Friday, December 31, 2010

new beginnings

The human mind is naturally an integrator, rather than a compartmentalizer. Life runs together in a continuous, albeit turbulent, river of experience, passing seamlessly from context to context with nothing fundamentally changed besides the arrangement of the same waves of thoughts. Our tendency towards abstract thought, induction and generalization, forces us to cling to every current of life, weaving those experiences and conclusions into a consistent broader story of self.

This serves as a friction against change. Personal evolution must trickle slowly in and habits are agonizingly difficult to drop once and for all. And so we invent discontinuities in our experiences in order to trigger perceived discontinuities in everything else, manipulating our minds into separate channels. We move to new places to forget the habits learned somewhere else, we leave lovers with whom we've entrenched ourselves in unhealthy ruts, we change our haircuts when we want to change our personalities. Somehow, somewhere in the mysterious chasms of the mind, these things have a real effect.

So here's to the most universally observed false discontinuity. Happy New Years.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

books

The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker - Fantastic, fascinating book. Pinker is a wonderfully clear writer. I preferred The Blank Slate because it drew on so many different areas of knowledge to speak to a single issue, but this was great too.

Science and the Creative Spirit - A collection of essays on the subject. Disappointing.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sachs - The stories are shorter, more anecdotal, than in An Anthropologist on Mars, and I would prefer a little bit more scientific cohesion and explanation. But I suppose a lot of the reason for that lack is that it doesn't yet exist. Very very interesting though: every story about a brain deficit or surplus shocks you into realizing how specifically the brain compartmentalizes different tasks that we often don't even realize we're doing. Neuroscience may become my favorite popular science topic.

Monday, December 27, 2010

kindling

I got a new tech-toy that I'm more excited about than any other new tech-toy since wireless internet or maybe ultra-cheap digital storage.

Ironically, I was finally convinced to buy a Kindle for the most un-tech of motives. With a one-month battery life and 8 ounce size, I can take a week's worth of reading material on a backpacking trip without making my backpack too heavy to lift. With the non-backlit screen, I can use it outside and with a dim red flashlight at star parties. And with 3G internet, with a new REAL (not just text and mobile pages) web browser built in, I can leave the laptop and cell phone at home way more often.

Ok, the price was a motive too. It's fallen in half since its initial release, and if I drop internet service on my phone it'll pay for itself in 19 months. I honestly don't know how amazon makes money. Obviously the idea is that losing money on the free 3G will be made up for by selling their proprietary format kindle books, but with a real web browser people will want them just for that and skip the books. Not to mention that it's insanely easy to fill up with, um, various forms of free reading material...

Even ignoring the kindle, I can't imagine what outrageously good bulk shipping contract they've worked out that the free 2-day shipping on everything (for students, at least) pays for itself in increased sales. And last week I discovered an arbitrage opportunity in returns: I accidentally ordered the wrong version of something, sent it back, and they reimbursed me fully plus $3 more than I paid for return shipping. Presumably they keep an eye on frequency of returns...

I think I'm perfectly fine with amazon taking over the world with google. But in case they don't, I figured I should buy one now before they drop the free 3G...

Anyway, I've been using this thing for a month now and have only discovered new good points about it that make me wonder why I didn't think this was a great idea from the start.

1) It is SO easy to hold and read. Just prop it on something and it stays "open" and you hit a little button occasionally to turn the page. One-handed operation in any crazy lounging position imaginable.

2) The text is very easy on your eyes compared to reading e-books on a backlit computer screen. E-ink is awesome. (Something to do while holding a fishing rod in the other hand!)

3) I am pretty sure I actually read faster on it than with a real book. I think it's primarily because I don't get lost in thought and accidentally read a whole page of text over again - only a tiny kindle-sized page. I also don't "read" without taking in the words for a long time before noticing it. The page ends too fast. But it also feels like the gravity pulling your eyes down the page is stronger on a little page that you can read in 5 or 10 seconds. If that makes any sense...

4) Searchable!

5) Notes, underlines, instant dictionary look-up - also all searchable!

6) I worried that without a physical book, my spatial memory that puts things in order based on where in the book and on the page it was would be undermined. But, with the little progress indicator at the bottom of the page, not at all. It's even better, I think, to see that you're 22% of the way through the book, rather than a-substantially-thick-portion-but-much-less-than-one-half.

7) So little and light! 8 ounces, can you believe that?

8) The pdf reading capabilities are much better than I ever hoped. I can put papers on it, rotate them 90 degrees to read half of each page on one landscape screen, and it is beautifully legible. I can't do math in the margins anymore, but that was always a pretty futile practice in such a cramped space anyway...

9) The web browser works so much better than on my phone. It loads the full, not mobile, page, and never "runs out of memory", as the phone did on about half of all pages. No more printing directions for the car or writing down library call numbers or phone numbers or addresses...

...hey amazon, want to pay me to keep gushing? :)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

inequality in self-knowledge

I think that in the last 60 years or so, American society has fundamentally changed its idea of marriage, even if we're calling it the same thing. I'm not talking about gay marriage or interracial marriage or the sexual revolution. Almost the opposite, in fact. Marriages used to last because there was no other option. Now they last because (or rather, if) the partners put a lot of effort into maintaining a healthy and happy relationship so that neither of them wants to leave.

In the mid-20th century, divorce became socially acceptable, and those rates skyrocketed. Over the next few decades, we slowly learned how to make a relationship last when it doesn't have to. We have self-help books, marriage counselors, couples retreats, and more broadly, immense dedication to self-knowledge of any kind, which is a luxury we have only recently been able to afford. All this study has slowly seeped into the common knowledge base, and now divorce rates are falling. So much for the collapse of the family! We just had to figure out how to hold together families in a new culture.

But, divorce rates have plummeted among the educated and wealthy and barely moved among the financially challenged. We've heard the scary statistics: half of all children born in the U.S. are now born out of wedlock (and the wealthy and educated have far less than their proportion of children), couples earning less than $25,000 per year have a 50% chance of divorcing whereas couples with postgraduate degrees have less than a 15% chance. This all just serves to extend income inequality to family life inequality.

I hope that as income rises across the board, lifestyle inequality will decrease as self-knowledge becomes a more accessible luxury. But I wonder if, the longer the upper and lower classes exist in society in different ways, the more they develop diverging societies entirely. Is a stable family no longer the goal at all? Is it the norm to hop from person to person and help the kids through the chaos as much as possible? Are they only learning how to tolerate chaos better, rather than how to avoid it in the first place?

Honestly I feel like that has already happened in a lot of ways. In some neighborhoods in Brooklyn, almost every 15 year old girl I see has a kid or two with her. Maybe they are babysitting, but they can't all be. Even a single girl like that in a rich private high school would be an enormous scandal. I don't think the rich educated suburbanites have the right answer to everything either, far from it, but I think that that lifestyle clearly is less prone to condemning children to an existence they don't like and can't escape from. And that's a bit tragic.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

social science deliciousness

"A day without social science is like a day without sunshine." -David Brooks

A case in point, via Greg Mankiw, this is awesome:


Monday, December 13, 2010

moral wiggle room for billionaires

I forgot to write about this when it happened but it so appalled me that I still want to long after the fact.

Imagine that you are a billionaire and a fellow billionaire asks you to join forces to share your good fortune with the world, changing the trajectory of history for the better for millions of people. Choose one of the following options:
  1. Yes!
  2. I worry that we will have conflicting interests or fall victim to groupthink. Instead let's each go our separate philanthropic ways and hope that our diverse efforts will more quickly lead the way to effective solutions.
  3. I would love to use my wealth for good but I worry that I cannot do so effectively. Let's instead delegate our decision making to the masses and the experts and focus on their chosen priorities instead of barking on an individual crusade.
  4. I admire your intentions but I personally prefer to keep my fortune for myself, my investments, and my heirs.
  5. How dare you suggest such a thing! You're trying to take over the role of government! No single person should have so much power to make the world a better place and I refuse to use my wealth philanthropically at the risk of destructive hubris.
Reasonable answers? 1-4. 5? Clearly insane. But that didn't stop Peter Krämer from riling up the rich Germans with just that logic when Bill Gates asked him to join a pledge (with 40 other billionaires) to donate half of their money to philanthropic causes.

