which I do believe is true in many cases, just not so many) is that critics of economics don't understand that most economic models are "as-if" models, and many economists have started to forget it, probably partially in response to all the negative press about classical economics that fixates on the implausibility that people actually make the calculations we model. But predicting the trajectory of a baseball is difficult to calculate, yet humans instinctively can do it very very well. Predicting the trajectory of a frisbee in gusty wind may not even be analytically tractable but somehow humans can do it reflexively. So why is it so hard to believe that humans are as good at optimizing their utility as they are at optimizing their frisbee catching? High mental calculation costs are not implied by analytically complicated problems.

**Not that situations in which people can be helped are rare, but situations in which we're sure there is room to help, and that by trying we won't make things worse, are rare.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

retention in online education

I'm nowhere near a labor economist but in another life I would study education. Online education is particularly fascinating to me since I personally love it. I've done 8 or 10 coursera classes and started and abandoned about as many more. I love being able to learn about new subjects in a structured and multi-faceted* way again; it's like being able to take all the exploratory freshman college courses you want.

One of the first reasons people dismiss online education is something I wish wasn't a valid reason but I understand why it is. There's a major barrier to it being taken seriously as a credential, which means it's not going to be a substitute for traditional education anytime soon and will have trouble being financially viable.** But, as long as these credential-free courses exist despite lack of lucrativity***, I think that's great! They're purely about learning (what a concept!). The people in the course are self-selected based on genuine interest. The message boards consistently contain more fascinating and in-depth discussions than anything I've encountered in actual college classes. If I'm too busy one week, I'll skip a homework set, do it later at my leisure, my "grade" will suffer, but who cares.

