Thursday, May 21, 2015

libertarians on climate change

I've been meaning to blog about this and a poll on the facebook page of the Australian Libertarian Society reminded me to do so.

According to the poll, which asked libertarians in the group to answer whether they believe in anthropogenic global warming*, about 2/3 said yes and 1/3 said no. I'd compare that to the overall public but I'm finding a big range of numbers and questions are never worded the same anyway. But it seems similar to the overall right wing opinion, or perhaps a bit higher acceptance, but still drastically less than among climate scientists. I'm interested particularly in libertarians because they are consistently opposed to government intervention in the economy, while Democrats are consistently in favor of it, and Republicans are a pretty mixed bag.

Motivated reasoning is very obviously going on; that's the only way an objective scientific topic could become such a partisan issue. But on which side? Both sides are frequently guilty of it, no matter how often science denialism is defined as an attribute of the right. But on this issue it seems to be abundantly clear that it's only happening on the right.**

A comment on the poll summed up what I believe is the reason the right uses to explain the alleged motivated reasoning of the left: "[It] seems clear that many would like to leverage AGW as a tool for greater government intervention in our lives, massive increases in the size of the state, and subordination to instruments of global governance."

This just makes NO sense to me. If global warming weren't true, why on earth would the left make it up to try to force more government on us? Why wouldn't they use the amount of government they can get away with imposing on us to fix one of the many many real common-resource problems? Why wouldn't they simply exaggerate the dangers of issues anyone can easily verify are problems, and that may even require more urgent action to turn around, like deforestation, the collapse of ocean ecosystems, overpopulation, human rights abuses, etc? Why waste so much energy fighting over the existence of a problem instead of over solutions to undeniable problems? Why would they want to invent a new reason for global governance if the right is already so reactionary to government intervention due to fears of slippery slopes? Doesn't it just give the slope a scarier endpoint?

I don't get it.

On the other hand, libertarians have an extremely obvious reason to deny climate change, just like they often deny other market failures. It's easier to deny the problem than to come up with a plausible nongovernmental solution to it.