He vaguely defends his argument with the fact that charitable contributions are tax-deductible in the U.S. First of all, Bill Gates's billionaires aren't responsible for the tax deduction law. Either they join the pledge and get the deduction or they refuse and "donate" a third the amount to the government instead. Is he seriously saying that the latter is the better choice, even though "join the pledge, don't get a deduction" is not an option?? (Or at least, not a reasonable option. Obviously no one, including Mr. Peter Krämer, is going to voluntarily pay extra taxes as though the government is a charity.)

Second of all, is he really suggesting getting rid of the tax deduction? It is well-documented that tax law has a huge effect on the amount of charitable giving in the U.S., especially among the top income brackets. Without it we'd be depriving many wonderful non-profit organizations in favor of a much smaller boost to huge ineffective government bureaucracies.

Third of all, what do you think the chances are of a large philanthropic effort producing destructive results? People are philanthropic in part because they want to be seen as philanthropic; if they're doing things that the world doesn't want done or failing miserably, they will of course stop. And they are also philanthropic because they want to do good; if it turns out they are making things worse, they will of course stop. The only example I can think of where a large donation led to a bad outcome is when eminent domain was used to confiscate property in my hometown to build an athletic village for OSU with a donation from T. Boone Pickens. And guess what? That's because the government was involved. Private charities can't claim eminent domain.

And all of those points pale in comparison to the last two: Who in their right mind thinks the government knows what is best to do with our money and can use it efficiently?? Or that they even have the power to address many important issues, or have any political incentive/feasibility to address the ones that don't win voters (other countries, shockingly, have problems too...)? And where on earth did this idea that government is the only entity that is allowed to be responsible for philanthropy come from???

*melodramatic sigh*

Edit: I also forgot to mention that the very existence of the tax deduction for charitable contributions means that the government has deemed the best use of that money to be the charitable contributions...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

punctuation

It never occurred to me that emoticons are punctuation until reading Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, but the thought has been stuck in my head since then. I'm pretty well convinced that ":)" needs to be recognized as legitimate punctuation, indicating tone in a way similar to "!" or "...". It fills a much-needed role, don't you think?

"!" is too extremely excited to be used to indicate that something is said non-seriously or friendlily. "..." can occasionally indicate that something shouldn't be taken literally, but more in a drily sarcastic way:

"That's a great idea!" <- excitedly enthusiastic
"That's a great idea..." <- hesitation, perhaps even sarcasm
"That's a great idea :)" <- simply, friendlily affirmative

I would also advocate for allowing ";)" to explicitly denote sarcasm, inside jokes, etc. Wink-wink-nudge-nudge. And ":p" to indicate playfulness or nonserious poking fun. But one step at a time.

The barrier, I think, is that while these are already in very widespread usage, they're limited to direct communication from one person to another. Can you picture the following passage in a book?
Margaret knocked on Bruce's door and was surprised to be greeted by his roommate Ed instead.

"Hi Ed :) Hey, is Bruce here by any chance?"

"Why... hello Margaret ;) You have something personal to need to discuss with him? He stepped out but I'll be sure to give him your urgent message :p"
Looks weird, but compare that to the alternative:
Margaret knocked on Bruce's door and was surprised to be greeted by his roommate Ed instead.

"Hi Ed. Hey, is Bruce here by any chance?" she said, trying to sound casually friendly, but anxious to see Bruce.

"Why... hello Margaret!" Ed responded slyly. "You have something personal you need to discuss with him? He stepped out but I'll be sure to give him your urgent message," he said, winking. He wasn't about to let Margaret off the hook without some friendly hassling.
Barring my inexistent narrative writing skills, I think the former is clearly preferable.

I dare you to start including smiley faces in your research papers. We economists are already enamored with cutesy not-really-funny paper titles, so it's not much of a leap :)

Monday, November 29, 2010

books

Of Love and Other Demons, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Any description would fall short.

Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, by Noam Chomsky - Very interesting big picture take on the American intellectual view of the Vietnam War, Spanish revolution, and miscellaneous other things.* Chomsky really is one of the smartest people alive. Did you know he's the only living member of the top 10 all-time most-cited people in all of the humanities?

The Bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak - Bookclub book; not something I would read on my own. I didn't hate reading it, in the moment, but I have almost nothing good to say about it. The writing style was sometimes beautiful but usually much too feminine, ornamentally poetic or something, for my taste. Any one of the interesting, complex characters would have made a great protagonist, but instead none got enough facetime to delve into their characters thoroughly enough to make any sense at all. Likewise, the ending could have been great, but it relied on characters' actions and reactions that didn't make sense from what was earlier said about them. The actual main protagonist was mindnumbingly dull and seemed to exist solely as a vessel for the expression of enough identity politics to turn your brain into message-beaten mush. All of the "action" was in identity crises and resolutions. I was never emotionally invested in anyone's outcome.

*Dad, read this and then try to keep telling me that universities and the government have a monopoly on judgment for what ought to be researched and that outside money can only be a corrupting influence...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

octopuses

I think they are my new favorite animal (except for most cat species). They are crazy!

They eat sharks:


They imitate bunches of other, very diverse, species:



And now it looks like they might have an entirely different kind of intelligence* from what we usually think of (in closely-related vertebrates like humans, chimpanzees, and dolphins). It's already thought to be the most intelligent invertebrate, but with fully half of its neurons distributed among its arms, it may be that each arm has a separate pseudo-mind of its own.

And learning that there is more than one kind of intelligence even on our own single planet points the way towards even greater diversity on others.

Man, science is so cool.

*Stolen from MR

Friday, November 26, 2010

science and humanities

I'm reading this sort of disappointingly annoying book of essays on "science and the creative spirit." Contrary to the title, it's really about trying to reconcile science and the humanities in the minds of some very humanities-ish* authors who seem to think that they are two different and complementary approaches to attaining truth.

The traditional division of conceit is between hard scientists who scoff at the humanities for being fluff detached from reality, and artistic scholars who scoff at the sciences for being one-dimensional and flat, devoid of the humanity that makes life actually interesting. As a social scientist (albeit with roots in the hard sciences, although mathematics is arguably more of an art than a science as well...) I don't quite fit in with either of those camps, although I subscribe to a modified version of the scientific conceit wholeheartedly: Science is the path to the truth and its object can be the physical universe or the human experience. Anything else is fluff and detached from reality.

Am I missing something there? I'm really trying to be open minded, but honestly that seems so obviously true I can hardly believe anyone who disagrees is entirely mentally healthy...

It's not that there's no value in that aspect of the humanities, of course, just like there's plenty of value in fictional literature and art. But that value is aesthetic, not truth. Yes, everyone experiences the world differently, and those varied thoughts and feelings and our collective consciousnesses and culturally revisionist histories are all truths in themselves. But that doesn't make them true, and the humanities do not have access to some other realm of truth by virtue of their coexistence. And while we can create many alternate stories to explain actions or events or written words or art, and those stories may be aesthetically pleasing and even internally consistent to varying degrees, that doesn't make them true. The humanities do not have access to some other realm of truth by virtue of its lack of a requirement of discriminating proof to support those stories, either.

Science is how we learn about the universe, our history, and ourselves. Much of the work done in the name of the humanities or liberal arts is a (usually very informal/sloppy) form of science. The rest is art, which is simply the creation of new experiences that science can later study. Art is not an alternate path to truth, it is an entirely different activity.

*What is the adjective form of humanities??

Friday, November 19, 2010

two completely different but equally great things

First, "It all makes one doubt the wizardry of the economic surgeons and appreciate the old wisdom of common sense: simple regulations, low debt, high savings, hard work, few distortions. You don’t have to be a genius to come up with an economic policy like that." -David Brooks

I don't know squat about macroeconomics (I mean, relative to macroeconomists...) but I agree entirely. Common sense becomes common for a reason. I think any economic analyst that doesn't preface any argument for some kind of emergency stimulus or anything else counterintuitive with an acknowledgment of those core principles comes off like a crazy lost-touch-with-reality dimwitted clown. And frequently, that's a pretty accurate assessment...

