Wednesday, August 24, 2016

satellite data

Planet Labs, Matt's former company and a very cool project that I'm surprised to find I haven't blogged about explicitly previously, has a fun blog with company news and demonstrating cool uses of and findings from their high-frequency land imagery data from their flock of small satellites. They recently featured an awesome use of satellite data to measure trade between China and North Korea via counting containers at border crossings in photos from this year and last. Economists out there involved in the harrowing task of accurately measuring trade and related quantities may want to consider this source of data!

The funniest thing about the post, though, is that apparently the Washington Post thought comparing photos from a Saturday and Sunday at the end of the lunar new year holiday week to photos from a more normal time the year before was a reasonable way to measure the time trend in trade levels... *Sigh*

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

fair dinkum

Fact: The Taiwanese airline EVA's rewards program is called, no joke, "royal laurel."

Trororororor...

Friday, July 1, 2016

is the referee process fair?

I'm at the Western Economic Association International annual conference in Portland and just saw a fascinating keynote address by David Card, on his work in progress with Stefano DellaVigna on "What Gets In" top economic journals. The paper is unfortunately not yet available online, so I can't excerpt or show any of the very interesting diagrams that go with the analysis, but in the meantime I can tell you to keep a (skeptical) eye out for it when it does get posted.

The paper aims to confirm or dispel the common belief that the editorial process is unfair because of some combination of three factors: 1) Referees aren't good at assessing quality, 2) the process is biased in favor of big name authors, and 3) the editors overweight their own priors relative to referee recommendations. The authors acquired data from QJE, JEEA, ReStud, and Restat* and looked at three stages of the editorial process in comparison to ex post citation rates (controlling for journal and time) as the measure of paper quality. The three stages of the referee process are 1) the decision to desk reject, 2) the decision to send the paper to a particular number of particular referees, and 3) the decision to reject or RR/accept after receiving the reports.

Bullet points:

  • Referees are good at assessing paper quality in the sense that their ratings (from 1-7; definitely reject, reject, no rating, weak R&R, R&R, strong R&R, accept) line up well with ex post citations.
  • Higher quality referees, measured either by citation counts or publication numbers in 35 top journals in the preceding 5 years (I can't remember which), aren't better at assessing paper quality.
  • Papers that are sent to a larger number of reviewers are cited more, so the number of reviewers is a proxy for the editor's prior belief about the paper.
  • Prolific authors (measured by publication numbers in 35 top journals in the preceding 5 years) get many more citations controlling for reviewer rating.
  • So do papers with more authors.
  • Editors increase the citations of published articles by publishing papers by prolific authors more often, conditional on reviewer rating, but they could go further and do even better.
  • Editors do not seem to take into account the number of authors, and could increase citations by publishing more of these articles.
  • Editors could also increase citations by putting larger weight on their own prior relative to reviewer ratings.

The conclusions David drew are that 1) referees are indeed good at assessing quality, 2) the process contains affirmative action for junior/less prolific authors, and 3) editors are not overconfident. Thus, the myth of unfairness is dispelled.

The assumption this story rests on is glaring and glaringly fragile: ex post citations is the relevant measure of paper quality when people assess whether papers are fairly treated.

From the perspective of editors, I completely understand why you would focus on citations. That's how your journal gains prominence. But as a scientist, what I want and what I believe is the gold standard for fairness is that papers are published and cited in proportion to their quality. Treating citation rates as quality assumes away half of the problem.

Are citation numbers just the best measure of quality that we're stuck with? Well I'm sure that was the reason for using it, and I'm sure citations are correlated with quality, but as they show, referee ratings are also correlated with citation numbers. Since the citation process is self-evidently biased in favor of prolific authors** (I'm sure you can prove this to yourself through introspection just as easily as I did), and since referees are several of a very small number of people who thoroughly study any given paper, it seems utterly bizarre that the former, and not the latter, would be treated as the primary proxy measure of quality (if the goal of the paper is in fact to assess fairness rather than to assess journal performance.)

If we consider referee ratings the better measure of quality, the conclusions exactly reverse and exactly confirm some of the common suspicions of the editorial process: 1) Citations are a good measure of quality but substantially biased in favor of prolific authors and multi-author papers, 2) editors are biased in favor of prolific authors, but not as much as citations are, and they are not biased in favor of multi-author papers, and 3) editors could reduce their bias by putting less weight on their personal priors.***

