Saturday, March 28, 2009

technological issues

Why does facebook not import paragraph breaks from my blog (anymore), and why does google reader not import paragraph breaks from facebook?

And why does my macbook wireless card suck so much?

kitsch

Edward Abbey says, the one thing better than solitude is society. I agree, with a sufficiently expanded definition of society.

Solitude is a source of energy and rejuvenation, and things experienced in solitude are the very essence of joy and fulfillment. Away from the clutter of conversation, expectations, imperfect external displays of internal experience, raw beauty and goodness bubbles plainly to the surface for anyone with an open soul to partake in. Only away from the stifling conventions of society (any society! not even just 'polite' society; for if an encounter between two humans ever occurred without some suppression of their selves, it would be cause for institutionalization) can we be free enough to feel completely alive, and only by feeling alive can we summon the desire to live.

But we are social animals. An immediate consequence of joy is the desire to share that joy. One of the most frustrating feelings of impotence is the inability to communicate (or at least, to know that we have successfully communicated) that experience. Our ability to communicate, even imperfectly, and believe in a commonality of experience makes this isolation bearable, and is in itself a great source of joy. That is society.

Milan Kundera says "Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tears says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch."

Kundera was slightly off target. Kitsch is, rather, the capture and marketing of the second tear, to the exclusion of the first. The silent shared experience is a beautiful bubble floating delicately in the air, and singing plastic reindeer imploring us to come together in song for two weeks a year are pins aimed at bursting that bubble under the belief that the residue we can individually rescue, or be sold, is just as valuable. That is kitsch.

freedom of information: 1

I don't know for sure, but looking at Josh Hosler's Flashback Charts of the #1 billboard songs on any day in history, it sure looks like Billboard gave him permission to post this data only if it was presented in a totally useless organizational structure. Well, a little bit of patience and a lot of textpad macros later, I now have an excel file of a chronological list of 43,605 days and #1 songs from 1891 until the present. Victory!

So, email me if you want the data. Or if you know where to find data for more than the #1 song for a similar timeframe. Or if you know any database at all that would be useful for studying music consumption behaviors through history.

On a not so related topic, this journey has made me loathe excel's date handling (ie, not recognizing dates before January 1, 1900). Since my data starts in 1891, this royally screwed things up. I thought to myself, well that's ok I'll just add 1000 to all the years. Wrong again. Every other millennium, there is not a leap year at the turn of the century, which in my code caused a lot of dates to be miscalculated as in March. Two hours later I finally straightened it out but am still irate that such a simple missing feature is the cause of so much wasted time.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

gut affinity for libertarianism

Does anyone else find themselves drawn to certain people's writing before getting to know them philosophically well enough to know that they agree with you somewhat closely? I don't know if there's a correlation between writing style and economic philosophy, or if I subconsciously notice very subtle things that only people who think like me say, or what. But this keeps happening to me.

I'm referring, by the way, to Scott Sumner, who writes my new favorite econ blog. I don't agree with everything he says but his thought processes and organization and style are fantastic. By which I mean I find myself grinning while reading because I feel like I've encountered a kindred (but much smarter of course) spirit.

Monday, March 23, 2009

targetted hatred

Microsoft, Wal-mart, AIG. What is it about certain overly-specific targets that attract so much virulent hatred?

Microsoft was a bit greedy after revolutionizing the personal computing industry and gaining a vast majority of the market share for operating systems. It tried to sneak in some insurances on maintaining that market share that didn't quite pass muster with anti-trust law, and more relevantly when it comes to public image, they made a lot of money on a product that was hard to compete with. Of course they would acquire a nickname like the Evil Empire.

Wal-mart suffered from the same suspicion of any business that takes over market share (even if it's making millions of lives better in the process. Billions of people with more affordable costs of living isn't as good a news story as the old lady who owns the convenience store down the road and is going out of business because she can't get as favorable of a contract with vegetable suppliers.) To make things worse, there were a few labor scandals. Considering how much Wal-mart jobs are coveted by everyone I know who works jobs in that wage category, I think this must not be an issue anymore. This article makes my point much more elaborately.