Then there's this, which is awesome:


I would bet a whole lot of money that the number one factor in the gender gap in science is that as soon as girls get to middle school, hit puberty, and suddenly start devoting most of their energy to being popular, former interests in math and science go out the window as way too geeky to be their identity anymore. Even the girls who are known as very smart are overwhelming so in a general way, rather than a specifically science way. It's much safer to get straight A's and be in the debate or drama club than the math club.

In this day and age girls never ever hear that they can't be scientists because they're girls. All they hear is "Yes, girls can be scientists! Really, you can! No really!". That's not exactly a convincing argument to a girl who hadn't ever even considered the possibility that girls weren't suited for those jobs (although they might not like them as much.) I grew up in one of the most behind-the-times states in the country and never once thought to myself "Huh, I'm a girl, and I'm a huge science and math geek. That's weird. Maybe I'd be better off loving literature." That is, until those zealous feminists in high school starting cramming that message down my throat...

Schoolmarmy teachers and curmudgeonly old school counselors and empty-platitude-spewing school counselors and totally-uncool-omg parents telling girls "Science is cool! You'll be popular if you're good at math!" will never work. Trust me, you're better off shutting up and letting them hopefully stumble on it on their own.

Nauseatingly-girly cheerleaders in tight spandex and platinum-dyed hair, though? That just might work.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

weird obsessions are interesting

Yes yes yes yes yes!

Yeah, I'm very biased, since I have some really eclectic nonstandard hobbies, and am bored to tears by smalltalk of fancy food, fashion, decorating, conspicuously-highbrow anything, etc. But I also love hearing from anyone else who is passionate and knowledgeable about something unusual. If you're genuinely excited about something, chances are I'll be happy to have you talk my ear off.

Actually, that's probably the real difference between those dull "sophisticated" people and the interesting obsessive ones. If someone is genuinely and openly excited about some obscure Russian author, or about fermenting their own sauerkraut and cheese curds, or anything else that would be incredibly tedious in the context of quippy smalltalk, I'd love to hear about it. It's just the manner of acting that goes with sophistication that is dull.

Monday, November 15, 2010

the U-word

You know you've been studying behavioral economics for too long when you're convinced the ultimatum game is the most complicated game ever invented.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

female writers

I will preface this with one of my biggest pet peeves. That is, the following conversation:

"X's are more Y than Z's"
"What about [exception]?"

Even when I carefully follow those statements with "on average"! Don't you people understand that every distribution is not degenerate??

With that said, male authors are so much better than females. At book club last night someone suggested that since we read a book by a male author last month we should choose something by a female author, and I immediately groaned (along with the five men in the room.) It's not that good books by female authors don't exist, they're just so hard to find. Even the women who look at the world in the same way I do and are objectively amazing writers frequently write awful books because they get sucked into identity politics and use their stories as a platform for advocating against all the injustices they've experienced. Or they feel they have to write all these really horribly feminine stories to fill the gap that men have ignored over the centuries.

So of course there's a stereotype of female writers! "Male writer" doesn't mean squat but "female writer" instantly evokes "sensitive feminist". And I don't like sensitive feminist literature. So of course my list of favorite authors is all male... except for Ayn Rand and Camille Paglia, who reject that stereotype in almost comic proportions...

Therefore, a book club that trades off between male and female writers is going to have a disproportionate fraction of sensitive feminist books. And that's why, while I loved the groups, I hated the books, in both of the two women's book clubs I've been in. And that's also why, if you know of female authors with a male style of writing, please let me know so I can suggest books by her if this gender-balance discussion comes up again =)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

neuroeconomics and trained disgust

I went to a really fascinating seminar on Tuesday by Antonio Rangel of Caltech. At Berkeley, despite our huge, renowned, and varied behavioral economics group, I don't hear too much about the neurobiological bases of decision making. But, much as macroeconomics begs for microeconomic foundations, behavioral economics begs for neurological foundations. Despite spending four years at the university that is at the forefront of that investigation, I apparently had to move somewhere else and be revisited by my past to appreciate that fact.*

This, of course, requires extensive collaboration between biologists and economists, and Rangel, a trained economics, is actually in the "Computation & Neural Systems" department. His talk, filled with intimidating vocabulary like "ventromedial prefrontal cortex", had never before been presented to an audience of economists, and the first 15 minutes or so had to be spent reconciling two paradigms of research. I think these kinds of discussions are incredibly valuable as they spur us to disregard our ingrained thought modes for a minute and take a chance on a different approach. Interdisciplinary research prevents groupthink.

Anyway, the exact subject of the talk was the neurobiology of self-control. I don't want to rehash everything (mostly because I'd embarrass myself with my neurology ignorance), but ultimately the most interesting result was that people who are good at exercising self-control when faced with an option they hedonistically desire but rationally want to avoid have a stronger link between two parts of the brain. The vmPFC is the part that immediately reacts to choices and tells us whether they are good or bad. It sees chocolate and says "WANT!" The other part, the (dorsolateral maybe?)PFC, is a slower rational trigger that considers long term desires and modulates the vmPFC signal. If the dlPFC has a strong link to the vmPFC, it is easier to avoid temptation, because chocolate just doesn't seem as tempting.

I thought that was incredibly cool because it exactly verifies my own intuition for what works in developing good habits. I try to eat healthily and not to overconsume, but it used to be much harder to do that than it is now. Somewhere along the line, my instinctive reaction towards chocolate or fettuccine alfredo switched from "delicious" to "sick to the stomach". (Don't get me wrong, I still LOVE chocolate, and cheese, and cookie dough, and doritos, and and and you get the idea, but only a little at a time...) Same applies to spending money, procrastination, keeping my room livable, etc. Ok, I am still a huge unsanitary slob (germs that don't kill you make you stronger!) but it almost hurts to spend money and if anywhere close to pushing a deadline I get overwhelmed by anxiety.

The problem is that this 'method' (other than being hard to develop) only seems to apply to avoiding temptation, rather than seeking out good investments. The only way I ever get any exercise is when I one-sidedly bet a friend that I will, as a commitment device. I don't seek out enough research grants or collaboration partners (or even just classmates to bounce ideas off of.) I don't get out and see creatures other than my roommate, boyfriend, and cats unless thoroughly prodded (I promise I'm not crazy, I was like that long before I had three cats...) And good luck making me get up before 11am on a regular basis.

So, I'm doing an experiment. Exercise is the most important of those things to me right now (I rarely mind being a recluse, don't have large research expenses yet, and I work really well at night when the rest of the world is sleeping.) So, I set up DDR in a constantly-easily-accessible place in my bedroom, bought a cheap craigslist treadmill, and bet my boyfriend that any week I don't run at least x miles (I'm setting the initial bar so low that I don't want to reveal it...) I have to take him out to dinner at his favorite Ethiopian restaurant. And I'm announcing all this in a really public place.

More importantly, I'm trying really hard to focus on how good it feels to be mildly sore the day after running hard, how awake and energetic you feel the rest of the day after playing DDR for an hour, and how good it feels to take a shower after dripping with sweat and go back to work all fresh and in clean clothes. And how as long as I'm on the treadmill I can watch stupid TV shows completely guilt free...

Hopefully, brains are directly manipulable even when aware of being manipulated.

*I was an undergrad at Caltech, and am therefore very biased on the subject. However, I am terrible at biology and never tried to get involved in neuroeconomics research, aside from as a lab subject, so I promise I'm not just advocating for my former professors. In fact, sadly, Antonio Rangel arrived just as I left so I never had the opportunity to be swept into his big enthusiastic bubble of influence.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

gamma ray bubbles

It's not every day that astrophysics makes the "top stories" widget on my igoogle. This is freaking awesome. That link has a neat animation and shows the actual data as well.

(Two huge energy bubbles half the length of the entire galaxy, of unknown origin, exploding out of the center of the Milky Way.)



That NASA article linked above is great if you want some substance. But the NYT article was entertaining in a completely different, hilarious, way...:
“They’re big,” said Doug Finkbeiner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, leader of the team that discovered them.

“Wow,” said David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton who was not involved in the work.
My only guess for why those quotes would be included is that there is some kind of ongoing prank on scientists, trying to make them look as dumb as humanly possible in the popular press...