A couple weeks ago I gave a talk arguing that behavioral economics does not justify government paternalism, and ended by saying that we libertarians should not take the approach of ignoring solid scientific evidence of mistaken reasoning and arguing the point on this basis. I intended, but forgot, to poke the bear a bit by making the analogy to climate change denialism, which I believe is a huge mistake because denialists have removed themselves from the discussion of what to do about it. Jerry Taylor gets it. The argument for liberty is not (or should not be) predicated on the perfection of markets or the perfection of individual decision-making, and where it is is where I usually depart from the hardliners.

~~~

* in effect; the wording was more complicated.

** I should say, I'm sure there's motivated reasoning going on on both sides in the sense that very few people are remotely scientifically literate so most people on both sides are holding much firmer beliefs than they can legitimately justify for the sake of party loyalty. But that only happened after it became a partisan issue in the first place.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Italy and Switzerland


Italy:
  1. Cannoli is delicious. The pasta is great. The pizza is really not.
  2. Italians seem to be even more dedicated to honing their chimney impersonations than the Germans.
  3. Leonardo da Vinci is such a genius. A museum of models of his various ridiculous inventions that I randomly stumbled on was fantastic.
  4. Milan is nice but maybe you have to enjoy art more than I do to appreciate it. It's pretty limited otherwise.
  5. Italy is substantially behind northern Europe in terms of English fluency.
  6. But Italian is surprisingly decipherable based on Spanish.
  7. "Bars" are combinations of little bars and cafes and convenience stores. Newsstands are exclusively news stands and I have no idea how they're still in business.
  8. Happy hour in Italy is the best thing ever. Buy one drink and get a free buffet of a ton of different kinds of snacks/hors d'oevres, more than enough to substitute for dinner.
  9. Unfortunately, Italians (not individually, but in crowds) are quite rude. I'd think they'd never heard of a line, but at the Expo there were plenty of disregarded instructions to please line up more orderly. And if you give an inch, someone will forcefully shoulder their way in front of you. I literally stood at a cash register, maybe a foot from the counter, and two people in turn stepped directly in front of me and ordered before I could. I hadn't even hesitated, it was just like I wasn't there at all. And they certainly don't wait for people to get off the train before shoving on, or get out of the way for anyone in any context for that matter. And on the tram I only ever saw one person actually tap their fare card. I now understand why my Italian grad school professor (Stefano DellaVigna) marveled that carpool lanes are actually respected in the U.S.
  10. The World Expo is quite a spectacle. Quite a coincidence I happened to be here at the start of it; Since reading The Devil in the White City I've wanted to go to one but thought it was in Torino this year. It's certainly nothing like it once was, though.

Switzerland:

  1. It's like Germany, but prettier and more expensive.
I should really write about Haiti and the Philippines. I'm now a year late on the former.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

problems with measuring personality

At lunch we were discussing Big Five traits (a common 5-dimensional categorization of personalities, measuring openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) and this reminded me of the strange phenomenon in my Myers-Briggs categorization that I've noticed over time. In 8th grade I first scored INTP - entirely Introverted vs Extroverted,  strongly iNtuitive vs Sensing,  entirely Thinking vs  Feeling, and borderline Perceiving vs Judging. Nowdays I'm only mostly I and slightly J. I've only taken the Big 5 test recently so I unfortunately don't know the trend, but I assume something similar would have happened.

I don't feel like my personality has changed so this has puzzled me. But now I think I understand the source, and it is concerning with regard to the use of Big 5 in research (mostly in psychology but more frequently as control variables in economics.)

If people are free to maximize their utility of time use,  the marginal utility of any activity should be equal at the bliss point. Obviously we work with many constraints, so I don't expect this to be exactly true*, but I expect it to be closer to true the more freedom of choice we have.

In 8th grade I had no choice but to spend 8 hours a day around people and to follow the strict schedule of activities in general. This was far too much human interaction for me and I would nearly always opt for alone time when given the chance. Nowdays I've carefully engineered my life to have as little compelled socializing as possible, and will usually opt to go to any party friends of mine might have. Similarly,  in San Francisco Matt used to not believe me when I said I was more introverted than him, because I was usually the one wanting to go out and do stuff after work and on weekends. But I mostly worked at home alone,  while he spent 10 hours a day in an open plan office. I would (/did) have a nervous breakdown in that environment.

Along with having more freedom to be alone, I also have more control over my schedule and environment. So while previously the rigid structure and organized environment imposed on me was more than enough, I now realize that I do generally like having a plan and an organized approach to things, hence P became J.

I can't think of what might have suddenly given me more freedom to trade off S/N or T/F, so I'm not surprised those have remained steady.

What does this mean for using these scores in regressions? My first thought is that asking about marginal preferences to measure averages will make people look less variable than they are and will understate the importance of personality. But that's on average. I bet there are plenty of circumstances in which the measure is actually biased.