I do suspect citations are a better proxy for quality in the sense that they are less noisy (but more biased). I'm sure this noise is why people complain about the competence of referees, in fact. This does mean that saying a particular paper was treated unfairly based on the average of three wildly different referee ratings isn't going to be credible. But when we're looking at data from 30,000 paper submissions, the signal shines through the noise and bias is much more important to worry about.

~~~

*Iirc, which applies to the entire summary.

**and it certainly makes sense to me that it could be biased in favor of multi-author papers as well, since more authors are necessarily more in contact with potential citers. Then again it also makes sense to me that multi-author papers could be higher quality, since there are more eyes on every step of the process.

***I asked David about this at the end of the talk (and several people immediately thanked me for it), and he readily admitted the alternative interpretation. I appreciate that and don't wish to accuse him of any suspect interpretation of data when I can't even read the paper yet, but it's a point worth discussing even if the paper makes it much more clearly than he did in his talk.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Re-SMBC

Re-SMBC part 7, number 4137:


Friday, June 10, 2016

epic retraction

30 hours later I am still not done laughing hysterically at this. It cannot get any better: a study that showed a correlation between psychotic traits and political conservatism has been retracted, not because the statistics were done wrong, or because further evidence showed that it was a spurious result, but because they switched the labels and it's actually liberalism that is correlated.

It's so good that I suspect this has to be a meta-experiment on motivated reasoning. Are all the people doing followup work on this correlation now going to conveniently lose interest? Will their framing change? Will a whole new rush of interest spring up that wasn't there before? We'll see!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

a failure of inference

Some idiots put a baby bison in their car in Yellowstone National Park out of "misplaced concern" for its wellbeing. He imprinted on humans and cars so quickly that he could not be persuaded to rejoin its herd, and the herd rejected him as well, including his mother. The calf was causing a danger to cars in his insistence on returning to the road, and so for reasons detailed below, park staff were forced to euthanize the calf.

Cue 13,000 comments on Yellowstone's facebook page accusing them of being heartless murderers.

There are plenty of fact-based suggestions and objections to be made on both sides, and the NPS has responded to most of these comments with the form response "In order to ship the calf out of the park, it would have had to go through months of quarantine to be monitored for brucellosis. No approved quarantine facilities exist at this time, and we don't have the capacity to care for a calf that's too young to forage on its own. Nor is it the mission of the National Park Service to rescue animals: our goal is to maintain the ecological processes of Yellowstone. Even though humans were involved in this case, it is not uncommon for bison, especially young mothers, to lose or abandon their calves. Those animals typically die of starvation or predation."*

But that's beside the point. I don't have to know any of the facts involved in order to have an opinion on the matter, because of all people, the park service is staffed by the ones most likely to go to the end of the earth to care for wildlife, especially in this heartwrenching case of a baby calf rejected by its mother due to human interference. Not only do I know for certain that they are much better informed of the options and issues than I am, I know that they have infallible intentions when it comes to conservation as well. So, I don't even have to "trust" them to make the right decision (since "trust" connotes a leap of faith that the right thing will be done despite conflicting personal incentives), I can infer with high confidence that they will do, and did, the right thing. Because if there were any kinder option, I know the people involved would have wanted to take it.

I sure hope these 13,000 commentators aren't representative of humanity overall, because the signaling models I'm so fond of are doomed if they are. I know people underestimate the intentions of others when they disagree, but in this case everything lines up including intentions; there is no basis for doubt that the right thing was done.

*They probably could have left off the part about their mission, which is completely reasonable and accurate but doesn't help project a superficial image of compassion (emphasis on superficial).

Monday, April 4, 2016

minimum income and employment-tied benefits

The universal minimum income idea seems to be really taking off at least in the highly unrepresentative niche of the internet and population that I inhabit. So I've been thinking more about it, tied into my slow-paced long-term still-evolving ponderings on utilitarianism.

I don't know much about the health care shitshow but one thing that is absolutely clear is that having health insurance so closely tied to employment in the U.S. is an unmitigated disaster. I was convinced of that while I lived there and even more convinced of it now that I see how an alternative system can work in Australia*. The discontinuity in incentives in the U.S. when transitioning from a 39 to 40 hour per week job and the disincentives for self-employment and entrepreneurship are Very Bad**.

The minimum wage has the same problem: it ties the minimal survival income*** to employment. In doing so, it provides this benefit to those lucky enough to have a job in a market with involuntary unemployment (which it plays a role in creating in the first place) and increases the number of people left out entirely. If we're at the point where we agree, as a society, that we're rich enough that it's a worthwhile tradeoff to redistribute income to the lower end so that the overall size of the pie shrinks but no one is left starving (which we are if we have a minimum wage in the first place), then we should do that universally and not make it contingent on employment.

It's a little different from the healthcare situation because the minimum wage applies to all hours worked even if fewer than 40, but the disincentives to freelance and take entrepreneurial risks are even stronger.

If you don't believe in providing a minimum income to everyone, only those who deserve it, for some definition of "deserve", you may object that the minimum wage is about ensuring that labor is fairly compensated rather than providing a minimum income. But what is a fair wage other than the efficient or market wage? One that lets people survive by doing it a certain number of hours per week? If you think that someone's labor should be rewarded with a minimum income even though that labor is not providing the same (market-measured) value to society, why do that by tallying the hours worked for formal employers, (and suffering all the distortions that this system creates)? You should also want to subsidize work done by freelancers and self-employers and entrepreneurs starting not-yet-profitable, or even not-yet-marketable, companies. That's unbelievably hard to define, measure, or enforce, so let's rely on the fact that humans don't just want to sit around watching TV 100% of the time and approximate this minimum-living-for-minimum-effort principle with a universal minimum income. Some people won't put in what you think of as minimum effort, but some will put in a lot more (like those latent entrepreneurs and innovators), so close enough.

Note that this is independent of the number one reason for a universal minimum income, which is that it gets rid of the incentive distortions of extremely high implicit marginal tax rates. Means-testing may be politically attractive but creates the same awful distortions. I do think there will be higher voluntary unemployment (and lower unemployment statistics, i.e. involuntary), and I have more to say about that and some unrelated factors, but I think this point is too important to hide within a longer list, so that'll have to come later.

CORRECTION: I think a universal minimum income would cause many people to become voluntarily unemployed but would also cause many people who are currently un- or under-employed to increase their employment, due to the marginal tax issue, so the net effect could go either way.

~~~

*Not to praise every aspect; I'm still strictly speaking about the employment issue.

**Although I also think that that these disincentives are exaggerated in the popular discourse because healthcare isn't thought of as just a less-fungible component of normal compensation. For some reason people seem to like being forced to buy expensive healthcare that they don't want to buy if they have to consciously pay the sticker price****. The tax craziness means the disincentive is very real, but the psychology exaggerates it.

***Some people say things like "Don't worry, it won't affect employment too much because it's not enough money to survive on." I call BS. Of course it will affect employment and it's silly to deny this obvious fact. And $12k, e.g., per year is most definitely enough to survive on when you don't have to live near and commute to a particular job.

****I've had this argument with several people who are perfectly smart enough to understand the economics so I'm convinced the preference is real, not a mistake. I understand it as something similar to a commitment device or a behavioral self-manipulation, akin to joining a gym to force yourself to go so you feel like you're getting your money's worth, even when you fully understand the sunk cost fallacy.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

mathematical modeling guide and contest for high schoolers

If I ever teach research methods to the right audience I will absolutely assign a class project similar to this fantastic contest for high school juniors and seniors. The goal is to build a mathematical model to answer some open ended real world question, like what recycling system should a city adopt. Bright STEM-focused high schoolers should be jumping all over this.

Mathematical modeling is really hard to teach, since it's so resistant to recipification. Experience and reading/questioning other models is the best way to grok the fuzzy metrics of model quality. Nonetheless, this contest comes with a great handbook that is a better guide than anything else I've seen (and I looked around quite a bit while teaching research methods to masters students a year ago). Check it out.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

gravity waves!!!

I've got plenty more tedious thinking out loud to do on utilitarianism, but there are more important things going on right now. Gravitational waves!!

This. Is. So. Cool.* And what an awesome time in space science: first we went to Pluto, then found pretty striking evidence for Planet 9, then SpaceX friggin landed a rocket, and now we can listen to black holes colliding.