Monday, November 8, 2010

the dismal science

The "economists as soulless money-grubbers" stereotype I don't think usually extends to "economists as soulless scientists manipulating human lab rats" but this title almost sounds like it. I love it =)


The abstract reverts to the term "peer group", which makes more sense in terms of feasibility. The title, I'm sure, is meant (in a somewhat drolly self-aware manner) to point out how cool it is that randomized peer groups allow causal identification even though true 'randomly assigned friends' are impossible. But I don't think noneconomists would necessarily read it that way.

As for the euphemism "dismal science", let's please set the record straight on its origin...

Thomas Carlyle coined the term in 1850 in the context of criticizing economics for justifying black emancipation, in what is the most phenomenal racist diatribe I've ever encountered. He called economics a rueful science "which finds the secret of this universe in 'supply-and-demand', and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone." And in the West Indies, where fruits were plentiful and black men, the "indolent, two-legged cattle", could allegedly live happily with little labor, the outcome of this law of supply and demand infuriated Carlyle, as "no black man, who will not work according to what ability the gods have given him for working, has the smallest right to eat pumpkin, or to any fraction of land that will grow pumpkin, however plentiful such land may be, but has an indisputable and perpetual right to be compelled, by the real proprietors of said land, to do competent work for his living."

Sounds more like the optimistic, uplifting, confidence-inspiring, life-affirming science to me!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

blogs should be on point?

Various blogs I read periodically offer "advice" to "serious" bloggers (the one who have delusions of riches). And they all start with "pick a subject, and write about that subject, all the time." Is it just me or is that really terrible advice? Blogs about specific subjects get tiring really quickly and I only stay subscribed to them for a couple months. But my favorites are really varied, even if the posts superficially relate back to a common theme. Marginal Revolution, NYT Opinion (ok that's not a blog, but same principle...), Freakonomics, Penelope Trunk, and Steven Landsburg are probably my favorites right now (and have been for ages and ages) and they all fall in that category.

I think people's interests are usually correlated well enough that some variety will attract more people than it bores.

I guess the exception is for blogs that are a source of news. I will stay subscribed to the Fifth Down football blog, the Farnam Street behavioral econ blog that mostly posts new research, an amateur astronomy event blog (if I can find a good one...) and a news blog (again, if I can find a good one that isn't all commentary and only posts the major headlines...)

Friday, November 5, 2010

I hate politics

Thank god midterm elections are over.

I don't really have much to say except that I am SO SICK of hearing about party strategy, campaign tactics, painfully embarrassing Christine O'Donnell videos, Washington rallies, tea parties, media speculation, ridiculous rhetoric about bipartisanship and mandates that magically materialize when vote shares jump from 49.999% to 50, good politicians being martyred for virtuous actions, bad politicians being elevated for hogging the microphone, character attacks, moralizing about pragmatic issues, fingerpointing, and the fact that everyone around me is continually ranting about how idiotic party/person X is. And especially the fact that about 30% of the time I don't agree (at least with the logic, if not the conclusion) and it's really bad for my blood pressure...

The only race that really held my interest was Prop 19. No, not because I'm a pothead... just because the pyrrhic war on a basically harmless drug exemplifies every characteristic of bad government. In early October intrade.com was showing a very high probability of it passing, which got me all excited, so the 54-46 defeat was pretty disappointing (the intrade market dropped precipitously before the election, but I didn't see that ahead of time...)

I don't want to elaborately restate all the arguments in favor of legalization (decreased law enforcement costs, getting nonviolent 'criminals' out of the overcrowded prisons, increased tax revenues, a safer regulated market, a much smaller black market potentially leading to less drug abuse by underage consumers, less violence and fewer accidents as men substitute weed for alcohol, etc etc etc...) The most important thing is that in a free society, the burden of proof is on those who want to decrease freedom, and that burden has not nearly been met. I also think that victimless crimes are not crimes and that "nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced" but I suspect that unanimity on those truisms is much farther off than on the principles of a free society, so I'll pick my battles.

Sigh. I guess the ultimate reason I hate politics, which applies even when elections are far off and we're debating the real issues, is that it's so dang disheartening.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

value of time, continued

Ok let me try to clarify this.

Basically, my point is that your wage rate at your job does not define the value of your time. It's the marginal overall utility rate of your best option. I didn't focus on this explicitly because it's not a point of contention. The only point of contention is with the simplistic economic argument that goes something like this: "It's silly to do something unpleasant that saves you $x/hour when you could work an extra hour instead and make $y>x." There are many things that go into determining whether that trade-off is worth it, but all else equal, it's still fundamentally an invalid argument because of the discrete choice set in salary/workload for most people.

Some caveats to that specific point about discreteness:

First, as Vinci pointed out, your salary isn't the only payoff you get from work. Working an extra hour for "free" could increase your future promotion prospects or successes enough to be worthwhile (this is obviously very relevant to graduate students who make hardly any money but work constantly...) This is very true and applicable to many people. Yet still, the wage rate is not the correct comparison, it's the marginal present discounted return to effort. You can try to estimate that, but approximating by wages is very wrong.

The same thing applies to any other utility that you derive or lose from working. If you really love your job, by all means, work the extra hour. And if your income really is a continuous choice, if you're a self-employed carpenter for example, this isn't an issue (but farther down, something else is.)

Second, a couple people commented that over a person's lifespan, any discreteness in the income choice set is negligible. Well, I don't believe that's true at all, since it's costly to switch jobs lots of times and the possible income/work tradeoffs we can choose after deciding approximately what we want to do for a living and realizing our strengths and limitations are quite restricted. But maybe over a reeeeally long time span... But that means that when deciding whether to take a cab or walk, you're supposed to look ahead for sixty years and decide how to change your career path and effort level and other forms of consumption and leisure at each point in time to earn an additional $30. Of course no one realistically does that, for many perfectly legitimate and non-psychological reasons that I won't bother to enumerate. When faced with a choice between abandoning a simplistic model and rescuing it with heroic self-evidently wrong assumptions, I'll go with the former. (Anti-behavioralists please take note.)

Of course, even if the choice set is discrete even in the long run, long-term considerations are relevant to the extent that we do have an approximate idea of what our future income will or could be. We don't make decisions completely in isolation, we decide whether eating out once a week is something that's worth it in general. If we really want to be able to do that, it makes sense to go for a higher salary job. But, I assumed away these non-marginal decisions by considering a person who had already chosen their salary as close to optimal as possible (which for many people, ie the people who originally motivated my argument, such as people working 39 hours per week at a fixed hourly wage, is still very far from optimal). I certainly encourage thinking about these marginal decisions non-marginally, but only because it's very hard to estimate our true valuations when the quantities in question are very small.

I also apparently encourage marginal usages of the word 'marginal'. But never uses of the word marginal to mean 'of secondary importance'. Hmm, that last 'marginal' was at the crucial margin; 'marginal' doesn't make sense as a word anymore...

Anyway, I think this is really the core of the disagreement. Economists apparently think that our choices of income are much more continuous than they really are. (Yeah I'm so sure of my opinion on that one I'm not even saying that they think our choice set is more continuous than I think it is, but more than it is in reality =)

While the following isn't a point of contention, it was a large point of confusion (my fault for not being clear). I said that it was possibly reasonable to choose less work even if the total time spent on trivial low-wage tasks is more than the unit of work/salary you can increment by. That's just saying that utility from work is the sum of wages and subjective experiential utility, which for me decreases drastically after a certain point. You have to pay me a hell of a lot more than 50% extra to work 60 hour weeks than 40. Even if I love my job (which I do, currently), my enjoyment is concave in hours worked. If I've just spent 80 hours doing research, I'd rather vacuum the apartment or change the oil in my motorcycle than work 81, even though I obviously chose my job over being a maid or mechanic. This is of course extremely obvious/intuitive, but it does not fit into economic toy models that ignore subjective utility or allow for only one kind of work and one kind of leisure.

Anyway, to sum up, your value of time is determined by a whole lot of things and is definitely not well approximated by your wage rate, or even necessarily by your utility-rate of work. Your wage rate does of course affect your value of time in other ways, most importantly I would guess by affecting your marginal value of money itself. Someone making $100 an hour is likely hardly affected by spending $30 on a cab; that's not true for someone making minimum wage. That's true even if the minimum wage guy loves his job and the other guy hates it just enough so that their utility-rate of work is exactly the same.