I've lately heard a couple people dismiss online education for a reason I think is more bizarre, though.**** Retention rates. Yeah maybe it sounds bad when you excitedly advertise your course as having 700,000 signups but then have to later admit that only 10% of them completed it, but signups shouldn't be the metric in the first place. One of the great things about online education is that it's easy to peruse, test the waters, watch a few videos, try a couple weeks of homeworks, and then quit if it's not what you're looking for. Only one class that I've quit has been because I got too busy with other things and let it slide; the others were all because I made a conscious decision that it wasn't worth my time. Low retention rates (on average) is exactly what you want if what you care about is actual learning rather than credentials. If a particular class has a high retention rate that's a good sign about the quality of the course, but if retention rates are high across the board, people probably aren't exploring enough or are disproportionately motivated by the sheepskin.

~~~

*Structured meaning that each lecture builds on the last, allowing you to get to deeper truths vastly more easily than trying to piece together 30 isolated wikipedia articles. And multi-faceted meaning not just reading a book, but actually going through problem sets and taking quizzes and such. Highly important for information processing and retention.

**Coursera is falling over itself to change this; you can now often pay to get a "verified certificate of completion" instead of the standard free pdf download, or you can get a special certificate "with distinction" if you achieve a certain grade, etc. I have no idea if these are helping them make money yet but that's obviously the goal.

***Which I'm sure won't last forever; right now it's driven by a lot of excitement and curiosity and altruism but that won't sustain it once it's thoroughly clear that the current model won't make money. But hopefully the huge body of work that has already been done can be recycled indefinitely.

****Sort of like people dismissing charter schools because they're, on average, performing worse than traditional schools. That's exactly what should be expected!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

help, I have no idea who you are

This is just gonna be me whining that my life is sooo hard, so I suggest moving along :)

I'm really, really bad at recognizing people. I heard this (not that funny) joke at a comedy show once: "It's so weird how people always say they're bad with names. Like, opposed to what? How could you be good with names but bad with faces? Would you just walk around with a list of names in your head and no association to the people around you? Saying names randomly hoping the person you're looking for will hear? Haha that would be ridiculous."

Yes. That's exactly what it's like.

I first realized this as an undergrad when I tried to participate in an experiment involving facial expressions. I'm not exactly sure what they were testing (they don't usually tell you) but the experiment consisted of a training period in which you learned to easily distinguish four very similar faces (just the faces, no hair or anything). Then once you could tell them apart immediately and consistently, there was some other association test I don't even remember. Anyway, the whole thing usually took around 30-45 minutes. After an hour I still hadn't passed the training test. I came back for a second session, finally passed the training test after about another 45 minutes, and did the experiment.

I suspect I never noticed before that because I was too socially oblivious (until quite awhile after that, honestly) to notice awkward interactions that would clue me into something being wrong when I treated nonstrangers like strangers. And also, especially coming from small schools and a small town, you don't accumulate very many acquaintances until college in the first place.

But I'm definitely not faceblind: I also saw some internet talk about faceblindness once with a quiz for the audience in which people were supposed to keep track of how many celebrities they could recognize without hair and out of context. The point was that it's a lot harder than you expect. But I was awesome at it. Faces make a deep impression in my memory, but only after a long time and a lot of exposure.

With new self-awareness I've tried to compensate. I try really hard to remember features other than clothing (my subconscious default, apparently). Hair is salient and at least divides people into a few clearly demarcated bins, by color and/or length, but those are coarse divisions and there have been many failures in which someone I know reasonably well got a haircut or color and I didn't realize they were the same person for half a conversation or more. There are a few people I recognize by their glasses, but that's obviously dangerous since they change and people wear contacts. Height and build is much too coarse of a differentiator, and you really want to be able to recognize faces on their own anyway. A very small percentage of people have such distinctive faces that there's any detail I can fixate on and remember.

Failing much actual improvement in recognition, I use compensating devices. On the job market I think I spent just as much time studying people's photos as I did learning about their research. When going to conferences or other departments, etc, I try to look up what people look like who I know I should recognize (which mitigates approximately 1 in 8 embarrassing scenarios, but that's better than nothing.) I made face flashcards of everyone in my department before starting work, from which I easily learned names but they didn't help with faces one iota; people look too different in person than in photos. When meeting people in crowded places, I try not to make direct eye contact with anyone, maybe stare at my phone or elsewhere, to give them a chance to flag me down before I fail to find them.

These devices aren't very effective so I still run into a lot of problems. The motive for paying such close attention to faces on the job market was a previous job interview experience in which (so I deduced in hindsight after the awkwardness became so palpable that I clued in to my mistake) I introduced myself to the head interviewer on three separate occasions within a few hours. I also routinely look directly at someone I should know, smile or stare blankly and keep going, and then they awkwardly say hi Vera how's it going! while I desperately try to deduce what I can safely say to this mysterious person. I can't count how many times I've had entire conversations with people who know me that I'd swear I'd never seen before in my life, in which I mess up and say "I used to live in southern California" to a former Caltech classmate or something like that. Many other times I've agreed to meet someone in a few minutes in some other place and, immediately after turning away, realized I wasn't going to be able to find them. I'm inspired to write this blog post at this particular time after a two day conference in which I've failed to recognize so many people within the appropriate amount of time (even with nametags! for the love of god, wear your nametags, in a prominent position, and in the correct orientation!) that I'm well on my way to offending members of every major Australian economics department.

Help! What do I do? Does anyone have any secret tricks?

In the meantime, if you know me and I look through you without recognition, please don't take it personally. I surely remember our previous interactions well, you just don't happen to have conveniently recognizable green eyebrows...

Saturday, February 7, 2015

excessive formalism

Why on earth does this paper contain a formal model?

I love economic theory and can expound ad nauseum on the many reasons why it is valuable, but I'm having a hard time seeing how any of them apply in this case. The authors' points are more easily stated qualitatively, more easily explained qualitatively, and the formal specification doesn't produce any unexpected consequences or require anything more than intuitive qualitative statements to analyze. In fact I think their own argument could be more convincingly made if they were free to explore more nuanced aspects than will fit into the formalism. So why?

On the one hand I wonder if I'm missing something because the authors are (deservedly) well known and respected. On the other hand, I think John List et al's advocacy of field experimentation has gone beyond the very reasonable assertion that many types of questions are better suited to field tests to the assertion that field tests should be the only approach*. Is this an attempt to seduce others to this view with "math"**?