I can't even count how many talks on LIGO I heard at Caltech, and after arriving seriously excited about the project being located right there, got completely bored by it after about one semester, because the entire project up until now has frankly been engineering, not astronomy.** (I mean, you should read about the engineering, because it is a mind-boggling achievement: they detected a vibration the width of one thousandth of a proton!! Do you have any idea how tiny a proton is? An atom the size of a football stadium would have a nucleus (containing the protons) about the size of a pea, and a single human hair is about a million atoms thick. I can't believe someone thought "yeah we can do that" let alone did it.) So I kinda forgot about it, like I did New Horizons, and then bam, Einstein's prediction was confirmed on its 100th anniversary.

And now the real astronomy is coming back into play, and somehow we're now able to know things like that two black holes 1.3 billion light years away collided and 3 solar masses worth of material was converted into gravitational waves, briefly emitting more energy than the rest of the visible universe combined, and 1.3 billion years later we managed to detect spacetime smoothing itself back out as the black holes stopped spinning and combined into a single stable unit. That's ridiculous.

The New Yorker article is pretty good if you don't want to watch the press conference. Or just read the paper.

~~~

*I used to be highly averse to acquiring information through videos and would never link to one, but with the new ability to increase the speed with two clicks in youtube, I relent, especially in this case because the press conference with the actual scientists is a much better source of information than journalists. It's definitely worth watching.

**Engineering is cool too, but I'm not interested in it automatically, only when excited knowledgeable people (i.e. Matt) tell me about it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

picking on Scott some more

Or at least using him as an example, with only the friendliest intentions, I swear :)

Scott Sumner is both a libertarian and a utilitarian (rounding to the nearest word, in both cases). As far as I can tell, I have very similar views on both topics. But I'm also a behavioral economist, which is a field Scott is skeptical of. But I think that part of the reason libertarians are frequently skeptical of utilitarianism is related to the reason why libertarians are frequently skeptical of behavioral economics. So, my hope is that if someone can reconcile the former pair, as Scott and I have, I can convince them to also reconcile the latter.

This is certainly only part of the story, but utilitarianism is viewed skeptically by many libertarians for two reasons.

First of all, it's frequently used an an excuse for redistribution and other types of government meddling. Honestly I think it's a little odd that any one school of thought is mad about utilitarianism being used as a justification for another particular school of thought, since utilitarianism can be used to argue for a pretty wide range of schools of thought, since the argument over what provides the most aggregate utility does not exactly have a straightforward answer, and since it's natural for anyone with a particularly high utility from X to believe that X is overly important for everyone else's utility as well, leading to plenty of disagreement automatically. But, maybe because of the historical accident that Bentham invented utilitarianism in order to justify redistribution, they've become tightly associated.

Second of all, moral libertarians place liberty on a pedestal above all else, regardless of consequences. That is, they want liberty even when people on aggregate don't want it. This is utterly bizarre to me. I'm quite sure that the reasoning went in backwards order:

  1. Want liberty. 
  2. Invent coherent philosophy justifying the supremacy of liberty by assuming the supremacy of liberty as the first principle.
  3. Conclude that liberty is supreme, even when not wanted. 
  4. WTF? Oh well, double down.

instead of (the pragmatic libertarian approach)

  1. Want utility. (By definition).
  2. Conclude that this is best extended to all of society by aggregating individual utility.
  3. Conclude that liberty is a critical component of the best society, since liberty is so important to utility, both individually and especially in equilibrium societal outcomes.
  4. Want liberty.
You can argue about points 2 and 3 but you really can't start with anything but number 1. That's the definition of utility!

This finally brings me to the punchline; sorry for the delay. The only way to be uncomfortable with step 1 is if you can't imagine the many ways in which nonmaterial things contribute to utility. For some reason, aggregating everything you could want into a single concept seems to be really distasteful and difficult for many people. Perhaps this is another historical accident: the word "utility" is usually used by economists who, for the sake of tractable models, are using a proxy for utility (usually money). So people say, but money isn't all that matters! What about love! And the economist should say "well yes, of course, but I'm talking about shoe stores, so I really don't think that's going to substantially make a difference to my analysis in this context" but more likely than that there are no non-economists in the audience and so no one asks the question and so over the years the economists forget that money was only a proxy for happiness in the first place. Or they don't forget, but they don't have a reason to point it out because all the other economists who are listening already know this, but then non-economists read economic papers and don't realize that the caveat is implicit.

But even more than not being able to think of creative sources of utility, I think the more fundamental problem people have with the concept of utility is with the notion you might try to measure it. These things feel very beyond quantification, and so how can you possibly summarize all of them in a single number when you can't even assign one number to each attribute, much less add them together. I acknowledge this is very hard. But we don't really do it, we barely even try, so it doesn't really matter. These arguments are always qualitative as soon as they move beyond basic monetary cost-benefit analysis. We can't even incorporate the statistical value of a life without a great deal of confusion and counterintuition, let alone love and fulfillment and ego and excitement and anxiety and spirituality and all the rest of the uncountable facets of human experience. And as long as we're dealing with grand qualitative concepts, is it really so hard to imagine that there are indeed tradeoffs between different priceless things? 

Consider religion. On the one hand we have the joy and inner peace and sense of community and cultural continuity that comes with religion, and on the other hand we have the conflict and human lives that come from religion. Do you think it's worth it? I don't know. I know that if religion meant permanent world war, I would definitely vote for no religion. And I know that if there was only one world religion and no resulting conflict or death and this particular religion didn't get in the way of science and the only downside was the discomfort of the minority who inevitably feel a little excluded because they just don't have the gene for that spiritual stuff, myself included, I'd vote for religion. So there are tradeoffs. I have no idea where the line is, but I know there is one.

Or imagine Sophie's choice (which I haven't seen [is it a movie?] so if I have it wrong just go with it.) One's children are priceless and it seems impossible to choose one over the other. But if I had five kids and had the choice between killing one or killing the other four, that's an easier choice. Again, lines may seem impossible to draw, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

This a great SMBC that is relevant. Yes, do come to the dark side :)

Ok so the point: libertarians shouldn't be hostile towards utilitarianism because liberty provides enormous utility and so the two principles are compatible. And if you can accept that liberty is an input into utility, why can't you accept that behavioral economics, as the branch of economics that mostly explores non-standard sources of utility, is, if anything, a friend to libertarianism? There perhaps has not yet been much work on the inherent value of having choice (although I think I recall an experiment or two that touch on this), but when we get there, it will be behavioral economists studying it.




Well that was much longer than I intended.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

things are interesting

Replace "Sunday" with "obscenely early on Monday" and this xkcd strip, one of my favorites, fits me perfectly:*


Almost everything is interesting when you learn enough about it and/or when hearing about it from someone passionate about it. The silly hipsters who are too cool to admit to enjoying anything unironically are missing out on a great deal of unadulterated joy.

*Except I no longer don't know much about football, because I spent a lot of time listening to someone who was super excited and knowledgeable about football.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Scott Sumner on behavioral economics

Scott, who I generally love, has had two posts recently allegedly criticizing behavioral economics. But he's actually criticizing a small subset of behavioral economics, and on that subset, to the extent that he's right, he shouldn't be.

In a nutshell, he's saying that the problem with behavioral economics is that its practitioners are too quick to judge actions as irrational. He provides various examples that one might attribute to irrationality that are actually easily rationalized. But they are easily rationalized using concepts from behavioral economics! He uses social preferences to rationalize Christmas giving, anticipatory utility or something closely related to rationalize buying lottery tickets, any number of possible behavioral economic sources of utility to rationalize voting, and loss aversion to rationalize buying warranties on small purchases. Far from building my career on the idea that most people are stupid, I'm building my career on the idea that people are much less stupid than the average classical economist might think.

He even explains why himself: "This kind of thinking led Deirdre McCloskey to turn away from "maximizing utility" models of behavior. I see her point. But I don't see utility as the problem, but rather a lack of imagination as to all the subtle ways that people can derive utility." I completely agree. And a vast majority of behavioral economics is exactly in the business of imagining the subtle ways that people can derive utility and adapting classical models to incorporate them.

This definitely isn't a refutation or overhaul of classical microeconomic models**. It's a set of tweaks to deal with of situations in which those models can't handle the reality of utility. You don't need to tweak the standard model if people are discovered who really love drinking sour milk: that's a weird preference and seems pretty mistaken to me, but classical utility functions don't care what your preferences over regular goods are. De gustibus non est disuputandem. You do, however, need to tweak the theory to account for social preferences, because social preferences interact in ways that classical preferences aren't equipped to represent. Same thing for loss aversion, anticipation, ambiguity, ego, social image, guilt, etc etc etc etc.

I'm going to go out on a limb and hypothesize that the reason Scott seems to be fixating on a particular subset of behavioral economics (the part that catalogues the systematic ways in which people make mistakes*) and getting irate at the implications a particular subset of behavioral economists often prematurely jump to (that they therefore need help making better decisions), and unfortunately accusing the rest of the field of practices that I wholly agree are ill-advised, is that he is libertarian. There's quite a bit of animosity towards behavioral economics from libertarians, of exactly the type Scott is stating, due to their aversion towards meddling in people's choices. They worry that if behavioral economists are busy showing how people need help making decisions, someone will use this as justification for government meddling. I, as a basically-libertarian behavioral economist, share these concerns and it drives me nuts when I see my colleagues jump to these conclusions prematurely (that's a whole other argument).*** But the correct response is to appeal to better behavioral economics, which luckily is most of behavioral economics. It's the solution, not the problem.