*but maybe surprisingly close since we should really be equating the marginal present value of activities,  not immediate happiness, which makes work and sleep seem a lot more attractive.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

tourism with economists

We went on a very nice group tour of some botanical gardens yesterday, guided by a sweet old Swiss lady. I don't think she knew what to do with us.

Guide: We don't have any tours in the winter because the ferry doesn't run.
Economist 1: Why not?
Guide: There are no tourists at that time of year.
Economist 1: But couldn't it be that there are no tourists because there are no ferries running?
Guide: [Blank dumbfounded stare.]
Economist 2: This isn't an academic seminar!
All economists: [hearty laughter; muttered discussion on causal mechanisms of tourism.]

Okay, so economists have a pretty terrible sense of humor...

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

awesome broken windows theory tests

This conference on "social norms and institutions", as you might expect, is quite cross-disciplinary. I'm not sure what the breakdown is, but there are plenty of behavioral economists, sociologists, psychologists, and even law professors and political scientists. So, I'm collecting quite a list of interesting new sources from lectures and conversations with these non-economists.

The most fun, and incredible, set of experiments I've learned about are the ones run by Siegwart Lindenberg and Linda Steg and colleagues at Groningen University. Despite having an unusually high prior*, I'm honestly stunned by their results, both in terms of the sheer size of the effects they're finding, and the stability of those large effects across a great number of slightly different situations.

They're studying, essentially, the broken windows theory. This theory hypothesizes that if there is evidence of some law/norm breaking behavior, that will cause people to break other laws/norms at a higher rate.** This is not due to inferences about levels of enforcement, because the findings are just as strong in purely normative (prescriptive, in addition to proscriptive) settings. In a world of marginally statistically significant results, it's a thrill to see such a long list of replications with huge and extremely statistically significant findings.
  1. Bikes are parked in a row next to a fence with a conspicuous "no graffiti" sign, and flyers are attached to each bicycle such that they must be removed to use the bike. If no graffiti is on the fence, 33% of subjects will litter their flyers. If graffiti is on the fence, 69% will. This was so surprising that a news station paid the researchers to replicate the study while they watched from rented rooms looking down on the area. The finding replicated very closely, and now the Netherlands requires immediate removal of graffiti.
  2. A temporary fence is set up around a parking lot. Two police ordinance signs on the gate state "no trespassing" and "no locking bikes to fence". People were directed 200 meters around to an alternative entrance, but the gate was left about 50cm ajar. If four bikes nearby were not locked to the fence, 27% of people squeezed through the gap in the main gate. If the four bikes were locked to the fence, 82% did.
  3. In a grocery store parking lot, a sign states "please return your shopping carts", and flyers are left under the driver-side windshield wipers on cars in the lot such that people had to remove them to safely drive away. When no stray carts were left in the lot, 30% of drivers littered their flyers. When several carts were improperly left in the lot, 58% of drivers littered.
  4. Bikes parked in a shed have flyers attached to them as in example 1. In the control condition, 52% of subjects littered their flyer. If fireworks were set off, within earshot but out of sight, which is a well-known offense prior to December 31 in the Netherlands, 80% littered.
  5. An envelope is left partially hanging out of a mailbox and visibly has a 5 Euro note inside, showing through a window in the envelope. In the control condition, 13% of people who passed the mailbox on foot stole the envelope. If the mailbox was covered with graffiti, 27% stole the envelope. If the mailbox was not covered in graffiti but litter was on the ground next to the mailbox, 25% stole the envelope.
  6. A stamped addressed envelope is on the ground next to a mailbox. In the control condition, 24% of passersby put the envelope in the mailbox. If bags of garbage are on the ground nearby (illegal in the Netherlands), 10% did.
  7. A bike is on the ground in an alley, having apparently accidentally fallen off its stand. If passersby have just entered the alley from an empty, clean street, 20% of individuals and 27% of groups right the bicycle. If garbage bags had been left on the street, then 6% of individuals and 5% of groups did so. If prior to entering the alley, passersby passed by someone who dropped an aluminum can and then picked it back up, 34% of individuals and 35% of groups picked up the bike.
  8. A person on the sidewalk accidentally drops some oranges just before meeting another pedestrian. Normally, 40% of passersby help the stranger pick up their oranges. If approximately 20 yards earlier, the passersby had witnessed someone drop an aluminum can and pick it up back up, 64% will help the stranger. If 20 yards earlier, the passerby had witnessed someone (a private citizen) sweeping the sidewalk, 82% helped the stranger.
  9. I can't find the numbers for this one, but in a mall where you have to walk down a hallway to get to a smoking zone, a certain percentage of people will start smoking before they reach the zone. If a group of typical looking Germans are standing around smoking prior to the zone, though, more passersby will light up early. If a group of goth teens are smoking prior to the zone, though, a higher than normal percentage of passersby will wait until they get to the smoking zone to light up.
Amazing. And while each individual study has many issues with interpretation and is targetting a different nuance of the phenomenon, the evidence from all 9 considered together is undeniably striking.

References: 1-8 come from here and here.