Now AIG. Sure, the $165 million in bonuses they're paying are completely despicable. There is absolutely no way they can be justified by a firm that nearly just brought down the national economy and accepted $170 billion in government money to survive. I don't think keeping on old management with attractive bonuses should really be such a priority! Nonetheless, is this really the battle our entire legislature should be fighting? We're talking about an amount less than one thousandth the amount provided by the government. As Greg Mankiw notes, if time were spent on spending in accordance to its percentage of GDP, these bonuses should take up less than a minute of the government's time this year. There are bigger fish to fry.

Even more than that, do every-level AIG employees deserve death threats? Of course not. Maybe a deliberately destructive individual like Bernie Madoff does, but a low-level mostly-clueless pawn isn't responsible for the catastrophic groupthink propagated from upper management down, even if he went along with it on some vague level (wouldn't you, if your other option was to be out of a job?) And how about the proposed legislation that would tax at 90% any bonuses at firms receiving bailout funds? The bone-headedly obvious problems with such a plan are worth repeating: 1) We just bought a huge stake in these companies. We should be trying to HELP them, not strangle them, or risk losing an enormous sum of taxpayer money on a sabotaged investment. 2) This will encourage higher baseline salaries, which is exactly the opposite of what is needed in an industry where compensation is already too disconnected from performance. 3) Only firms that are truly screwed will accept bailout money under these terms, further sabotaging the taxpayer investment in these firms.

Anger gets in the way of reason. But I don't want to fight human nature (this is exactly why I'm an economist - real incentives are the most effective tools we have to elicit desirable results, and a deep understanding of incentives is essential not to wreak secondary havoc while trying to accomplish a goal.) Overblown outrage is inevitable enough in the masses that I can tolerate it once in awhile, but the legislature should both be smart enough to avoid it and have enough integrity not to go along with it just because the constituency is in a temporary huff. The media will always respond to financial incentives created by aggregate demand from the aforementioned huffy masses, so while I wish integrity trumped money, I'm not stupid enough to expect it to. I guess there's nothing left to lament except flights of passion, and nothing to hope for but a cultural revolution that glorifies measured rationality.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Virginia Woolf

Of all things, the two books (wow that's unbelievably sad) I read during the most recent 8 weeks of classes were both by Virginia Woolf. The first was one of the worst books I've ever read, and the 2nd one of the best. Go figure.

To the Lighthouse is fiction, written in Virginia Woolf's awkward feminine rambling fiction writing style, made ten times worse by the old-style usage of far too many commas which make you mentally stutter between every phrase. The topic, every rumination and angst of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey and their many children and friends, I am tempted to rail against as well, but considering how much I like John Updike, I think I would have found it very engrossing and wonderful if it weren't for the writing style. Very hard to get through. If it weren't for book club, I would have given up three pages into it.

A Room of One's Own is one of the best books I've read in a very long time. (But this is likely because I've intentionally tried to read more fiction since college, and I just strongly prefer nonfiction across the board.) Woolf really should have stuck to essays, because when she is trying to be logical and analytical and philosophical, her writing style follows suit, and I can actually stand it. For only 112 pages, it is chock full of succulent tidbits on feminism, writing, philosophy, society, history, etc etc etc. Fantastic.

Now I have to rant about Woolf's annoying trait that shows very clearly through in each book. For someone as revolutionary as herself, she was ridiculously insecure. Lily, the character in To the Lighthouse that is clearly based on herself, does nothing but angstily question her abilities as a painter, and Woolf herself, in A Room of One's Own, describes questioning whether she really is capable of writing about women and fiction and whether she knows what she's doing when she sits down to do research. It's very hard for me to understand how someone who broke significant social barriers to do what she wanted to do can still be so fretful that she's doing it "right". Don't you have to disregard prior standards to even get to the point of attempt in the face of adversity? I guess, no matter how sure of yourself you are, if you're told you're crazy by enough people, you'll start to wonder if they're right.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Journalism

I generally avoid radio and television news. Most of the reason for this is that it's just an inefficient way to obtain information. I can gleen the important ideas from written news and blogs vastly faster than I can watch a single news segment. These forms of journalism are also much more interconnected (via links and discussion of each other), which makes it easier to put new ideas in a larger cognitive structure. I also find that written words are much easier to remember than any other format.