~~~

*I am intentionally saying "make mistakes" here, as I really hate how the term "irrational" is thrown around when "mistake" is what is meant. Of course people make mistakes, even systematic mistakes. The fact that they correct (most of) them when they're pointed out means they're still perfectly rational.

**Contrary to popular belief among non-professionals, but certainly not among behavioral economists.

***It also worries me extremely how immediately students jump to "to help policy makers" as a justification for any economic study. Usually to the absence of any other justification. Sure that makes sense for public finance and monetary policy and such, but shouldn't be anywhere near the top of the list for most behavioral economic studies. (It often is, but I maintain it shouldn't be. That's that whole other argument I was mentioning.)

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Recurrent neural nets

Super cool blog post demonstrating the "unreasonable effectiveness" of recurrent neural networks, which allow you to map 1-or-many input vectors to 1-or-many output vectors. Which lets you generate Shakespeare.

Can't wait to see what Susan Athey et al. come up with for economic applications.

And to Andrej: if you don't name your kids Jerin and Alessia, you've got some 'splaining to do.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

good sentences

Hoff and Stiglitz on the coordination utility of fads: "It is hard to conceive a single individual in isolation enjoying a hula hoop."

I think they mean: it's hard to conceive a single economist in isolation enjoying a hula hoop.* Introspection as a source of data is subject to severe selection bias.

*But I'm happy to provide a counterexample.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Congolese space entrepreneur

Another independently wealthy space nerd trying to launch things! In the DRC!

“I will do my utmost to bring that rat back alive,” he says. “But if not, there’s a lot of rats in Kinshasa.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Science is hard

This is a great story of how the cure for scurvy was forgotten. Basically, the British realized early on that lemon juice would prevent it very effectively, but they didn't really know why (and perhaps more importantly, they seem to have been fairly unaware of this ignorance). So when they switched to other solutions that various theories held would be equally effective (eating preserved limes with the vitamin C destroyed, avoiding tainted meat but failing to eat fresh meat, etc), the scurvy came back. It wasn't until the mid 20th century that the true explanation was finally verified. Turns out, science is hard: it's really easy to come up with explanations for facts and really hard to be sure which one, if any (of the ones yet thought of), is right.

Serendipitously, even though that story was published a few years ago, I read it the same day this perfectly appropriate xkcd cartoon was published:


I like to make fun of engineers and physical scientists for how easy they have it* since rocks kinda just obey a few laws and are easily controlled and predictable. Experiments are easy to control and replicate and there aren't the plethora of confounding factors that come with humans being human and exercising their infinitely faceted free will. I do think this makes economists very good at thinking about alternative explanations and being very harsh judges of any inference from data; the success of this approach is why economics is invading the other social sciences and even medicine. On the other hand, introspection is useful guide when trying to think of new hypotheses about human behavior that the physical scientists don't have at their disposal, and the obvious difficulty that created for scurvy makes me(even more) amazed at how far science came in such a short time. Good job guys.

*Yes I'm kidding.

[Link stolen from SlateStarCodex]

Thursday, October 15, 2015

re-SMBC part 6

More accurate redo of SMBC number 3823:



This is a bit inaccurate, because of course an economist wouldn't even ask why...

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Thanks UT Austin!

Daniel Hamermesh, one of my very favorite economics bloggers, is heading to Australia, at least in part due to concerns over campus carry legislation at his current institution in Texas. Thanks Texas!