~~~

* Perceived unusuality is based on my reading of the literature (see next footnote). I've always been sure (without solid evidence) that the mechanism must be quite important.
** This motivated a famous crackdown on petty crime in NYC, which did undergo a drastic reduction in crime, but causality has not been convincingly established and the theory remains controversial.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Swiss regulation

This week I'm at a conference on "Social norms and institutions" in stunningly beautiful Ascona, Switzerland. So there might be a slew of broadly-uninteresting note-like posts on the topic. At conferences and during interesting seminars I usually end up with pages and pages of notes with these idle ponderings, but as long as the apparent norm that laptops can stay open persists, I might as well type them directly into blogger instead...

But first something more concrete, but still on the topic: Going back to this topic of libertarian societies, I previously mentioned that I frequently hear Australia cited as one of the better libertarian countries, mostly due to its fairly small government in terms of spending levels, but that I can't understand how this reputation persists given their intense love affair with regulation. Switzerland is another country that I also hear cited as a libertarian country for the exact same reason. I haven't been here until now and so haven't commented on it, but strongly suspected that the homogeneity of northern Europe that  effectively restricts freedom in Scandinavia, and the love of rules that effectively restricts freedom in Germany, would also exist here. And boy, is that ever true. Within two hours of being here I'd heard three Swiss residents independently joke about how there is a specific rule for everything under the sun. E.g., earthquakes never happen here but once every 300,000 years when the ground shakes a bit, every building will be up to code to withstand a magnitude 9. (Not surprisingly, real estate is ludicrously expensive.)

At dinner, we also all had a good laugh at the regimented approach to managing the buffet. The servers let each table know in sequence when they were allowed to get in line, and when I went up to an empty buffet for seconds and went straight to the end instead of around the "correct" direction, was immediately corrected (in jest, mostly, but it wouldn't have been funny if it weren't based in truth!)

Why?? So, I understand the logic, which is that clear rules ensure smooth functionality. But this logic is predicated on a very skewed belief about homogeneity in preferences. And this false notion of homogeneity is exactly what I think often leads people to support too much regulation*. If there were a more laissez-faire approach to the buffet line, a paternalistic Swiss might view the line as socially wasteful, and might view the first people to jump in line as selfishly impatient, and might pity the ones at the end of the line who only get the dregs from the salad bowl, and he might wish to institute this formal mechanism to correct these ills. But why does he think this will lead to an improvement? People who formerly waited in line were entirely free to remain seated until the line died down, and must have preferred to wait while standing. Those who jumped to the front of the line may have been particularly hungry or particularly concerned about getting a good helping of salad. Different preferences entirely warrant different choices. The formal approach restricts free choice on the grounds that this will solve some kind of public good or externality problem, and I have no idea what makes people think that the laissez-faire approach is so dysfunctional, or that preferences are so homogeneous that free choice is dispensable, to warrant this tradeoff.

Along the same lines, I suspect that a great deal of my aversion to paternalism is due to having pretty oddball preferences in many ways (in addition to an independent aversion to being told what to do in any case.) I'm frequently surprised that other oddballs are so trusting that more regulation will go in their favor, or maybe that they underestimate their oddness or the prevalence of oddness in general, even in the U.S., which has the huge advantage of being so diverse that homogeneity in any dimension is hard to believe in.

*In addition to selfishly wanting other people to behave a certain way that suits me, of course. Ignore that for now.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

where can I buy insurance?!

I have terrible teeth. Every single year since the beginning of grad school I've both maxed out my coverage and put off major dental work in order to get at least part of it covered the next year. I've lost count of how many fillings I currently have that I've been told "hopefully this'll get you through a couple years, but you really need a crown."