*I swear I'm not putting words in their mouths. I quote, from the same paper: "Another group feels that natural field experiments are more generalizable, and that in many settings, this benefit outweighs the drawback of having limited control, meaning that we should focus our scholarly energy on natural field experiments." That "meaning that..." clause doesn't follow, sorry...

**I'll remove the quotes when "proofs" contain more than a couple entirely intuitive qualitative statements.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

science definitely doesn't cost you your firstborn

I've seen this link a couple places in the last day or two. In addition to the clickbaity nonsense title based on the calculation that the monetary opportunity cost of a postdoc is the same as the monetary cost of raising a child (go figure, an economist calling out a biologist for confusing money with utility!), I take issue with the content as well.

Academic science is a fantastic career. I'm intellectually challenged every day, I learn new things all the time, I dictate my own hours, I can work from home or from another country if I feel like it, I get to decide what projects to work on, I can work on my own or with other people however I like, and I get paid very well. That's worth a hell of a lot of money to me, and my revealed preferences prove it - I can't even fathom the monetary cost of leaving my awful, but lucrative, finance job to go back to school and stay in academia, but it was the easiest decision I ever made.

Economics is indeed one of the best academic fields to be in as far as academic prospects go (although I anticipate that economic postdocs will become the norm pretty soon). My friends in other fields like astronomy and biology have it much much worse, and I consider it one of the most phenomenally lucky things that ever happened to me that I stumbled on economics as a university freshman*. But clearly, the reason it's so hard to get an academic job is because so many people want them. Apparently there's more of a supply and demand imbalance in biology than in economics, lucky for me, but the point remains, biologists jump through these hoops because that's how much they love their job (despite the fact the author starts his post by saying how much they all seem to hate it. C'mon, everyone gripes about the parts of their job they don't like.)

On top of that, the fact the opportunity cost is so high is, by definition, because there are other very good options. So not only do they really love what they do, if they had a change of heart, they'd have a great way out. Other fields that people love to go into so much that they are willing to put up with extremely low wages and other inconveniences (music, art, literature...) don't even qualify them for anything else.

So yeah, tradeoffs suck. There's no good solution to that. The only way to balance supply and demand is to increase supply (hah!) or reduce demand by either cutting academic wages or making it more unpleasant to get an academic job. Both are going on and neither one is popular and there's nothing to do about it.

One thing I completely agree with, though, is that people shouldn't be taken by surprise by these circumstances. I certainly never heard one word about "postdocs" in high school or got any advice about anything post-PhD in college. I don't think the phenomenon is specific to science, but it's unfortunate in any context how divorced reality is from kids' ideas of professional life. The things you learn in school bear effectively zero resemblance to related jobs, so pursuing what you love is a terrible strategy compared to what suits your personality and priorities, and I have no idea why this is so thoroughly ignored by school counselors etc.

*both because I really wouldn't want to have to move several times in quick succession at this point in my life, with a partner whose career is as important to him as mine is to me, and because economics is uniquely well suited to my reclusive tendencies... And since I didn't anticipate any of these factors, it was pure dumb luck they worked out.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Jonathan Haidt

I stole this link from MR but only now got around to watching the video (below). Jonathan Haidt is one of my favorite scholars, someone who is so reasonable it hurts and has really interesting things to be so reasonable about.




I have two motivations for sharing this video. First is to make a point; I lived in the most politically extreme city in the US for six years and have an ongoing argument about the merits of capitalism with my dad-the-stereotypical-extreme-left-humanities-academic, so there are quite a few people in my life who I wish would watch this. And I emphasize again: it's almost annoyingly reasonable, with absolutely no party-loyal antics, so yeah, watch it.

The second is out of contrition. I'm on average right down the middle in American politics* so New York was the only place I've lived where I didn't feel constantly attacked for my political views**. I left Oklahoma when I was 16 convinced that I was an extreme lefty, but moved to California, and was treated like a crazy reactionary for so long there that now I barely identify as liberal at all.

But the explanation for the phenomenon isn't really an excuse for the phenomenon that I tend to ignore the truth in the left's story about capitalism. (See this page for the genius 1 minute videos of the two stories, if you really really can't spare 20 minutes for this fantastic talk.) Capitalism does lead to unparalleled improvements in quality of life for society overall. But as Jonathan says, the constant incredible innovation of capitalism includes innovation in methods of exploitation. I agree completely, and "dynamism with decency" seems like a perfect way to put it. With government to some extent, and with social pressure and demand-side pressure (e.g. boycotts, or buyer preference for humane products) to a large extent, we should absolutely insist on decency along with capitalistic dynamism.

*I'm not so centrist on most individual issues, although a lot more than you would expect from reading this blog because I don't write about the many things I am on the fence about.
**As far as I can tell, there is so much diversity in every dimension in New York that people are numb to differences and you can't feel broadly attacked for anything... It's wonderful :)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

re-SMBC part 5

This one is very late, but had to be done. Re-SMBC part 5!

3507 (and you may want to re-read the original to more easily parse the redo...)


But, in fairness to Zach Wiener, he did much better with 3595 which I'm going to quote in full because it's one of my all-time favorites:


Friday, January 2, 2015

Australian PC

Australia is much less PC than the US, which I love. It's just plain awkward when US TV shows have to hide jokes about groups of people in a layer of meta by, e.g., having an uncouth character make an uncouth comment so the joke is the character rather than the comment.

Shortly after I arrived in Brisbane, I was in a workshop and a chair collapsed underneath an Asian man. After it was clear he was ok and we all had a good laugh, someone asked "One too many dumplings, huh?" Imagine someone saying that in California!

That same week I was at a department event and introduced myself to someone as the new lecturer, and he said "Oh! I was wondering who you were, I thought maybe we had a new secretary." Even moreso, can you imagine someone saying that in California! Americans can't even call them secretaries anymore! I was certainly not offended* but had a hard time not losing my composure while I died from internal shocked laughter.

But the best one so far was a van Matt spotted earlier this week in Sydney. "You ling, we bling." We couldn't figure out what it was, maybe something involving chrome rims installation? Turned out to be a Chinese restaurant delivery van.

*I'll be offended the first time someone suggests, based on my gender, that I might be more suited to being a secretary, but nothing in my experience has come remotely close.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Books

Happy New Year! I suppose before 2015 begins I should clear the 2014 book queue.

Here is New York, by E.B. White - Even at nearly a hundred years old, this extended essay perfectly captures the allure of New York City.

Think Like a Freak, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner - Cute.