I wonder whether his UT colleague Max Stinchcombe, who visited UQ most of last year, told him how nice Australia is. Word of mouth may also being playing a role at Berkeley: four Berkeley Econ graduates in three years (and counting, I hope) have crossed the pond.

(I mean, frankly I'm surprised it's not higher; doesn't Australia seem like a better option than being forced out of California after 6 years of learning to appreciate a good climate and the great outdoors?)

Also: I really love to see voting-with-your-feet in action.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

dewonkification

I was traveling for most of August and September but now that I'm back in my office, I've gotten caught up on most of the blogs I follow. A few weeks back Alex Tabarrok had a cute mathy post on the Frechet probability bounds with the warning "super wonky!" in the title. My reaction was first "duh" and then "wait, this actually has a name?" (This probably goes a long way to explaining my teaching evaluations :)

I love Alex's explanation and love that he posted it; I in no way mean that it's too trivial to be interesting. But it's such a perfect example of something that looks scary if you write it down in formal notation and give it a high-falutin name, and it scares people off who don't read math all the time so that you have to put "super wonky!" warnings on things, but if you think about a simple example for a few seconds it's incredibly simple. Much simpler than the concepts involved in most of Alex's non-wonky posts.

Anytime I teach anything involving math (and I try not to teach anything that doesn't involve math, math is too fun!) I spend a significant amount of time trying to convince students that math is not actually scary and that they definitely shouldn't memorize equations for everything. If you understand that a linear relationship is just something that starts at a particular spot and then follows a particular slope, you don't need to memorize the equation for a line, or the point-point formula, or the point-slope formula, and I loathe that the ubiquitous approach presents those three separate equations that students then copy down and memorize.

Here's an example of the Frechet probability bounds. If 80% of people are Caucasian and 70% are Christian, there has to be some overlap. In fact, at least 50% of people have to be both Caucasian and Christian. On the other hand, there might be more overlap; it could be that 70% of people are Caucasian Christians, 10% are other Caucasians, and the other 20% are Buddhist Asians. Take a second to picture the possibilities and those numbers will be obvious to you; if you get stuck, see Alex's post for a nice way to diagram it.

That's it. One tiny concept (your groups of people have to overlap somehow to fit within the population you have) with some fancy notation and a fancy name that scares people off.

I should add, I'm not actually opposed to fancy names, in fact I love jargon of all kinds when used to improve precision and economy of language rather than to obfuscate or sound smart. When I went to mathcamp in high school and learned the name for the "pigeonhole principle" I also thought it was hilarious that this warranted a name - all it says is that if you have more pigeons than holes, some pigeons are gonna have to share holes (in fact this is the fundamental concept at work in the Frechet bounds as well) . But it's actually great that it has this name because it can be applied in creative ways in much more complicated proofs that don't immediately seem to have anything to do with counting holes, and all you have to do is say "by the pigeonhole principle" for the experienced reader to quickly deduce what are the pigeons and what are the holes and how their relative number is relevant, without you having to spell it out.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

research advice

This advice by David Weil on doing research, directed at economic PhDs, is very good. I ignored/ignore number 7 and 8 too much because I'm too introverted to make appointments and too stubborn to take advice, but I admit I should follow them.

But number 4... I'm somewhere in between disagreeing with it and wanting to augment/rephrase it substantially. I definitely understand where he's coming from. The research question necessarily evolves with the project, and some of it doesn't get developed at all until the very end when you figure out how to "frame" your paper (i.e. how to sell it, to what journal/audience/subfield, etc.) Sometimes your data doesn't provide a clean answer to the question you thought it would, but you can reformulate the question. Sometimes your experiment completely fails to demonstrate what you expected, but something entirely unexpected happens that you can report on. Sometimes you start building a theory with the intention of understanding one scenario, but you prove something you didn't anticipate at all, or you're forced to change your assumptions to make things tractable and you end up understanding something else. (In fact, this should happen with some regularity, because your model isn't adding much value if you can foresee all of the consequences of your assumptions from the get-go!)

So yes, I agree that formulating a question and then setting about answering it isn't an approach you can count on. And since you can't count on it, you shouldn't spend an enormous amount of time an effort formulating your question before getting started. But, it's still valuable to think of research as starting with a question and striving for that ideal to whatever extent is practical. For a few reasons:
  1. Most importantly, for students especially, an easy route to take in research is to tweak existing research or to "try something and see what happens." That's great for learning, but see number 3: Learn as you go, don't worry about mastering techniques and knowledge ahead of time. Try things that you have a reason to think are valuable from a scientific perspective, and learn from that. And a reason to think something is scientifically valuable is to have a question in mind and design your project to answer it. It'll probably change as you go, and it's certainly helpful to think about those contingency plans ahead of time, but that's going even a step further than starting with a question, not a step backwards.
  2. Same principle as in number 1, but from a perspective later in time. The most important question you ultimately have to answer, to audiences or editors, is "why should I care about your results?". "It answers this question" is a good response. This sounds really trivial but it's not: the question shouldn't be something borderline tautological like "the data analysis answers the question of what the data says."
  3. Starting with a question ensures that your approach is appropriate for the question. There are lots of ways to answer questions and some are clearly better than others. If you take a suboptimal path, and then discover that you're answering a question that should have been answered in a better way, now you have to go back and do it right.
  4. Having a question in mind is very motivating on a big picture level. I tell people I'm interested in how social norms form and change, although the actual research I do is so remote from answering that question that it's comical, and that's such a huge question I can't even think of a single paper-sized project that can be claimed to primarily address it. But having it in the back of my mind is highly motivating and lends order to the mess of topics I actually spend time thinking about.
[Link stolen from Chris Blattman, iirc.]

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Oz makes it to the NFL

I guess I have a new prime minister? Some day maybe I'll understand how that works. I sure like the lack of two years of ridiculous campaign nonsense though.

In other news, if this Australian live-commentary of American football were decorated with kitten gifs it would be my favorite thing on the whole internet. Can we please have this for every game?