So, I of course want good dental insurance. I'm a good economist though and am not terribly liquidity constrained, so 1) I don't want insurance for the smaller common expenses that I can afford, like cleanings and fillings (or product warranties or renter's or vision or vet insurance). I self-insure for those things by maintaining a savings account. And 2) I only want good insurance because I have private information indicating that I'm a terrible bet for an insurance company.

But I can't buy it! The only dental insurance available that I can find is the opposite of what insurance should be. It covers the first, e.g., $500 of dental expenses per year, and then you're on your own. I want a policy that won't cover the first $500, but will cover any unexpected disasters that push me over that limit. I don't care whether it's an Australian or American company as long as I'm covered in Australia. (No, Australian medicare doesn't cover dental.)

Help? And why don't these policies exist?? I know health care is just about the biggest mess imaginable, but my TANSTAAFL sensibilities are tingling uncontrollably. Why are these mutually beneficial trade opportunities left on the table? Or, what is preventing these trade opportunities from being mutually beneficial, and how can I get around it?*

*I know I just said I'm looking for this kind of insurance because I'm pretty sure it'll be a good deal for me even in a nearly expected utility sense, therefore likely making me a bad deal for an insurance company, but I think I'm on the end of a spectrum there. I'd expect policies to be available that serve the rest of the population.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

self-regulation

A week ago I got to hear Roy Baumeister give an overview seminar on his research on self-regulation. Super fascinating stuff, and he's a great speaker. On a graphic of this data that I know I've seen online but I can't find for the life of me at the moment, showing how frequently people experience various types of desires, how much they try to resist them, and how often they succeed:
Not everyone who reports having a desire and does not try to resist it actually acts on the desire, of course. Sometimes the store is closed or the other person says no or you just don't have a gun.
Anyway, I don't know much about this field so I'm going to ignorantly speculate on some things I found intriguing. We hear more and more (directly due to Baumeister's research and popular book Willpower) that willpower is like a muscle - it gets depleted by using it too much in the short run, but you can also make it stronger by exercising it over time. But how perfect is this analogy? If we stop exercising our willpower for awhile, either by giving in all the time or by not encountering any tempting scenarios, does our willpower muscle atrophy?

The other relevant thing Roy mentioned is that, apparently, people with good willpower succeed by being good at avoiding temptation. This sounds very true to me. Not that I have particularly great willpower, but certainly in my experience the best way to change behavior is to manipulate the choice itself rather than to choose differently. I'm never going to be a person who goes running before work everyday, so I'm a member of a climbing gym and the campus pool and go hiking and such instead, because I inherently enjoy those things. I'm also strongly inclined to work from home, but because I know that it's good to maintain an in -person presence in the department, I schedule meetings on different days of the week so I don't have any choice but to go in. I get really good work done at night and hate both going to sleep and waking up, so instead of expending a ton of mental energy trying to make myself do something different and then feeling guilty for inevitably failing, I avoid morning commitments and take naps sometimes and sleep really late on weekends. It works out.*

So I wonder, when is Roy measuring willpower as "success in not engaging in harmful activities" or as "success in saying no to tempting activities when they are presented as options"? I interpreted him to mean that these things are correlated, but perhaps I misunderstood, or perhaps the data don't make a distinction. If the muscle analogy holds, and if the former definition of willpower is in fact often achieved through temptation avoidance, I would except the 2nd definition to be negatively correlated with the first. That is, if you get good at avoiding tempting scenarios, wouldn't your willpower muscle start to atrophy?

I briefly asked him about this after the talk and gathered that it's an open question whether the willpower muscle can atrophy with lack of use. I'd love to know the answer to that and the rest.