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield - Disappointing. He needs a more aggressive editor. No one reads books by astronauts to hear grumpy lectures on the same life lessons their grandparents scoldingly ramble about. We want more awesome stories about space travel! Unfortunately, the title is accurate.

Going Solo, by Roald Dahl - Followup to Boy. Roald Dahl has even more ridiculously awesome stories, this time from working in Africa and being a fighter pilot.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace - DFW is an unmitigated genius. The way he captures the over-analyzing brain is scary.

The Armchair Economist, by Steven Landsburg - Steven Landsburg is amazing at explaining things such that they seem completely obvious. But in this book he often oversimplifies, not by presently incorrectly simplified arguments but by ignoring important side issues.

The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe - Best book I read all year; I could not put it down. If you want awesome stories about space travel, you can't do any better than this. It covers the Mercury NASA program and the selection and training of the original seven astronauts, starting with their test pilot days, and now I desperately wish he would do the same for Gemini and Apollo and Skylab and the shuttle and anything else space related. This also isn't a dry scientific topic; it's entirely character driven, wonderfully.

Digital SLR Cameras and Photography for Dummies - This was surprisingly fairly useful; I knew a lot of it already but it tied everything together for me and had lots of new useful bits and pieces. I recommend it for photography beginners who have played around with cameras a bit but want to improve.

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson - Very engrossing story about a serial killer in Chicago during the 1892 World's Fair. Not always well written but the story is good enough to compensate.

How to Fight Presidents, by Daniel O'Brien - This appears at first glance to be a silly book about how to beat any of the American presidents in a fist fight but is actually chock full of the most interesting and entertaining American history I've read in a long time. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cuba

As you've surely heard by now, big news about Cuba!

Seems like an appropriate time to finally write about my brief visit to the island. First of all, you should definitely visit, and do it as soon as possible while it's still such an incredible, incredibly bizarre place. It's obviously beginning to change as restrictions on private property and investment are relaxed.

Havana is a beautiful colonial wealthy 1959 city, frozen in time and subjected to half a century of decay and extreme poverty. Every building is in serious disrepair, and the cars are either carefully maintained 1950's American imports or sadder looking Soviet vehicles sent over when the Cuban economy survived on aid from the USSR. It's unlike anything I've ever seen, unlike anything else I'm aware of, and is simultaneously gorgeous and heartbreaking.

Beautiful, decaying Habana Vieja

Except, there is also a smattering of new renovation and high-tech infrastructure, such as LED stoplights and new vehicles imported from Asia by the government, most of which (I infer) has shown up in just the last couple of years as some restrictions have loosened. As if things weren't surreal enough, this leads to such juxtapositions as driving down the highway in a brand new air conditioned Korean tour bus adjacent to a desperately poor tobacco farmer in a horse-drawn carriage.

Speaking of desperately poor, the communist dictatorship has not only kept its people in poverty by disallowing most legitimate enterprise, it has indirectly destroyed the country's (or at least, Havana's) social capital by forcing so many individuals to resort to dishonest means of making a few cents off of clueless tourists or just anyone who can't bear to spend every minute of every day saying "no". (At least, I really hope this is the explanation, rather than that Cuba was always full of con men. I don't think it could have gotten as wealthy as it once was, if it was.) It is a safe assumption that anyone you talk to will try to take your money before you can escape, usually by directly asking you (after being friendly for just long enough to make you feel guilty saying no) but very often through more insidious tactics, such as the common scam of striking up a friendly conversation with a tourist, suggesting continuing the conversation over lunch or drinks, and taking them to a restaurant where they will end up paying $80 for toast and coffee. This is true of 99.99% of people who initiate conversation with you, but also a large majority of the people you initiate conversation with. It didn't take long for me to be as wary of every Cuban as I am of every American cop. I anticipate that this will be a major roadblock to future development.

The motivations are easy to understand, though. Wages are paid through the government and average less than $1 per day, often much less. Prices for daily necessities are also very low (6 cents for a glass of fresh mango juice, 40 cents for a personal cheese pizza, etc.) but not low enough to make that salary truly livable. And certainly not enough to mitigate the temptation of scamming a buck off of any tourist for whom a little pocket change is worth it to get rid of the scam artist following you around (or in better circumstances, for whom it's a cheap tip for a friendly cemetery worker who acted as a tour guide before revealing his main motive.) When a foreigner's pocket change constitutes a week's wages and other legitimate options are not available, it's not surprising that seemingly every person in the central district of Havana is exclusively focused on taking it off your hands.

The constant deceit made it very difficult to find out any trustworthy information about Cubans' opinions of their own country, attitudes towards the U.S., etc. Traveling with a Spanish speaker didn't help. We started playing a game of answering a different country every time someone trying to sell us on something asked where we were from. We were pleasantly surprised the first time, at "Oh you're American? I love Americans! All the animosity between our countries is just a problem for Castro and Obama. We love the Americans." But then next came "Oh you're Canadian! That's so great, you people are so much better than the awful Americans." Et cetera et cetera...

One of the most memorable and pleasant experiences I had was, after having my reference point for personal interaction decimated for three days, somehow having one conversation with the one Cuban without an ulterior motive, just before catching the cab back to the airport. I didn't even believe it was happening until I'd actually walked away without a single request or sales pitch. A teenage boy stopped me on the street and asked where I was from. "The United States." "Oh that's great! Which part?" "Oklahoma" "Oklahoma! Kevin Durant is the best!" I tried to get away by saying I was about to get a beer in the corner bar, but he persisted and asked if I would bring it outside to talk for just a couple minutes, and I reluctantly played along. I was even more pleasantly surprised by the rest of the conversation than when he recognized my state for something other than the OKC bombing, deadly tornados, and a certain musical that I would accuse of being even worse than the first two options if that weren't wildly politically incorrect.

His beliefs about Americans consisted of the following: We are subjected to the horror of having to pay for everything, like schooling, housing, utilities, health care, etc. As a result, everyone has to work three jobs. We're all workaholics and rely on anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressants to cope with the stress. But then we come home at the end of the day and watch big screen TV from recliner chairs.

I clarified as best as could, and asked him about his own experience in Cuba. He works selling knickknacks from a cart, every day starting early in the morning. His dream in life is to visit the United States, or really anywhere else in the world, to glimpse existence outside of the Cuban island prison. His wide-eyed curiosity was admirable, and then the wistful defeat in his voice when he said he hoped that one day he would be allowed to travel was fairly heartbreaking.

Despite the fact that people seem to be quite unhappy with their government, there is definitely no shortage of up-to-date propaganda. We saw an unlimited amount of "53rd anniversary of the revolution" graffiti, Che iconography everywhere, and the ubiquitous national rallying cry for justice for "Los Cinco", the remaining three of whom were just released as part of the deal between Obama and Raul. I really wish I knew how much of this is an advertising campaign by the government, and how much comes from civilians.