Please let me know if I'm relying on any more implicit assumptions that I should spell out =)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

books

Holy crap I actually read three novels in a row.

Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem - Beautiful book. Wordsmithery is rarely so good to make the book on its own merits, but I lost count of the times in this book when I thought to myself, wow, that is the most perfect and poignant description of that situation possible. Also, the characters are real and compelling and complex, which is always enough for me to love a book. AND, it takes place in Brooklyn in the same area where I lived for a year before moving to Berkeley, and then in part 2, it takes place in Berkeley. Knowing every place-name and place-connotation always makes a book exceptionally vivid, but even if you have no familiarity with either place, definitely read this book.

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Eh. Certainly good, but I had high expectations and they weren't met. I do love novels that are more about ideas than events, but that wasn't enough to make me love this one for two reasons. First of all, the ideas are mostly theological in nature and therefore of no interest to me. Inexistent things have no intentions to question, and of course without god there is still morality. The Grand Inquisitor chapter, in particular, did not jump out at me; I preferred the family meeting with Father Zossima and the devil's visit in Ivan's delirium. Second of all, while I would have happily read a 300 page version, 900 was far too long. I was sated before the drama even started.

The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster - Very engrossing book. I was instantly and permanently emotionally invested in the story and could hardly put it down. Several parts were downright heartwrenching. I'm sure the full extent of the symmetries and symbologies would be more obvious to someone who understands literature, but there were so many intertwined layers repeating the same themes and conflicts that at the end I felt like I'd digested a fully satisfying work of art. I read it for book club and for the first time I can remember, finished it weeks before the night before the meeting.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

value of time

One thing I always disagree with in cost-benefit analysis that economists like to provide to justify every day-to-day decision they make is the value of time calculation. They say something like "I make $100,000 a year for my full-time job so the value of an hour of my time is about $50". Therefore, I'd rather hire someone to install a new sink in my bathroom than do it myself, and I'd rather give away a box of old stuff to goodwill than take the time to sell it for only a few dollars."

BS. Pretty blatant BS, in fact, that is nonetheless such a convenient justification for taking the easy way out that it has caught on like wildfire among the general populace that otherwise usually fails spectacularly at economic reasoning. (I firmly believe that if the law of supply and demand were really taught well to every schoolchild, many of the biggest political problems we fight like cats and dogs about would vanish into thin air...)

Here are a few people that it is valid for: very successful rich people who are constantly bombarded by small speaking and writing requests that they can never possibly accept all of. Here are a few people that it isn't valid for: everyone else.

I make a fixed salary per year, no matter how much I work (beyond some minimal acceptable level of course...) I can take on extra jobs and make more, but those are at minimum several-month commitments for several thousand dollars. I absolutely can not say "I'm going to pay a mechanic to change my oil and go work for an extra hour at a higher wage rate to make up for it." My choice set in income level is very coarsely discrete.

Having chosen my work commitments at approximately the level I want to cover the expenses I need and desire, the opportunity cost of any extra time I have is only the enjoyment I would derive from another activity. And frankly, if I didn't spend the summer repainting my car, I would've spent most of that time reading books or papers or blogging or twiddling my thumbs. The time sink was much more enjoyable in the long run.

For another example, it's kind of a pain to sell books on amazon.com. You have to print the shipping information, wrap them, stand in long post office lines, mail them, confirm shipment online, and then amazon takes a big cut of the revenue. I probably make around $5 or $8 an hour doing it. But that's a few bucks an hour that I wouldn't otherwise have, earned with time I would have otherwise used making no extra income.

You say I could skip all of these little money-saving tasks that each take an hour but add up to a month of work over a year, and take on another month-long research assistant position? Yeah, maybe so. But after having done that, the marginal benefit of each little task is still greater than the marginal cost. And, I don't want another job. If I did, I would have approximated my work/income bliss point at a higher level to start with.

A closely related phenomenon is the laziness about very minor things that save very minor amounts of money. In this case, people aren't choosing not to do things because "their time is more valuable", but are choosing not to do some nitpicky thing simply because the annoyance of doing it outweighs the benefit. I do things like go to the city intentionally during rush hour to avoid the bridge toll, carry around my free refill containers if I'm going to be back at the same place later, go out of my way to be at that same place later, always always always take home leftovers (other people's too if they let me...), cook my own rice instead of getting a side with the take-out, etc. My boyfriend always says "Is it really worth it? You can buy another drink later for a dollar. The rice is only 85 cents extra. French fries are gross when they're old. Wouldn't you pay that tiny amount to avoid all this trouble?" Well, no, those tiny insignificant expenses are exactly what add up to a shocking part of your paycheck. Same as buying coffee at a coffee shop every day instead of investing in a French press, or picking up a paper to read on the commute instead of carrying around a book, or buying a piece of pie just to use the free wifi somewhere instead of going to the library. Instead of thinking, would I pay $3 to avoid going to the library? Ask "Would I pay $1000 per year to always work at this coffee shop instead of the library?"*

Ok, that's my frugality rant of the week and my anti-idealistic-economics-logic rant of the year.

*Nitpicky point for the economists: I'm not saying that MB=MC isn't the equation you should be using, I'm saying to make sure you're accurately estimating that equation.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Education Nation


Turns out (*shock*) Oklahoma isn't a great place to learn math. Below, blue means "states that do better in 8th grade math".


List of caveats: Yes there's more to education quality than test scores. But this national comparison site is a fantastic first step. And Oklahoma does very slightly better in reading and in elementary school. And yes, I got a great education in Oklahoma, thanks primarily to the existence of OSSM, along with a few wonderful individual teachers and administrators who cared about individual students' circumstances and refused to cater to the lowest common denominator. If every teacher and principal and school counselor was like that, there'd be no problem at all, budget crisis or not.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Eppur Si Muove

So many times I've taken people out for their first time to look through a telescope, and when they take a first peek they complain "I think something is broken, everything keeps moving, I can't hold it still..."

"That's the Earth. It's rotating."

"WHOOOAAAAAA"

It's amazing how something we've known since early childhood can be so mindblowing to witness.

A little less mindblowing, just because we see it daily on a time lapse basis, is the movement of shadows. But it's still pretty darn cool to see in fast-forward. This (incredibly awesome, stolen from Dan, thank you =) video is 3 1/2 days compressed into 12 minutes and during the day I first thought "huh what is that big piece of equipment slowly moving across the construction side" before realizing it was a shadow of the building. Pretty cool.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

self-fulfilling beliefs

I forgot the point that I started with when writing the last thing and went off on an unexpected tangent. (It's a good thing I'm not a writer - I'd have to actually plan and edit things... Hmm maybe there is an open niche for a nonfiction Faulkner. See look at this, an unnecessary parenthetical comment is already too long of a tangent to legitimately be in parentheses anymore.)

Anyway... If you believe you hold more control over your life than someone else, you exert more effort controlling your life since you believe the payoffs to that effort will be higher, and lo and behold, you end up having more control over your life than that other person. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

Same thing applies to beliefs about yourself. "Fake it 'til you make it" doesn't just apply to fooling an audience you're trying to impress, it also applies to fooling yourself.

And according to a new study, people who believe that self-control is not a limited resource have much more stamina than others. And no, it's not just that those who have lots of stamina believe in unlimited willpower: groups of experiment participants were exogenously manipulated with information suggesting (or not) the limitations of willpower, and that information determined their later stamina.

Cool.

Monday, October 18, 2010

overestimating control, continued

It's true that underestimating the role of fate or external forces, and likewise overestimating the power you hold over your life outcomes, is a good way to be successful in those outcomes. If you overestimate the expected marginal utility of actions, you will do more of those beneficial things, and end up better off in terms of those actions.

You might object that this extra success isn't worthwhile in total happiness, since you expended 'too much' effort (just as with noise traders who overestimate returns, they end up richer but less happy.) But I think other behavioral biases point towards too little action even more strongly than overoptimism leads to too much action, so there's really no downside to believing too little in luck.

One overwhelming factor is of course present-bias. Even people who know that something is worthwhile put off doing it. Unless you are naive enough to fall victim to the "if it's worth doing, do it right, tomorrow" logic*, overestimating the positive impact of something can only help you overcome procrastination.