But after being subjected to a single news clip on This American Life today (well, I hear bits of that constantly, thanks to a certain Ira Glass idolizing roommate, but that's usually my cue to close the door and turn up the music) it occurs to me that the real reason preference should be given to written journalism has nothing to do with efficiency. It's that the quality and integrity of non-written journalism is absolutely abysmal. Showmanship wins every time.

This particular segment, if it were to be written by an economist blogger for example, would be summed up approximately as "while the United States' comparative advantage in the coming years is absolutely in specialized skills and knowledge, so that higher education will be crucial to developing the workforce we need to thrive, it is still the case that not every single person should obtain an advanced degree since an unskilled workforce will always be essential and nonexportable for the operational needs of the country." Ira Glass took the first clause and decided to have a nice, fair and balanced (*cough*) discussion on the truth of such a statement, but through some miraculous twist of "logic", formulated the debate as such: "Will Bob here, who graduated high school but dropped out of college and now works in construction, have a life that gets worse and worse until he can barely survive, whereas I will have a life that gets better and better?" (No his name wasn't Bob, I just have a terrible memory.) I then got to hear about how Bob wishes he had dropped out of high school to start earning money earlier, and then listen to Ira Glass's shock as his colleague also was hesitant to agree that his skills were more valuable in a global economy than Bobs (*giggle*) and then agree to talk to Bob over time and see who turns out better.

I don't think Ira Glass is an idiot. At least, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I'm even willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he really thinks he is performing a public service, rather than dumbing himself down beyond recognition for the sake of better-selling sensationalism and down-home anecdotes. But how can he feel anything but shame for such heinous journalism?! Every single sentence and conclusion confused aggregates and averages for the prescribed behavior for Bob, without the slightest acknowledgment of the oversimplifications someone of his training must surely be aware of.

Last week we saw Jim Cramer famously pummeled by Jon Stewart for similarly presenting sensationalist oversimplified journalism as serious analysis. Jim Cramer is also not an idiot, knows that his primary objective is to entertain the audience, and indeed shouldn't allow his show to be marketed as serious investment advice and analysis. I personally don't have a whole lot of sympathy for viewers who can watch his ludicrous theatrics and still think the hot tips he blurts out in between represent solid investment advice, but well, that's how the show is marketed and people are gullible and overestimate anyone labeled an expert. At least Jim Cramer appears all too aware of the flaws in TV journalism, and thoroughly apologetic for the results. Ira Glass exudes nothing but smug faux openmindedness and careful consideration of the nuances of every question.

Print journalism certainly gets away with this kind of nonsense too. Tabloids obviously exist, no matter sure we all are that a baby mermaid was not found in a sandwich in Thailand. But print journalism is also the only place high-quality, hash-out-the-ideas-and-ditch-the-heartwrenching-story journalism survives. TV and radio is in fact very good at other types of things, such as purely expositional story telling journalism and fiction. But if there's a point of contention, the debate won't be well presented.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Oklahoma...

The recent Richard Dawkins Goes To Oklahoma saga is just heartwarming. It makes me so proud to call myself an Okie; a native of that great land where Southern Baptist churches outnumber grocery stores and Christian bookstores outnumber libraries and schools (which are anyway trying to function as Christian bookstores...)