The ubiquitous Che (appropriately affixed to the resulting decay of the communist dictatorship).

One of the most interesting encounters with Cuban propaganda was the Museum of the Revolution. Or I should say, most meta-interesting. The museum is in the beautiful former presidential palace, but the exhibits look like history class posters made by 5th graders 40 years ago. There wasn't a clear presentation of the history, but there was a large collection of spoons, cufflinks, hats, etc, used by various people associated in some way with the revolution. These were labeled with bits of age-yellowed typewriter paper stapled to the posterboard that the knickknacks were attached to or sitting in front of. In the midst of this surreal (sorry to abuse the word, but it's the only apt description for many things Cuban) presentation were comical bits of misinformation giving the CIA far too much credit. Americans grew up learning about US Cuban intelligence operations as the inept efforts they have been, from the Bay of Pigs failed invasion to this ridiculous and ineffective 50 year embargo. But to the Cubans, we apparently intentionally introduced dengue fever to the island, among many other evils. Castro, however, is a national hero for such wonders as ending professional baseball, the "profitable business that had enriched a few to the detriment of the athletes." My economist self obviously did a lot of cringing before we made it to the 3-story Cuban flag at the end of the exhibit.

Mural in entryway of the Museum of the Revolution (way too new and creative and interesting to be part of the main exhibit): The Four Cretins. From left (all typos exactly copied from the signs): Batista (thank you cretin for helping us to make the revolution), Reagan (Thanks you cretin for h lped us to strengthen the revolution), Bush Sr (thanks, cretin because you've helped us to consolidate our revolution) and Bush Jr (Thank you cretin for helping us to make socialism irrevocable).

Other miscellaneous things: the food is terrible, confirming the guidebook's description of it as "easily the worst in the Caribbean." That 40 cent personal pizza I mentioned consisted of a thick piece of strange bread-like material, covered with ketchup, a few shreds of cheese, maybe some bologna if I upgraded, and in one case, a chunk of glass. Strawberry ice cream, which I was initially thrilled to get on a hot afternoon for about 9 cents, tasted like, if anything, bubblegum. The fresh fruit (including one magical mango I can't even describe, and huge red guavas) was fantastic, and the meal we had the first night on the very forceful recommendation of our guest house keeper (I can only assume because she's in cahoots with them) was quite delicious, and the mojitos are great, but the everyday food you would survive on is just godawful.

By the way, I should also mention that those low prices are mostly only available to Cubans. It's a bit tricky, although doable, to convert the tourist currency into the regular Cuban currency, which is about 25 times less valuable but accepted in equal nominal amounts for goods at most vendors.

Art: I am utterly clueless about art but there seemed to be quite a bit of it, including a couple statues I absolutely love, including this one that I would really love to have explained (the limited information I've found indicates that there is no explanation):

An inexplicable statue in La Plaza Vieja, of a naked woman in high heels with a giant fork riding a rooster.

The music, on the other hand, is as fantastic as you would expect.

Outside Havana: If you go, stop by any one of the big fancy hotels and ask about a day tour to Viñales (they're all the same). It's the epitome of an engineered tourist experience, but it was still very nice and only $59 for a full day including lunch. Viñales is a breathtaking world heritage site west of Havana in a strange landscape of luscious cliffs, and the tours also stop in a rum factory, a (fake, for show) cigar factory, some caves you take a boat through, and a (not fake, but carefully manicured for tourist consumption) small countryside town. 

Viñales

Last but not least, we also stopped at the strangest tourist attraction I've ever seen, the mural of prehistory, a 180x100 painting on a cliff depicting lifeforms that have occupied that area through the ages. A couple snails, some vaguely humanoid creatures, and a dinobear, all in bright primary colors, create the effect of a child's painting projected to massive proportions.

The mural of prehistory.

In short, go visit. Now.

Monday, December 8, 2014

teaching (rantish)

Am I allowed to defend the classic talking-and-writing-at-the-blackboard-style university lecture?

I keep hearing about all these various teaching techniques to "engage students" and make learning "fun" and I can't help thinking, why should I waste time on dumbed-down content (and these techniques universally involve doing so) when, at the university level, students are there optionally taking time and money out of their lives in order to get an education? The ones who aren't, who are there because of parental pressure or because they haven't thought about what they'd rather do, shouldn't be running the show.

To be sure, I do only think this philosophy applies at the University level. As much as I hated the ridiculously slow pace of grade school education, I recognize that a major purpose of public gradeschool education is to create a generally educated population (and to educate kids who are too young to consciously choose to become educated). If that requires, in effect, bribing kids to learn and holding their hands as you spoonfeed each logical step to them, then so be it. The best teachers and best schools provide learning opportunities for more skill/motivation levels than the core of the distribution (which I was very lucky to be a part of). That's an enormous challenge and all the research on teaching methods can be valuably applied to it.

But in a university, it is a betrayal of the serious, paying adults to cater to the kids treating college like a four year vacation.

Sure, part of what they're paying for is a real dedication to making information as easily digestible as possible, with the best explanations and resources possible. And yes, that means for the struggling students along with the ones who barely need more than the textbook to grok the lessons. But there's a big difference, I think, between clearly articulating a difficult concept in various ways compatible with multiple learning styles and levels, and playing silly games that waste time and only serve to coerce lazy minds to understand a concept without having to put any effort into thinking themselves.

And that has to be one of the most important skills you learn in college! How to stare down a difficult problem or concept, ponder it deeply from every angle, without any linear idea of how to get at the answer, without any idea what angles it even has to be stared at, until you finally, sometimes almost magically, break through. It constantly astounds me how university students not only aren't capable of this, but don't even realize it's a thing you're supposed to try to do. Next time I teach game theory I might just start the class with some classic math/logic puzzles so that solving a 2-player normal form game doesn't seem too overwhelmingly nonformulaic in comparison...

So why is there so much hype about "engaging students"? A majority of lecturers share my views, I'm certain. But the teaching pedagogy types honestly don't. And they perpetuate ridiculous teaching metrics like student evaluations that everyone knows reflect the views of the mediocre students who care only about getting the easiest A possible and being told that they're great regardless of the pain this will cause when their bubbles are burst in the real world.

To be fair, higher education is a business and businesses have to cater to their customers even if a majority of their customers are being forced to consume the product and their views have nothing to do with the quality of the product offered.

I don't know what the answer is. I don't think many kids should be going to college so soon after high school before they have an idea of its value or their goals. Who knows. In the meantime, I'm going to continue focusing on providing clear lectures, useful homework and resources, fair exams, and telling kids what they want to hear when I have to to have any chance of getting good evaluations.