But even beyond that, happiness is a very psychological thing that you can't measure in terms of income and hours of effort. After the fact, I don't remember the unpleasantness of a task; in fact, if it was a beneficial task that I had unusual foresight to undertake, I'll feel good about having done it. The happiness from that lasts a long time and far outweighs an ephemeral cost. Beyond that, people are confirmatorily biased. If I did something that I expected to be beneficial, I'm going to insist on being happy about it afterwards even if objectively the outcome didn't measure up to my expectations.

Of course, since I personally believe I hold a great deal of control over my fate, I could believe this argument itself as a result of confirmation bias... ah the pitfalls of self-study.

*I don't really think this possibility is relevant. If you overestimate benefits, you do so for everything, not just the more costly and more long-run-beneficial of two possible actions. By the way, for any noneconomists reading, I meant the vocabulary "naive" "worth doing" "do it right" and "tomorrow" in a technical sense, so don't jump on me if your intuitive interpretation is something else =)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Kinshasa Symphony

My whole life "documentary" had a negative, boring connotation in my mind. I'm not sure why. I strongly prefer nonfiction books, after all, and come to think of it, all of the best movies I've seen recently have been documentaries. (Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Grizzly Man, Man On Wire, and now Kinshasa Symphony.)

It isn't even about preferring to learn something about the real world by hearing a true story, or by the default increased plausibility of a true story, as is the case with books. On film, especially films whose topics are chosen based on the emotional intensity of the story, sincerity is crucial and impossible to write or fake. If I'd read Grizzly Man as book, I'd have though that guy was a nut and hurting his cause more than he was helping, and wouldn't have cared much about his story. But when, on screen, his voice cracks as he talks about his killed fox companion or he rages against the national forest bureaucracy trying to stop him or his eyes show how simply overcome he is by love of those animals, the story lodged itself in my memory in a way no actors or invented words could compete with.

Anyway, Kinshasa Symphony is an amazing movie about a group of amateur musicians in one of the most chaotic and poor cities in the world learning Beethoven and Bolero with homemade instruments or violins strung with old bicycle brake wires. I'm crossing my fingers that it'll be available on netflix; if so, definitely see it. For now it's only being shown in a couple film festivals, but the slideshow and news article about it here is almost as good.

Of course the story is phenomenal, but maybe more important is that it's the perfect context to convey the struggle of living in Kinshasa to Westerners. I'm sure Congolese musicians of all genres face the same obstacles (except the lack of peer respect), not to mention anything else that they fight for on a daily basis, but Americans and Europeans understand what goes into performing Carmina Burana better than those other things. And beyond the technical know-how, it's simply easier to empathize with a familiar culture. This kind of film may be better for raising concern for Congolese than any reports of mass murder, perpetual civil war, or rape and plunder.

I hope it's mass-released. Movies like Hotel Rwanda lose out to romantic comedies because we intellectually want to see them, but not hedonistically. The same doesn't apply to a beautiful, uplifting, even funny, story like Kinshasa Symphony.

Monday, October 11, 2010

introversion, shyness, and antisocialness

Every introvert is quick to clarify the difference between introversion and shyness. That topic has gotten plenty of attention. Shy people have difficulty gathering the courage to interact socially in the way that they want to, regardless of whether they want to interact with big groups for long periods (extroversion) or with a couple friends over lunch (introversion). Introverts may or may not have any such hindrances, but find social interaction exhausting. For that reason they tend to prefer small groups to large, close friends to acquaintances, and shorter, low-key activities to partying all night. They need lots of time alone to recharge.

So it's clear that introversion isn't the same as shyness. But less mentioned is that introversion is also not the same as antisocialness. My dictionary defines antisocial as "contrary to the laws and customs of society; devoid of or antagonistic to sociable instincts or practices" and "not sociable; not wanting the company of others". The combination of those things sums it up pretty well I think, and is clearly not the same thing as introversion.

I'm very introverted. Sporadically shy too, but definitively introverted. But, I love people. I love my friends and I love hanging out with them. Just not all the time; after a few hours out with people I need to get home to solitude for the night and next day. A full weekend of social activities leaves me exhausted to the point of depression. I love talking to people, but it takes so much energy to crawl out of my head enough to carry on a conversation I frequently avoid having to try. But that's temporary! I can't eat more than a couple bites of chocolate either but I definitely love the stuff. And I certainly am not antagonistic towards sociable instincts or practices (although sometimes perhaps inadvertently devoid of them...)

I don't quite understand the confusion between shyness and introversion, but it's clear that introverts will sometimes seem antisocial to an outside observer. My point is therefore to avoid jumping to conclusions about people. Someone who accepts 1 in 5 invitations to hang out may be antisocial but more likely just doesn't have the energy for more than one (and is thrilled about that one). And someone who avoids talking to you may not like you, but more likely is too caught up in their thoughts to force a conversation at the moment (and would love to talk to you another time).

One of the best life guiding principles I know of is Hanlon's razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." Likewise, never attribute to antisocialness that which is adequately explained by introversion.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

forgetting what you read

I was thinking about exactly this today, and Freakonomics referenced an essay on the subject.

In high school I knew I was awful at remembering details from the books and stories assigned in literature class. I aced the concept questions and essays on literature exams and bombed the specifics. But I figured that was because I hated most of what we were forced to read; I could certainly remember the stuff I wanted to remember, right?

A couple years later, I realized that even the one book that I truly loved from literature class was 100% gone from my brain. I know the title, and author, and that's it. I think maybe part of it was in Arizona? I'd have to ask my roommate, the fictionphile with 80% of her brain devoted to those fictional details I like to believe are a waste of neurons...

So over time I've tried to figure out the answers to the questions Stephen Dubner raises. The writing I remember is nonfiction, pure and simple. Specifically, conceptual nonfiction (ie physics, not stamp collecting).

Also, since I started writing down impressions of every book I read several years ago, I've noticed a dramatic improvement in my memory for all kinds of books. Maybe not all the plot details, but everything I like to believe is actually important to understanding the essence of the book.

I think the unifying characteristic is mental reanalysis. Conceptual nonfiction is automatically thought-provoking (to me at least) and begs for interpretation within a large organized framework. Those frameworks stick really well to grey matter. (But species of flowers or authors of economics papers? There's no hope.) And fiction? It seems that intentionally evaluating strengths and weaknesses of books and comparing them to others is enough analysis and structure to commit them to memory.

The bigger puzzle to me is how other people's brains must work differently from my own to have such different memories. Can fictional plots really be the things that someone's subconscious is primarily preoccupied with, rather than categorization and synthesis of, well, everything? Or something else entirely that I can't fathom?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

24 accents

This guy is freaking amazing:



(via MR)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Yodlee

Yodlee is an incredibly awesome site I just found out about. I'm a little behind the curve, apparently, but very excited to catch up...

It's for completely effortless money management/tracking. You tell it the information for all your (online) accounts, like credit cards, bank accounts, rewards accounts, investment accounts, loans, and utilities, and it tracks all your spending and payments and transfers. It categorizes pretty well automatically but you can refine the categorization rules easily to see how your spending breaks down.

Even if you instinctively live well within your means, it's good to know these things. And if you're a geek like me, all the numbers are graphs are just delicious...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Obama's racism advantage

Obama has accomplished much by having a misrepresentative reputation. After 8 years of George Bush, the time was ideal for electing the most liberal president in decades. Many thought that's what Obama was. Voters overestimate the liberal leanings of black candidates, and so a calm, moderate Democratic politician (hardly different from Bill Clinton except for the sleeze factor) got elected without the fed-up Democrats feeling like they were compromising an ounce.

With all the accusations of Muslim socialism directed at a guy who goes to church religiously (no pun intended) and doesn't deny the powers of markets, he slipped through enormous moderate-liberal reforms in his first year in office with colleagues who were just glad that their nightmares of socialized medicine and setting terrorists free and shutting down Wall Street for good weren't coming true.