*Maybe these aren't good examples of what Roy is talking about though, because they don't involve routines or good habits, which are supposed to help mitigate temptation by removing choice from the equation. I'm too stubborn and FOMO-plagued and flow-exploiting to stick to routines...

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

foster kittens

I've taken on a small interdisciplinary research project on the side. Initial results:


Sprout very sadly passed away, hence the shorter timeseries for her :( The two cosmonauts are clearly thriving though.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

programming with dependent types

Now for something solidly in the "other things that you have to be a particular type of eclectic nerd to enjoy clumped under the same heading" category of this blog...

Brisbane, of all things, has a fantastic functional programming meetup group that has talks every month. Matt Brecknell gave an incredibly fun two-part lecture on programming with dependent types in Agda. And shockingly, he totally pulled off the live-coded format.

If you wanna ride the equality-is-a-type-and-other-ridiculous-notions rollercoaster, watch here:

Part 1: http://talks.bfpg.org/talks/2015-03-24.agda_1.html

Part 2: http://talks.bfpg.org/talks/2015-04-14.agda_2.html

Thursday, April 23, 2015

MOOCs + brick and mortar

As I've said before, I love MOOCs. For many reasons. I'm not on the "MOOCs will take over education and replace traditional universities!" bandwagon yet*, but I think they're a fantastic new way to learn.

Anyway, it has been interesting teaching at UQ so far because everything is online. Every room automatically records lectures when they take place, both audio and projector capture, and automatically links them to their appropriate course websites. Assignments are turned in electronically and can be marked electronically. It's fantastic.**

I cannot possibly describe how unbelievably jealous I am of undergrads' experience with this setup. I would have gotten immeasurably more out of my undergrad education if I had had lecture videos to refer to***. And I know this for sure in part due to my experience with MOOCs.

The way I watch MOOC videos is: turn the speed up to about 1.7x, depending on the speaker. Pause when there is a slide with technical content or a lot of words on it, read/process it, unpause. Go back and rewatch bits as desired/needed. Only go on to the next video when you've fully understood the current one. Come back months later when you want to use them as a reference.

Compare this to the typical lecture experience where the overall class is almost always too slow-paced, but sporadic bits are too fast, and/or sporadically you get lost in thought and tune out for a minute, and after the first such incident you're lost for a big chunk of the lecture thereafter, perhaps the whole thing. And if you have a really inconsiderate teacher who both doesn't follow a textbook and doesn't provide their own comprehensive notes (see footnote 3 again), you're just SOL. Hopefully you can reconstruct what you need based on your own imperfect transcription of whatever incomplete mess of partially-legible stuff was written on the board!

I therefore have completely sympathy for the fact that only about a third of my large lecture class attends lectures. I'm frankly shocked it's that high. I'm very jealous of this MOOC-style videos + brick and mortar hybrid system.

~~~

*Recent relevant news: At MR, Tyler agrees with me that low retention rates are a weak argument against MOOCs and cites a new article showing why: among students who sign up for a course certification, completion rates are much higher. So yes, obviously the large fraction of people who sign up for MOOCs to browse a bit and try them out won't complete them at a high rate, but that says nothing about the minority who are serious about completing them.

**Actually this has been my experience in Australia in general - everything has been moved online wonderfully seamlessly compared to the U.S. I suspect it is one of the upsides to the lack of legal privacy protections.

***And if professors hadn't been able to get away with really unbelievably annoying crap like assigning a textbook that defines mathematical concepts in one way and uses one notation to derive some results, but then lecturing with different definitions and different notation to prove the equivalence with what the textbook used as definitions. This was by far the most frustrating thing about Caltech math classes, and if a professor at UQ tried it they would be slaughtered in their teaching evaluations.****

****Well of course they would also be slaughtered in their evaluations for being brutally hard, so I'm not defending evaluations as a metric for teaching or a tool for issuing guidelines for teaching. But at least they do force professors to be organized.*****

*****You're not alone, I'm also annoyed by how many footnote rants I can't help going on

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?