~~~

(Any views stated on this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer :)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

learn social preferences from Taylor Swift

Yeah so I love Taylor Swift... and not just because her lyrics are great for learning about social preferences!

Social image:
Don't look at me,
You've got a girl at home,
And everybody knows that,
Everybody knows that.
 Pure altruism:
I don't even know her,
But I feel a responsibility,
To do what's upstanding and right,
Social norms:
It's kinda like a code, yeah,
And you've been getting closer and closer,
And crossing so many lines.
Guilt-aversion:
And it would be a fine proposition,
If I was a stupid girl,
Self-image:
But honey I am no-one's exception,
This I have previously learned.
Empathy or indirect reciprocity:
And yeah I might go with it,
If I hadn't once been just like her.
And a bonus lesson on commitment devices!
Call a cab,
Lose my number,
You're about to lose your girl,
Call a cab,
Lose my number,
Let's consider this lesson learned.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

publishing in different fields

This is simultaneously hilarious and awful. My immediate reaction is "Wow, this would never ever happen in economics." But I don't know - does it really happen so much in other fields? I certainly still get submission solicitations for journals or special issues of questionable quality, but I don't know anyone who doesn't ignore them across the board. This news article implies that people in other fields don't always ignore these solicitations, but how common is it really?

Maybe I'm googling the wrong phrases, but I can't find much solid information about publication practices by field. There are a couple papers specific to economics but I don't know of any good cross-field studies.

So I have to rely on anecdote for my opinions. In economics, we're obsessed with journal quality. Everyone is dying for a top-five article, and publishing in a crap journal is as bad or worse than not publishing at all. This might be intertwined with the fact that we're very far to quality end of the quality-quantity tradeoff (or at least, even crappy papers are very long and attempt to make a substantial contribution), and the other fact that there are very few authors per paper. I imagine this makes it much easier to scrutinize each paper when it comes to, e.g., tenure review, since there are only a few to dig into. Also, publication lags are extremely long for several reasons including ridiculously long delays in getting referee reports back after each submission, having to go through several cycles of revisions before final acceptance, and having papers rejected at a couple of journals before you even get started with that cycle of revisions. I read awhile back (sorry I don't remember the source) that the average time from project onset to publication is 6 years, and the first link above says that the average time a paper spends in the revisions cycle at the journal it will ultimately be published by (so presumably this doesn't include delays from journals that previously rejected it) is 2 years. Altogether, publishing in economics is downright nuts.

In the sciences and engineering, based on what I've gleaned from conversations with many friends in all kinds of fields from biology to mechanical engineering to astronomy, papers are much shorter and come in large numbers and published in so many different journals it would be impossible to keep track of their quality. Even conference proceedings are considered real publications. Sure there are the holy grail destinations like Nature, but in the meantime it's entirely acceptable to push out 20 papers in miscellaneous venues, each with 15 authors. It's correspondingly much easier to get negative results and replications and similarly individually-minor-but-very-important-in-aggregate results published.

Is there a magical field that is somewhere between these two extremes? Where papers are consistently significant works and held to high standard and throwaway publications are held in disdain to the extent that authors don't even bother publishing them, but in which the referee process is quick and requested revisions more reasonable (i.e. solely about ensuring rigorous results, not about catering to the reviewers opinions on how to frame the paper or what extensions/new treatments they'd be personally interested in seeing or whatever)? And in which there exists outlets for minor-but-sound results?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Politicization

I seem to have reached a point where I have such a long list of things I want to blog about that all I can manage to do is keep adding things to the list. So maybe this quick link I want to share will somehow open the dam? Or something.

This article about politicization (what happens when a new subtle issue arises and somehow instantaneously views on that issue become perfectly correlated with political party, and are stuck there forever regardless of any new logic or evidence or circumstances) is fantastic. Go read it.