The rest of the world changed its attitude towards America overnight when the backwards, nation-under-God of xenophobic patriotic white men elected a black man with Kenyan Muslim relatives and who went to school in Indonesia. He was awarded a Nobel Prize for his effortless ability to perpetuate a false stereotype of himself, and his implications for the future of U.S. foreign relations, around the globe, despite the fact that most of the Bush-era anti-terror policies that liberals (rightly) used to seethe about have been maintained.

But now that the country has settled down from its post-Bush liberal exuberance, Obama is going to have to pop the illusory bubble to maintain power and confidence of the people. I would say that's not too hard of a task, given his adamantly moderate record and consistent moderate rhetoric, but then again we're talking about a country where only 77% of adults believe that he was born in the U.S... with that kind of abounding lunacy, anything can happen.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

No, you're not "running late", you're rude and inconsiderate

Yes, exactly. Oh how I wish that punctuality were considered an important part of etiquette (since it actually affects people) instead of stupid stuff like wearing a tie or remembering people's names that makes people feel good but has no tangible impact on anything...

Sure, I'm late to things a lot, mostly classes. But I'm very very rarely late to things where proceeding on schedule depends on my presence. It annoys the crap out of me that I'm routinely held up for hours because people don't take agreed-upon times seriously, or worse, they assume I'll be late and build in a buffer into the time they tell me (and then show up late even compared to the time they really wanted me to be ready).

And while we're on the subject of things that mysteriously are not considered rude but, in fact, are extremely inconsiderate and frustrating and tangibly impactful, how about splitting the check equally without agreeing on that ahead of time? I am so sick of going to nice restaurants, ordering a salad and water, and then having to pay for everyone else's steak and beer. (Of course, it's always the huge guy who eats four times as much as I do and likes imported beers in large quantities who assumes it's normal to do so.) I have no problem going to your fancy places instead of my dive bars and greasy spoons, and certainly want to remain friends with my richer silicon valley acquaintances even if I have to step into an upper-class world for it. I just don't want to pay for anything besides my side salad.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

books

The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker - I can't say enough good things about this book, but it's dismaying that it needed to be written at all and how urgently I still think many people need to read it (a certain type of people, those who inform their science with their morality rather than vice versa, and who don't understand the separation of those realms.) Pinker draws on every imaginable field of knowledge to relate back to the central point in a fascinating, intellectually satisfying way.

Someone Like You, by Roald Dahl - Dahl was my favorite children's author and as an adult short story writer he's just as much fun, if not moreso. He's a genius at the uproarious surprise ending.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie - One of my best friends loves this book so I finally took the bait when I saw it on a $1 shelf. Not at all bad, bearing in mind I had extremely low expectations to begin with (I didn't know it was written in 1937 - that helps a lot. No new-agey crap). I'm going to write the sequel for extreme introverts "How to Subtly Discourage People from Looking at or Talking to You Without Offending Them".

Monday, September 20, 2010

Henry Coe

I love this state park. Backpacking doesn't require a reservation or set schedule, no developed campsites, not even any potable water, and only $5 per person per night. Even on the weekends you can find ponds with no one else there. The hills of hay, heather, and those sticky plants with the tiny yellow flowers mix into one amazing smell when the breeze picks it up and brings it to your ridge. And no mosquitoes!

Nothing like a few nights in solitude in nature to recharge your batteries.

I accidentally discovered the secret to hiking boots, too. Get them half a size too big so your toes have plenty of wiggle room, and just lace them extra tight so they're still solid. Didn't get a single blister in four days of hiking.

Friday, September 17, 2010

internetlessness

For the last two weeks or so, I haven't had internet access at home, since we moved and they're changing our internet type. It's been interesting.

I haven't blogged, read google reader, checked my email compulsively, got lost in wikipedia, twittered, looked at facebook, downloaded tons of papers, or any other typical internet-based activity that normally eats up a majority of my day. And it's really nice.

I HAVE read half of a long novel I've been meaning to read for over a year, worked out some social-preferences theory-diddling with pencil and paper, gone to school to work in my actual office four out of five days this week (primarily to use the internet... but still), gone running the last three days, felt no hesitation about going backpacking out of cell range for three nights this weekend (I can just bring a notebook and remain productive!) and most importantly, felt like my brain was only thinking about one or two things at a time at any given point. Such serenity!

I've also kept a post-it note on my laptop with a list of things I needed to do on the internet next time I'm on campus, and you know, when you go through a list like that systematically, it somehow takes a fraction of the time it would if you did them as they came up.

So, next Wednesday when we get our new internet connection, I'm vowing to uninstall google notifier and only check email a couple times a day rather than every time a new one pings me, unsubscribe from about half of the blogs I currently read regularly, turn off the computer and read a real book every night, don't do any stupid online errands when I think of them, but put them on a list to be dealt with all at once in an efficient manner at a later specified time, keep the web browser closed by default, stay away from facebook, go work in the wilderness more often, and keep running every day (ok that last one will never happen in a million years, but good intentions are half the battle right? no? darn...)

Yes, I understand the irony of proclaiming this online. I don't think blogging is a habit I have any hope of permanently breaking...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Hamiltonian Altruism

So I'm reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate right now, which is a fantastic book, but has one rather glaring (or at least, misleading, if you interpret the analogy less literally) mistake in the discussion of kin selection, which William Hamilton proposed is the evolutionary explanation for altruism. Even if it's not a widespread mistake, it's an interesting example of the confusion between consumption and utility, utility and marginal utility, and marginal utility and overall motive.

So a bit of background first... the idea of kin selection is that since relatives share genes, and evolution acts on the level of genes (individual genes that are good at self-replication will survive better than those that aren't), genes that cause their host to assist relative who very likely also contain that gene will be selected for. That is, altruism towards family members, and more altruism towards closer family members, can be evolutionarily advantageous.

Hamilton's rule is the calculation that individual genes might be making when considering a costly action that benefits a relative. Since parents share about half of their genes with any given child, and siblings share half their genes with each other, and cousins share one quarter of their genes with each other, etc, this means that if a parents can do something to help their children more than twice the amount it costs them, they should. And if someone can help their cousin four times more than the cost of the action, it's worth it. That is, you should care twice as much about yourself as your child or sibling, four times as much as your cousins or grandchildren, etc.

Steven Pinker considers this principle in the context of sibling rivalry over how to split a pie. He says that since siblings care twice as much about themselves as each other, each of two siblings should desire 2/3 of the pie. Parents, on the other hand, care about their children equally and want a 50-50 split of the pie. Hence, sibling rivalry, and children thinking their siblings got a better deal than they did despite parents' adamant claim of fairness.

But pie isn't the same thing as utility (economist-speak for whatever benefit something provides to someone, in any sense, in sum). If I know that my brother really loves pie and I'm pretty ambivalent about it, I might want him to get much more than 1/3 of it.

Beyond that, at any given moment, marginal utility is more relevant than absolute utility. I don't want to divide a whole pie with my brother, I want to divide each individual bite separately. Say my brother loves every bite of pie equally, but I get sick of it quickly. The first few bites, I like pie at least half as much as my brother, so I keep every bite for myself. But soon I get sick of it, and I let my brother eat the rest. It's unclear, then, how much of the total pie I want my brother to have.

But, note that if utility is concave and the same for each child, it is true that parents want to split the pie evenly between their children. That's because if the allocation is ever uneven, it helps the pie-poor child to get one more bite more than it hurts the pie-rich child to get a bite less. On the other hand, concavity gets us nowhere in predicting how much each child wants to share. If utility is linear, every child wants to eat the entire pie. If utility is concave, the child may still want to eat the entire pie, none at all, or until they dislike continuing to eat. Or any other amount.

Even this is an incorrect way to view Hamilton's rule of pie. Evolution doesn't select for happiness, it selects for reproductive success. And what is the chance that an extra bite of pie will increase the number of my brother's offspring more than twice as much as it increases mine? Pretty much nil, unless my brother is on the brink of starvation. No matter how much I know my brother loves pie compared to me, I will want to eat the pie until I'm thoroughly sick of it.

Steven Pinker is brilliant and, what makes me love him especially, precise. Might as well get this detail right too. Maybe kin selection led to altruism in an environment where everyone was on the brink of death and every kind act pulled the recipient back from the edge, but that's hardly true in today's society, even if that ingrained impulse generalizes to giving change to the homeless guy on the corner so he can get on the bus or buy a beer.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

logging

And now for something totally different that no one who reads it will possibly care about =) (That is, keeping with tradition...)