Highlights include:

  • Well - roll on here, the 49ers. Easily over the ten yards they have to get with each hut-hut action.
  • First and 20, a lot. Quarterback fakes to throw, fakes again, runs over the line of scrimmage and falls onto his tummy lest anyone hurt him. You’d be teased in rugby league and penalised. 
  • So old mate gets another kick ... and Ellington goes all the way for 85 yards but there are flags on the play again... we’ll have a look, the refs are talking to each other, there are a lot of them, it’s a committee meeting, and ... first down? Who knows. Illegal block? We’re going to have another break. But I’d say: no touchdown. Exciting stuff, however. 
  • Bridgewater scoots over the gain line and hits the deck so no-one hurts him. Oh ... has he made it? The refs bring out a giant stick thing with a circle on top, and they’re measuring the play .. and he’s got it. First down, Teddy B. Top stuff. 
  • Bruce Ellington takes a fair catch, which is a rule, and everyone swaps, a whole other team comes on, and we have a break. And here we are. 
  • Oh, no break between quarters? There is that. 
  • Teddy Bridgewater has been solid without being the reincarnation of ... oh here we go, who? Joe Namath. I’m going with Joe Namath. But he’s been good Teddy. 
  • (Generally lots of righto's, top stuffs, thanks mates, etc.) 

The reason for it is Australian Rugby League star Jarryd Hayne's debut in the NFL for the 49er's. I'll have to watch out for more of him this season.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

hot pink revenue management

I do not like hot pink. So judging by the proliferation of hot pink electronics in my apartment (my kindle case, Matt's headphones, and now my phone and phone case) I can only infer that hot pink offerings are profitable not so much via higher prices due to demand for customization but for the same reason that IBM adds chips to its fast printers to slow them down and sell them at a lower price: cheapskates like me will only buy these things at low prices, and people who are willing to pay more will be put off by the color/speed.

I haven't been collating examples but anyone who carefully looks through the color options on relevant amazon* items will also have noticed that baseline colors that are certainly manufactured in greater numbers are frequently more expensive than the neon-yellow-trimmed batman-themed varieties.

Anyway, I just had to point out the reasoning behind this embarrassing device you might see me carrying around. Now back to traveling too much to blog...

*I specifically refer to amazon because they most clearly adjust their prices in response to demand without regard for silly notions like "the same good should be the same price in either color because it does the same thing and costs the same amount to make." Hmm, maybe amazon will slowly give people better intuition for the law of supply and demand...

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

thinking on the margin

They say economic thinking is thinking on the margin, and that's very true, in fact so true our brains sometimes ignore everything else except the current margin. As I've recently discovered, I don't even know what my preferences are away from the margins I have experience with.

I try to be "mostly vegetarian" which in the U.S. led me to basically never cook meat except for a $9 loss-leader thanksgiving turkey once a year. I really love vegetables and fried tofu and lentils and TVP anyway so I thought the high price of meat was basically irrelevant to those habits, at best a handy way to keep delicious overpriced steak out of mind.

Then I moved to Australia where fresh produce costs about three times what it does in California (where it is unusually cheap and varied and wonderful), and even though meat costs more as well, the relative price has plummeted. Without thinking about it, and without abandoning my conscious aversion to buying meat in the first place, lo and behold I find myself grilling chicken every couple of months. And putting $3.50/kg chicken in my curries instead of $7/kg tofu.

My preferences didn't change, my expected consumption habits didn't change, but then in that moment at Costco when I can't turn down the $6 rotisserie chicken right after leaving the Asian grocery store with only one package of tofu in the hopes that I'd run into a better sale soon, somehow my actual consumption habits did change. That's the invisible hand in action, not caring that I'm not aware of the margin and forcing me towards the new one anyway.

(Overall it seems that the prices don't stop Australians from kicking butt in this department overall. Even compared to California.)

Monday, July 20, 2015

faces

This quickly devolves into a personal story that only speculatively has anything to do with faceblindness, but in the meantime it's interesting. I've been thinking about how to recognize faces more often since I realized more clearly how bad I am at it, and since moving to Brisbane was the first time I've moved since having that clarity, meeting so many new people over the last 9 months has provided a constant stream of new data. Disorganized thoughts:
  1. The "I know you face" is indeed extremely helpful. I also try to arrive early to things when meeting an acquaintance so that they'll have to approach me, as I mentioned previously and as the lady in that story says she does. And if I get there on time, I avoid eye contact and focus somewhere off in the distance or do whatever else it takes to give them the opportunity to make the I-know-you face at me. If I'm not sure whether I know someone or not, I also maneuver things to the same effect (by making sure they see me while I'm not obviously looking at them.) It's extremely helpful and probably the single most important thing I use.
  2. Conversely, I think I've subconsciously converged my polite-hello and I-know-you faces. Strangers may question whether they've met me before, but at least people I know can't be sure that I don't recognize them. I hope. The story in the article about her dad tipping his hat to absolutely everyone sounds very familiar.
  3. Recently I had the extremely unusual experience of recognizing someone who didn't recognize me. He had a rainbow mohawk. Unfortunately, it's not always rainbow, so I'll never recognize him again...
  4. Moving here with Matt has been particularly interesting because he is unusually great at recognizing people, and we're meeting all these new people at the same time so the disparity is crystal clear. Twice a month we go to a functional programming meetup group together, and he recognizes everyone there no problem whatsoever, and while I know most of the names, they are ALL white males, 80% with facial hair, and it is frankly comical how hopeless I am at keeping them straight. Someone gives a talk and by the time we're standing around eating pizza ten minutes later I don't know who it was. I talk to one of them at the bar afterwards for over an hour and the next month don't realize that I've ever seen him before. This all despite quite a bit of deliberate effort to come up with distinguishing features on my part. Matt apparently didn't realize how much I meant it when I said I'm bad at faces, and finds the whole thing pretty hilarious.
  5. Aren't I lucky to be accompanied by a guy with such a convenient skill who's nice enough to put up with my endless questions? I just have to get him to come to conferences with me :) Sigh, I had such high hopes for google glass taking care of this for me...
  6. I've realized that height is another really important way I recognize people, in addition to hair and clothing. Unfortunately, height is perceived relative to one's own, so "the guy who's a little bit shorter than me" means nothing to Matt (when trying to figure out who someone is after the fact by describing him), and isn't enough for me to pick them out of a photo.
  7. Voice, unlike the lady from that article, is really not that useful. Maybe that would be helpful to focus on, but it wouldn't help with the single thing that I actually really want help with, which is being able to identify whether I already know someone in order to navigate the beginning of conversations. I've had plenty of practice at deducing who someone is or whether I know them from the conversation itself.
  8. That is much more than enough introspection into such a trivial issue. Back to work! (But why is it that differences in mental experiences are so fascinating? A mild case of faceblindness can't possibly affect my experience more than, say, missing one pinky toe, and I doubt a severe case is more impactful than missing a finger, but I sure don't see any viral articles about physical issues. Is it purely that it's harder to imagine being in a different mind than in a different body? I suppose I can believe that.)
(Link stolen from MR.)