I have nothing to add that wasn't said, except a plea to individually stop falling for the following (from the last paragraph):
Daily Kos or someone has a little label saying “supports liberal ideas”, but actually their incentive is to make liberals want to click on their pages and ads. If the quickest way to do that is by writing story after satisfying story of how dumb Republicans are, and what wonderful taste they have for being members of the Blue Tribe instead of evil mutants, then they’ll do that even if the effect on the entire system is to make Republicans hate them and by extension everything they stand for.
Doesn't matter which side I'm on on an issue, I can't stand it when bad "science" (i.e. usually nothing that any scientist would call science, rather some anecdote that a science-illiterate journalist picked up that proves absolutely nothing), makes it to a clickbaity headline that everyone from one tribe (and no one from the other) will look at.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Jean Tirole (and Roland Bénabou)

For a good time, I read Bénabou and Tirole papers*. Even though the Nobel was given for an entirely different kind of work than what Jean does with Roland, I'm very happy to see him win it; ditto to Tyler Cowen's "A theory prize! A rigor prize!" :)

Greatest hits (by my nebulous "fun papers to read" metric, and not in any particular order):
*Well, I used to until I ran out of them. C'mon guys, when's the next sequel?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

auto-translation

I've never understood why I routinely get asked if my name is Italian, but I guess that would explain this result of facebook auto-translating my page when my friend posted an Italian status update...


Saturday, September 27, 2014

cooking experiments

I'll take any opportunity to turn a so-called experiment into a randomized control experiment, so last night when Matt and I made turquinoavocado stew in two pots (one isn't big enough), I left the room and he stirred bay leaves into one pot. We both assumed our moms pretty much just used them out of superstition and had no idea what flavor they're supposed to add. Then he gave me two bowls and I had to guess which was which. Turns out there's an obvious difference, and the bay leaves are a clear improvement!*

(We've also done double blind taste testing of Tcho chocolate varieties. We were all substantially better than chance at identifying them. The remaining question in both studies is, are they identifiable out of context, not in comparison? I suspect much less so.)

So this afternoon I dig out some leftover stew for lunch and see that there are two tupperwares of it, one labeled "San Francisco style" and the other labeled "Oklahoma style". I ask Matt to explain, and he looks at me with a puzzled expression. "You know, one has no bay."

*I didn't say anything about large-N RCTs...

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

That's the Mission

I scanned about 8000 pages of documents last Friday as part of the process of getting rid of as much physical crap as possible before moving around the world. And came across this (unfinished - as of yet!) song Matt spontaneously generated to the tune of That's Amore.

When the smell hits your nose
like a dead hobo's clothes
that's the Mission.
When there's piss on your stoop
and the street's full of poop
that's the Mission.

(Later verses to include the burned-tortillas-and-weed smell that greets us every morning, always a reference-dependently pleasant surprise...)

Monday, August 4, 2014

Major MTurk improvement!

Now possible to exclude workers who have a particular qualification (i.e. that you gave them previously when they completed another related study of yours.)

I almost devoted a lot of time to working around this omission previously; now I'm very glad I didn't.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Argentina