So the University of Oklahoma invited Richard Dawkins to speak. This was just too much for Representative Todd Thomsen of Ada, who immediately drafted a resolution condemning the University for "[indoctrinating] students in one-sided study and thinking". The bullet points in this resolution are just too hilarious. It's sort of a fun mental exercise to bend your brain in such a way that these seem to contain a modicum of sanity (emphasis added):
AS INTRODUCED: A Resolution expressing disapproval of the actions of the University of Oklahoma to indoctrinate students in the theory of evolution; opposing the invitation to Richard Dawkins to speak on campus; and directing distribution.
WHEREAS, the University of Oklahoma is a publicly funded institution which should be open to all ideas and should train students in all disciplines of study and research and to use independent thinking and free inquiry, not indoctrinate students in one-sided study and thinking; and
WHEREAS, the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma has, as evidenced on the departmental homepage, been framing the Darwinian theory of evolution as doctrinal dogmatism rather than a hypothetical construction within the disciplines of the sciences; and
WHEREAS, not only has the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma been engaged in one-sided indoctrination of an unproven and unpopular theory but has made an effort to brand all thinking in dissent of this theory as anti-intellectual and backward rather than nurturing such free thinking and allowing a free discussion of all ideas which is the primary purpose of a university; and
WHEREAS, the University of Oklahoma has planned a year-long celebration of the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s controversial theory of evolution, called the “Darwin 2009 Project”, which includes a series of lectures, public speakers, and a course on the history of evolution; and
WHEREAS, the University of Oklahoma, as a part of the Darwin 2009 Project, has invited as a public speaker on campus, Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, whose published opinions, as represented in his 2006 book “The God Delusion”, and public statements on the theory of evolution demonstrate an intolerance for cultural diversity and diversity of thinking and are views that are not shared and are not representative of the thinking of a majority of the citizens of Oklahoma; and
WHEREAS, the invitation for Richard Dawkins to speak on the campus of the University of Oklahoma on Friday, March 6, 2009, will only serve to further the indoctrination engaged in by the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma by presenting a biased philosophy on the theory of evolution to the exclusion of all other divergent considerations rather than teaching a scientific concept.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES OF THE 1ST SESSION OF THE 52ND OKLAHOMA LEGISLATURE:
THAT the Oklahoma House of Representatives hereby expresses its disapproval of the current indoctrination of the Darwinian theory of evolution at the University of Oklahoma and further requests that an open, dignified, and fair discussion of this idea and all other ideas be engaged in on campus which is the approach that a public institution should be engaged in and which represents the desire and interest of the citizens of Oklahoma.
THAT the Oklahoma House of Representative strongly opposes the invitation to speak on the campus of the University of Oklahoma to Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, whose published statements on the theory of evolution and opinion about those who do not believe in the theory are contrary and offensive to the views and opinions of most citizens of Oklahoma.
THAT a copy of this resolution be transmitted to the President of the University of Oklahoma, the Dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Oklahoma, and the Chair of the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma.
I really don't know how they do it. Start with intolerance for an idea, invent a new "idea" to intentionally screw with the offending one, and then get up on a high horse about tolerance for ideas when their nonsense is ignored. Pretty impressive.

Anyway, now that they failed to keep Dawkins out of their protective little creationist bubble, they're trying to punish the University for allowing him to speak, apparently investigating whether any state money was used for the event. Unfortunately for them, Dawkins waived his speaking fee for this event (whereas Ben Stein took $60,000 for speaking at OSU. Go figure...)

good music

I've spent an inordinate amount of time during midterms adopting the musical tastes of one of my friends who grew up in Colorado and therefore has very good taste. Playing your favorite Greg Brown song on repeat for a week is great for the soul but I'm sure I'll notice the negative ramifications as soon as grades are posted. Luckily, GPA doesn't really matter anymore. Not that I ever acted like it did...

Anyway, this is one of those things in life that is fundamental to happiness. So go and listen, or you will inevitably be sat down and forced to listen by me, because that's how much I hate seeing people deprived of fundamental happiness.
  1. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings: Folk/Country. Gillian is popularly famous for her contribution to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. She has the most delicious voice and soft accent of any female singer I can think of, and David Rawlings is a perfect vocal complement and a fantastic guitarist. And you absolutely can't help smiling when you see them playing together. See this and this for great videos of my two favorite songs.
  2. Greg Brown: Folk/Country. Amazing deep enveloping voice, and one of the best lyricists I've ever heard. Absolutely heartwrenching. But be warned, if you listen to him you will not be able to continue functioning in your day-to-day 9-5 existence. By next weekend you'll end up in a tent on some forgotten mountainside gutting fresh fish, drinking whisky, and mourning lost loves via harmonica. Meet you there?
  3. Punch Brothers and Chris Thile: Bluegrass, bordering on classical chamber style. Chris Thile has a bunch of albums out in his own name but the best is the new one released under the name Punch Brothers. It's like bluegrass, with extra-complicated rhythm that keeps you engrossed and then addicted mentally, with lyrics, mostly about his failed marriage, that would put you in an incurable melancholic state if it weren't so beautiful and interesting. "I know, you know" is so good I actually bought it on itunes.
  4. Falderal String Band: Bluegrass. Obscure little band from Oklahoma that, I just discovered, has one CD out on a website that looks kinda fishy, but of course I immediately ordered it, having listened to them nonstop from age 7 to 13 or so after hearing them at the Stillwater Public Library summer reading program. Hilarious fun songs that have a ridiculous amount of nostalgic value for me, so I'm not sure how to judge them objectively. Ask to borrow the CD.
  5. B.B. King: Blues. Yeah I really don't need to say anything about this one. But in case you've forgotten, he is great.
I'm sure I'll have at least one more post in this vein soon. I have all this amazing new music but tend to get stuck on one album at a time, so it takes awhile to absorb. It's been a very long time since I was this excited about music.