Friday, July 17, 2015

ignore Hanlon's More Optimistic Razor at your own peril

(Absolutely no good can come from throwing gasoline onto fires started by arsonists, but sometimes emotions override logic and you just want to watch some stuff burn...)

The problem with social justice warriors is the negligence of Hanlon's razor. Don't attribute to malice that which can be explained by ignorance.

Actually, Hanlon's razor isn't quite right. The problem with social justice warriors is that they frequently attribute to malice what can be explained by misguided good intentions, or non-misguided good intentions, or good but different intentions, or ignorance. Let's call it Hanlon's More Optimistic Razor.

This is highly counterproductive. My advice to them, which I truly hope they take since I usually share their goals, is to replace their vinegar with honey, and to do so not to strategically lure flies but because HMOR makes you honestly want to.

I'm not a particularly empathetic person myself, so I am constantly surprised at the extent to which people think their views are the only possible views with good intentions. Democrats think Republicans can only want tax cuts to reduce their personal tax bills or because they hate poor people. Republicans think Democrats can only want tax hikes because they are lazy or because they hate rich people. Christians think atheists can only be motivated by selfish immorality and atheists think evangelists can only be motivated by bigotry and hatred. The most rudimentary empirics you can imagine completely discredit all of these views, of course, but they persist.

These examples might be blatant enough that, when pushed, people will usually back off and admit that others' motives aren't quite as bad as they make them out to be. But the gut feeling and rhetoric persists. And there are plenty of other less salient examples where the acknowledgement of equally well-intentioned, but different, goals, definitely doesn't match reality. I study social norms, in particular differences in beliefs between individuals, and I cannot count how many times I've had examples responded to with "but... that's not really the same thing as different norms, because only one of them is a real belief, the other one is just concocted to justify preferences." No one can really think you should eat meat, or that you should allow guns to be legal, or that you shouldn't go to college, or that should beat women who reveal too much skin in public. But even in the most extreme examples, I firmly believe, not without evidence[1], that most people are inherently well-intentioned and simply have different goals and/or beliefs about how those goals can be attained. In fact, limiting ourselves to American/first world politics for the moment, I'd go even further and say it's really just the latter. People are mostly well-intentioned, and people mostly want the same things for the world, they just disagree about how to best achieve it.[2]

So why did I start this ramble by pointing fingers specifically at social justice warriors? Well, that's the fire I was referring to. Unlike other political battles, the war between the SJWs and the Scott Alexanders of the world seems to me to be almost exclusively fueled by the neglect of HMOR on the former side and the understandable defensiveness that the latter side responds with. If we could all just stop treating people we basically agree with who do things a little differently as evil, the entire war would end.

The specific motivating issue that leads me to write about this right now[3] is this whole pointless fight over the confederate flag that we're going through yet again. I am so bored by the confederate flag. And by politically correct vocabulary. And by correct pronouns and titles. And by innocuously-mistaken-yet-Bayesianly-reasonable-and-appropriately-corrected assumptions. There's a fair chance I'll be attacked or lectured for that paragraph, but I'm frankly too bored with the topic to respond, so apologies in advance.

The problem, for SJWs, with not being bored with the confederate flag is that it is counterproductive. Trying to make people feel bad for doing something they believe in will only make them more adamant about doing it. I have a model of social pressure that explains why. It's a double-whammy: If you attack me for flying the flag, then by keeping it up I get to signal that I am a person who does what I believe in even in the face of adversity. That's a pretty great reputation to have. And, you're making my friends pay more attention to the issue, leading them to pour even more approval on me. This is why I'm not remotely surprised that support for the confederate flag is increasing among Republicans as it falls overall.[4]

Obviously I'm against racism and a lot people who fly the confederate flag do so in part to express racism. But the act of flying the flag itself isn't harmful, so for the sake of the majority of the flyers who are well-intentioned and just want to express some southern pride[5] or have a nostalgic attachment to it or who want to make some statement about states rights, I just don't care. Even for the sake of the well-intentioned racists who have a different enough life experience that they honestly feel moral justification for their views... I'll vehemently try to convince them that they're wrong but it's a hell of a lot more effective to appeal to the inherently good person inside than to tell them that their views are so black-and-white plain-and-simple evil they shouldn't even be expressed.[6] In the meantime, that's all it is, an expression.