Back during my short stint on Wall Street, I'm pretty sure the one factor that would have made my model of sovereign default risk immeasurably more powerful is an indicator variable IsArgentina.

~~~

Unrelatedly, I now finally have two human visas and three feline import permits for Australia. Woo!!

Friday, July 11, 2014

bike theft

This should go without saying, but unfortunately I don't think it does.

If you see suspicious activity, like the two guys I just saw walking down the street with two shopping carts full of about a dozen bikes, then for the love of god, CALL 9-11! Just about everyone who owns a bike in the bay area has been the victim of bike or bike part theft. Don't you wish someone had called about yours?

Obviously this is true for any criminal activity, but my guess is that a lot of the bike trafficking that goes on around here gets by on people not being sure that what they're seeing is criminal. Very true, but seems solidly like probable cause to me. And yet I was the first person to contact the police about those guys, despite the fact it was a busy street. "It's probably nothing" is an easy justification for not calling, but probably illegitimate.

Also: register your bike. In Oakland this just involves stopping by any fire station between 9 and 5 on weekdays. That's kind of a pain, but when your bike is stolen, you'll kick yourself for not bothering. Only 16% of recovered bicycles are returned to their owner due to lack of registration. And with tactics such as shipping stolen bikes between LA and SF to make them harder to find, or breaking them down for parts, posting on craigslist just won't cut it.

Also: if your bike is stolen (or property is vandalized, or anything else) then also, for the love of god, file a police report. No, there's basically no chance anything will come of it (especially in Oakland), but you'll show up meaningfully in statistics. For example, Karim's bike shop in Berkeley is notorious for selling stolen bicycles. But when raided by the police, only a few were able to be confirmed stolen. With more ubiquitous registration and theft reporting, trafficking operations would have a much harder time sticking around. Note that without having registered your bike, and thus being able to find the serial number, the value of your report drops precipitously.

(Also, three cheers for the bait bike program.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

books

Oh boy I'm behind on book reviews.

In A Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson - You definitely want to read this book. Then you'll definitely want to come visit me and Matt in Australia, which you should definitely do (Seriously - I'm confident that not enough people will ever read this for that to become a dangerous invitation :) And when you do, you'll definitely want to move there too. Bill Bryson is the funniest writer I've maybe ever read, and every three pages I had to add another destination to my Australia travel list.

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler - Fun, entertaining. I got confused halfway through and watched the movie twice to try to figure it out, but the plots aren't exactly the same so who knows. But that's an indictment of my own ability to focus on fiction, not the book.

Only Children, by Rafael Yglesias - Oof. I loved the other two books I read by Yglesias (father of Matthew Yglesias), but this one was so uncomfortably unpleasant I couldn't even look past the subject/plot enough to be able to tell whether it was literarily well done. If you're on the fence about having kids, this will definitely make you shy away.

The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida - Book written by a boy with autism who learned to communicate using an alphabet board device. Quite interesting. I have many more thoughts about it, actually, but they'd be comprised too much of ignorant speculation, so it's hardly worth the time to write them down. But, that does mean that I'd recommend it for its thought-provokingness.

Unbearable Lightness, by Portia de Rossi - Um. So I maybe perhaps have a huge enormous crush on Ellen DeGeneres, and this maybe perhaps led me to watching a bunch of old clips of her show with her wife and former girlfriends, and this maybe perhaps induced me to look up Portia's new book, which I maybe perhaps finished before I even realized what was happening. Scary story.

Boy, Tales of Childhood, by Roald Dahl - I have no idea how I didn't read this one as a kid when I read everything else by Dahl I could get my hands on. It's fantastic.

Digital Photography Just the Steps for Dummies, by Frederic Jones - I flipped through this on my flight to Berlin after getting my new DSLR with the hope it'd give me a super quick introduction to making the most of it. I don't recommend it for anyone with any preexisting technical literacy whatsoever.

Monday, June 9, 2014

notes from Scandinavia

I suppose before I head to Haiti and Cuba, I should put up my notes from Denmark and Sweden.
  1. People address me universally in the local language, more than in any other non-English speaking country I've been to (Germany is close). Probably has something to do with the fact that the plane from Amsterdam to Copenhagen looked like it was full of my relatives.
  2. I'm not sure I understand Copenhagen. It has 1/3 as many people as Berlin but 1/300 as much going on, and everything costs 3 times as much. Not an un-nice city, but how does this imbalance survive the free within-EU migration?
  3. Despite necessarily inelastic demand, it's hard to find food items that meet my reservation price. Mostly diet coke and beer, the former because I have truly inelastic demand for it and the latter because it's truly cheap.
  4. What they don't tell you when comparing obesity statistics in Europe versus the U.S. is that northern Europeans are on a diet of incessant chain-smoking. I think I actually prefer the notorious scentscape of the Mission to the clouds of tobacco smoke.
  5. I even moreso don't understand the fetishizing of Scandinavia I seem to be surrounded by. Sure, if you happen to fit like a glove into a society so homogeneous and tiny that it can basically agree on a way of life and then regulate/subsidize/nudge the population collectively to it, then by all means, move there. I'll stay here move to Australia and do my own thing.
Yep, that's all I can remember. Scandinavia isn't exactly an exotic locale or significantly different from other European places I was earlier in the year, so not much to report.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

minimum wage vs. EITC, as of 1987

Amazingly, the New York Times got the issue exactly right twenty-seven years ago, and yet it remains a point of debate now. This despite the fact that this graph I previously posted shows that those twenty-seven years of experience with an increasingly relevant EITC should make it even more of a moot point.

Politics makes me sad.

[Stolen from MR].

Sunday, June 1, 2014

bleeding heart libertarian auto-mechanics

There's this common problem that those who advocate for minimal* regulation of trade are accused of not having a heart, when in fact free trade is the most important ingredient in helping people. But since it happens in a disaggregated, non-anecdotal, indirect process as equilibria shift to something better, thwarting at every turn those who wish to restrict trade either out of self-interest or out of misguided concern for others, salient examples are hard to find.

This one is great. A couple guys who would otherwise be unemployed helping out some people who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford their car repairs, and the big city government can just sputter "but but we aren't getting tax revenue from them! And we need to be able to protect big businesses who want strict licensing requirements to protect their partial monopolies and make sure I get re-elected consumers from shoddy work!" I mean, sure, who would willingly forego the highly competent and integrity-filled interactions we get from certified mechanics for the sake of saving hundreds of dollars? That kind of crazy decision-making has to be snuffed out by the benevolent nanny state.

Three cheers for Autozone. Not that they would be so tolerant if they had their own repair shop that these guys would be competing with. But that's exactly the point.

On a lighter note, this is amazing.

[Links stolen from Anna and Dan]

*Minimal, not none.

Friday, May 9, 2014

statistical discrimination is convenient

in this incident, at least.

My car broke down in the middle of the road in downtown Oakland at rush hour, which while unfortunate for everyone around me, was the most convenient situation for car trouble from my perspective. Immediately two guys pulled over and jumped out to help push me to the side of the road, and then set about discussing possible diagnoses and establishing the best course of action. Jump starting didn't work, so we they decided to push me into the gas station lot across the street that luckily had a mechanic/garage that could deal with it. Going uphill is harder, so they recruited five more guys to push and a woman to stop traffic. In less than ten minutes I was calling a cab home.

For me, my gender is the least salient part of my identity, and all my interests/hobbies are male-dominated, so every time someone treats me in an obviously female-specific way it really surprises me. I've never encountered a situation in which statistical discrimination actually held me back in any way after the first impression was wiped out with more pertinent information, so I'm not offended by it*, but it's always surprising and/or amusing. In this case, as I jumped out of my car with my jumper cables and set about connecting things for the millionth jump start I've done in my life, and Guy #1 took them from me and said "you just take a seat", turning to Guy #2 for assistance instead, I did a confused double take before realizing what their first impression and statistical inference of me must be. But then I figured, you know, I really don't mind letting some guys play hero, especially if it's going to get me out of this mess in particularly short order. So sure, I'll stand here while you round up a crowd of more hero-playing men to push me across the street, no problem. The least I can do for your generous offers of help is to let you feel good and manly about it.

Life isn't fair, so might as well enjoy the times when the unfairness is a win-win.

~~~

**Don't blame Bayesian reasoning for a lack of good information!