Friday, March 6, 2009

correlation/causation

My list of things I want to think/blog about is now longer than two mac stickies but that'll have to wait until after the impending doom that is the next two weeks of midterms and research prospecti. In the meantime, xkcd cracks me up (although it would probably only warrant a grin and a chuckle if it weren't for the sleep-deprived delirium as context.)

"I used to think that correlation implied causation. Then I took a statistics class. Now I don't."
"Sounds like the class helped."
"Well, maybe."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Should you go to grad school?

Anyone who knows me knows I am usually adamantly on the pro-grad school side of this debate. In a trade-off between higher immediate and lifetime earnings and the culture and work of academia, there is absolutely no contest in my mind. But this is certainly a personal preference, and one that I have a hard time understanding how anyone could truly disagree with (even if the temptation of a high-paying job might immediately win out after four years of eating ramen noodles in college.) So, I'll step out of that personal tunnel vision for a minute and address the question more generally.

As Penelope Trunk points out, graduate school is an overinvestment for the average American worker, who changes careers four times during his lifetime. Most graduate degrees are not flexible enough to be useful beyond the first career. But, take Penelope's analysis with a few grains of salt. On several points, she omits the very important consideration that knowing things is not at all the same as having a degree - a graduate degree proves you know things, and qualifies you for the many positions that have hard requirements in this department. (An undergraduate degree serves the same purpose, but to a much lesser extent; as it becomes more universal, undergraduate education has evolved into a period of personal growth and discovery and a signaling mechanism for educability, rather than education.)

Also, Penelope is mostly talking about professional school. Law school won't teach you anything but law, and medical school won't lead you to any career but medicine. This is not true of other masters programs, however. A masters degree in the hard sciences and engineering or, especially, mathematics and statistics, will teach crucial quantitative and research skills that are very transferrable. PhD programs, on the other hand, serve a different purpose: such a degree is almost useless in the private sector job market, and if you already know you want to stay in academia, there is no option but grad school. So this decision should be very clear cut.

So how does the fact we are in a recession change this reasoning? It's no news that grad school applications were up enormously this year, but is that a smart decision? For the most part, no. If grad school is not a smart career decision for you normally, it's still not during a recession. An average recession of 18 months may be painful to get through with a low paying job or none at all, but most graduate programs commit you to many more years than that of poverty level pay or huge sums of debt with little upside in lifetime earnings. But, as is the case right now for my roommate who has an engineering degree from one of the top departments in the country in her field and a year of field experience but cannot find a job in this climate, a masters degree could both open up additional doors and be a transferable commodity throughout future career changes. A recession may be an optimal time to make that investment: she might as well pass the down times traversing a significant learning curve, rather than with a random pay-the-rent job.

So that's that. But on a more personal note, watching the experiences of people who entered the private sector last year and were very quickly laid off as the recession wiped out the lowest-ranking workers, and people who entered the job market at the bottom of the downturn with no hope of finding a position matching their skill level, and people who are finishing school now and entering a more-competitive than usual grad school application process, I add this to the very long list of reasons that accidentally skipping 10th grade was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I would hate to be a year behind in this process.