So please, for your sake, can't we all just get along?

~~~~

[1] In fact, I was shocked that this apparently qualifies as a new surprising theory. Isn't it obvious!?

[2] And that's why people should put more bayesian weight on the opinions of economists, since this is what we spend our whole lives studying after all :)

[3] Other than my current sleep deprivation which makes me rambly instead of motivating me to focus harder on the work that has the imminent deadline that is the source of the sleep deprivation in the first place..

[4] I'm actually annoyed that I didn't blog this before seeing that link because I was going to predict exactly that. Oh well; I know I was right :)

[5] And by the way, the need that southerners feel to express their southernness, I can tell you for absolutely certain from my own experience, is strongly amplified by the constant dismissive derision from the rest of the country. Yet another perfect example of perilous neglect of HMOR...

[6] Yes I know that the debate isn't over the right of individuals to fly it, but the psychological impact of a debate over whether a state's citizens are allowed to choose to fly it on a government building is hardly any different.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Pluto

Remember 10 years ago when we were so excited that a new mission to the edge of the solar system was being launched, to map the one former planet that hadn't yet been seen up close, but then, well, it was 10 years away, so we kinda forgot about it?

It's here! And holy crap:


Sunday, June 28, 2015

universal basic income

Yay, Utrecht is going to experiment with a universal basic income scheme. That is, a stipend regardless of other income. And they seem to be doing it in collaboration with economists, although the article is extremely thin on details.

Unfortunately, the coverage omits the number one reason to try such a scheme: it's a social safety net that doesn't result in exorbitant implicit marginal tax rates! That is, it doesn't discourage you from working due to the fear of losing your benefits. This is a very real, very big problem with social safety nets as currently ubiquitously implemented. Even >100% marginal tax rates occur, and it doesn't have to get nearly that high to have a big impact on work choices.

Friday, June 26, 2015

marriage equality!



Boy I wish I were in San Francisco for this Pride weekend!!

And now that we have marriage equality, we can move on to debating whether government should be involved in marriage at all :) (I still think this.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

utilitarianism

As I mentioned in my last post, I have a gut affinity towards utilitarianism, but am confused about the details and not at all up to speed on philosophy in general. Part of my confusion comes from witnessing, and not being sure what to make of, the divide between moral libertarians and utilitarian libertarians. The former group is the one that believes in the inherent value of liberty regardless of the consequences, and the latter group believes in liberty because of the consequences.

The strange thing is that there is a great deal of opposition to utilitarianism among the moral libertarians (for example, Saint-Paul). It seems to me that the root of the opposition is a desire to discredit the philosophy so tightly linked to the argument for redistribution of wealth.[1] I suspect at least a few of the logical arguments against it are designed ex post to support that goal, which doesn't make them wrong, but justifies additional suspicion.

Basically, over time I've concluded that my heart is a moral libertarian and my brain is a utilitarian libertarian[2], and boy isn't it lucky that the conclusions coincide so well. But the more I think about it the less conflict I think there is and the more I just think utilitarianism is not very useful except at the broad gut-level analysis I employ it as.[3]

So back up - where does my affinity towards both utilitarianism and liberty come from?

Utilitarianism: I know this is something I care about because a) it's just obvious to want to maximize well-being, and b) in my daily life, I hate inefficiencies and frequently incur personal costs to get rid of them. I'm pretty sure my boyfriend is the only one who has ever accused me of being a generous person, but when he does it's always for things like driving out of my way to drop people off rather than letting them all pay extra money to spend hours on buses, or for organizing collective actions when I'm pretty sure a valuable public good won't be provided if I don't personally step up to the plate. My best friend can also confirm my inclination to meddle when I see people doing things inefficiently...

Libertarianism: I do not like being told what to do. That's pretty much the sum of it. Obviously that was only the initial root of it, and as a kid I formulated a value for liberty in tandem with a value for personal responsibility, and in college as an economics student I added onto that a belief system about the economy and larger-scale political issues. But fundamentally, I'll admit it, it comes down to a really, really strong desire to live and let live.

If I were unique in this desire and if markets didn't work they way they do, that would be a tough spot to be in. I personally value liberty for its utility to me, and if the rest of the world was happier being tightly regulated, I would have to just make peace with that[4]. But I don't think there's a conflict. No one likes being told what to do, even if they don't care as strongly as I do. Liberty inherently provides an enormous deal of utility! And luckily, liberty also allows for decisions that aggregate into much, much richer societies. Seems like a pretty utilitarian perspective to me.[5]

So what's the problem with utilitarianism? If I can use utilitarianism to support by libertarian view with as much conviction as someone can use it to support their enormous-welfare-state preferences, that's a bad sign. The argument becomes a (mostly, see [3] again) empirical question (which is where the field of economics comes in). But that's also kind of a good thing - if we can admit that we have common ground in wishing the world well, we can move on from the philosophy to the empirics.

I don't think that the practical difficulty of interpersonal utility comparisons and the prediction of the utility implications of various policies is a challenge to the principle of utilitarianism. If it's pretty obvious that I make my friends better off by organizing a carpool, it can be equally obvious that mutually-agreeable trades makes people better off. Difficulty in distinguishing shades of gray doesn't mean that the ends of the spectrum aren't black and white, or that we shouldn't try.

I started this saying I'm confused and uninformed on the whole topic, which is true but diminishingly so, so please tell me where I'm wrong :)

With spectacular timing, while I've been writing this in my head the last few days until I had a chance to actually type it, Tyler CowenScott Sumner and Bryan Caplan have relevant posts with which I mostly agree. I think. (There may be others in the thread that I've forgotten; apologies. And one of those is from 2010 but I just read it, I'm not sure how.)

~~~

[1] I believe that was the original motivation Bentham had for defining it, right? Or is that another biased simplification by moral libertarians that I shouldn't have taken at face value?

[2] Frequently also referred to as a bleeding heart libertarian, but I don't much like that phrase.

[3] I also know barely anything about Austrian economics but I think this is also one of their main points, that interpersonal utility comparisons are impossible and therefore mainstream economics is invalid etc. I definitely don't go that far. Interpersonal utility comparisons are in principle impossible but a rough approximation is feasible, credible, ubiquitous, inevitable, and useful. See Tyler's link above.

[4] Similarly, I'm against public finding for radio and tv and arts despite the fact I personally greatly benefit from those subsidies. My unusual preferences don't give me the right to be subsidized.

[5] There are systematic differences you see between utilitarian and moral libertarians resulting from this acceptance of utilitarianism; accordingly, I'm perfectly fine with a minimal social safety net and policies that improve clearly failing markets.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

books

I keep thinking I'll finish the half dozen books I'm halfway through, but let's face it, that could be years from now.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh - Fantastic stories from his career as a brain surgeon, albeit terrifying if you think about them too personally. Many thanks to MR for the recommendation.

The Tyranny of Utility: Behavioral Social Sciences and the Rise of Paternalism, by Gilles Saint-Paul - Very interesting, but I think he is too quick too conclude that behavioral social science is in fact justifying more paternalism, and accepts too broad of a scope of this alleged justified paternalism. He is also too dismissive of utilitarianism, which should, after all, include utility from liberty. I don't think (but I'm not sure... this is something I think about often) that I require any compromise with my utilitarianish tendencies* to also place such a high value on liberty itself, both as something that I personally inherently value and something that I believe leads to a great deal of more tangible utility for everyone.

NW, by Zadie Smith - Couldn't make it more than halfway through, and only got that far because I was supposed to read it for a two-person book club. Use some frickin quotation marks Zadie! (That is the most minor of my gripes, actually, but the least excusable due to not being a matter of taste...)

Awakenings, by Oliver Sacks - Mind-blowing, thought-provoking, still lurking in my subconscious. There is a BBC documentary including some of the original patients with Dr. Sacks from the early 70's and it desperately needs to be made widely available. The hollywood movie is also excellent though, although I saw it before reading the book and significantly misunderstood the illness based on the film portrayal.

Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks - Not as difficult to put down as Awakenings, but the stories of Clive Wearing and a few others are incredible.

My Point, and I Do Have One, by Ellen DeGeneres - My Ellen crush continues unabated... She's much better on camera though.

~~~

*I know, could I possibly make that sounds more non-committal? I'm really quite confused about utilitarianism...