The age-old debate among amateur astronomers: to log or not to log, and in what detail? I say, log, sketch, describe, and record details about conditions and equipment, but don't bother with the object details that are easily looked up in any database. I write down time, date, location, seeing, transparency, equipment used, description, and sketch (in a circle traced from an altoids tin lid). Not too cumbersome but more than adequate.

And, don't bother with the specially marketed logging notebooks. They will never be exactly right for your preferences and aren't flexible enough for the many situations you encounter. I use very small circles for multiple stars, bigger for standard deep sky objects, bigger yet for huge and detailed open and globular clusters, and lots of circles mashed together when several interesting things are within a field of view or two from each other. Some descriptions are very short, others very long. I don't keep a list of transparency test stars (and find it incredibly tedious to accurately measure transparency, so I guess and round...), but I do have a list of eyepiece specs, Messier observation page numbers, etc. And I like to write down details about the trip and people and events in a diarylike fashion, right with the deep space observations. It's just easier to use a standard quadrille notebook and mold it to my purposes.

What's the purpose of all that work? At least tenfold:

  1. Logging objects lets you keep track of what you've seen in what conditions, so you don't fall into the trap of looking at the same dozen objects every time just because you like them and don't want to look up new things. Or you forgot you've already seen it. Easy to do with names like "IC1322".
  2. Drawing forces you to notice details that you would otherwise never see, and remember them. Without that detail, every object is just another grey smudge after you've seen the first dozen.
  3. Drawing forces you to improve your observational skills since you can compare your drawings to photographs and others' drawings for accuracy and things missed.
  4. Logging forces you to learn more of the scientific context, since to describe accurately you need to know what it is and how far it is and technical details like magnitude, degree of separation, etc. It's more satisfying to say "rich starforming region ~10 arcminutes across but obscured by dust cloud" than "brighter fuzzy patch next to a sort of darkish area".
  5. Describing objects forces you to notice more detail and also to mentally compare each object to the others you've seen, which gives you a growing context of understanding. You can't say "smallish cluster with a bright core" without knowing what is average size and average core brightness.
  6. Logbooks are incredibly fun to re-read over the years. It's stunning the level of crappiness of my earliest observations. And since I recorded all the details about my first star parties and astronomy camp etc etc, I'll always be able to relive those things.
  7. You will always have a reference when you can't remember what that cool green planetary nebula was or who gave a talk on galaxy clusters. It's like a research logbook in that way, which I also keep in a detailed manner (formerly in a notebook, now in the form of every version of every file and tons and tons of notes in text files and annotated pdfs...)
  8. You can use these logs to acquire Astronomical League observing club pins, since they require proof of every observation. It would be silly to start from scratch if you've already seen many of the objects.
  9. You can confirm your observations of very difficult objects by comparing your drawing to the digital sky survey. Lingering doubt makes it not very satisfying to say "I saw NGC4565" when you really mean "I think I kind of saw something in that area when I averted my eyes and jiggled the scope, maybe..."
  10. It's fun!

The downside to logging in this level of detail, of course, is that it takes a long time and is potentially very tedious (as when drawing a dense resolvable open cluster... try drawing 300 precisely-placed dots in a circle sometime...) I can observe every Messier object in a single night in March, but I'm still working on drawing them all. But it's definitely worth it! The longer it's been since I logged something, the happier I am that I did. Exponential returns!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

partisan versions of reality

I was recently in a position of being asked my political opinion as the local economic authority by people I don't necessarily agree with but who expected me to uphold their positions. Thinking about what I could have said (other than nodding and squeaking out some noncommittal platitudes), and listening to them discuss further amongst themselves, I realized that my main beef with Democrats, unlike my beef with Republicans, is mostly factual rather than ideological.

I suppose that's why, in this two-party-option society, I instinctively side with the Democrats despite having large differences with both. Then again, it could also be because while I agree with the stated positions of Republicans on non-social issues, the logic of the majority in getting there is just as faulty as the Democrats'...

The root of the problem, of course, is utter economic ignorance and/or denial of the power of incentives. You may or may not think it's a price society should be willing to pay, but laws setting the minimum wage above the market level DOES increase unemployment. Unemployment insurance DOES increase the amount of time people spend unemployed. Shortening pharmaceutical patents or fixing the price of prescription drugs WILL decrease innovation. People from other countries DO come to the U.S. for specialized medical treatments (and our private universities and many other things) that they can't get in the public systems in their own country. Redistribution DOES reduce the overall size of the pie. There IS an unavoidable choice between long lines and high prices. Trade-offs exist in every economic choice. There is no free lunch.

If everyone could just accept that reality and stop bickering over things that can't possibly be true, the ideological differences would pale in comparison. Yeah, I definitely err on the "when in doubt, choose freedom" and "people rise to expectations, let them take care of themselves and each other" - ie small government - end of the ideological spectrum. But I'm certainly not opposed to the government doing things it can do to help people in minimally-distortionary ways and without enormous unintended economic/political consequences down the road. The amount of wealth in the U.S. is hugely more than is needed to feed the entire population. If the government wants to guarantee basic survival, I have no major problem with that. But the promises the Democrats want the government to make are orders of magnitude larger than that, and completely unrealistic and infeasible. Sure it'd be great if everyone could have the middle-class lifestyle that the far left likes to yell is a 'civil right' (don't get me started on the abuse of that phrase...), but we don't live in Neverland.

There's already so much needless bickering and grandstanding in politics, can we at least have a little humility and be honest about the unavoidable costs of what we want to do and focus on persuading people we should do it anyway?

And also, integrate economics and statistics into the standard high school curriculum...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Earth to Newt Gingrich

Germans : Nazis :: Muslims : Al Qaeda

...and even if that weren't true, as long as the first amendment is around, even Nazis are allowed to hold up signs next to the Holocaust museum...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Scientist At Work


(I mention this now because the last four posts are about Jake's trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo with his advisor at AMNH, Melanie Stiassny =)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Good old Daily Okie

The "maps that show Oklahoma as an outlier in new funny ways" category of this blog is mostly a joke, since I like maps, Oklahoma, and even moreso making fun of Oklahoma... but then I see this and it fits too perfectly to ignore =)

"Slant" is a measure of extreme partisan language; higher is more right-wing. The other axis is a user rating of conservativeness. Guess which newspaper is way up in the top right corner?

Source: Gentzkow and Shapiro, 2010.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

school of life

Things I learned while re-doing the body of my car for more hours than I can count on the street in front of my apartment (and I'm still not done. Field exams put everything else on hold...):
  1. The best way to meet your neighbors is to spend a lot of time outside doing something people like to talk about. I didn't know anyone in the building or neighborhood at all, but now I know the guy from the tool library who bikes past my house to and from work every day, and his grandson, and the guy Deangelo who bikes around with his tiny dog all day, and the lady named Green next door and her toddler son, and the couple across the street who like to ask questions, and the old guy across the street, and the lesbian couple next door, and the guy who seems to rent a room from Green, and the guy across the street who went to autobody school.
  2. If you act like you know what you're doing, people assume you know what you're doing. I hated to disappoint the guy who wanted advice on how to fix his car, and the woman who wanted to know if I owned an autobody shop she could bring her car to, with the response "I have no earthly idea what I'm doing, I'm making it up as I go along with some help from Google."
  3. Paint stripper advertisements are utter crap. "Strip your car in one hour with chemical paint stripper" HA! Expect to spend hours and hours with a scraper on each layer of paint.
  4. Hardware stores are even MORE fun than office supply stores. So much potential!
  5. Men are very in awe or intimidated by women working on cars, and women are overly congratulatory. I really think it's anti-feminist to make a big deal about women doing stereotypically male things. There might not be such a persistent gender gap if girls weren't constantly told how amazing they are to attempt anything male-dominated, implying that it's so much harder than it really is.
  6. Hispanics are generally more sexist than whites, who are more sexist than blacks. One hispanic guy couldn't even speak English but stuttered along until getting across the sentence "Isn't that too big a job for a lady?" The whites are a little better with "Not every day you see a woman doing what you're doing, way to go." The blacks almost never mention gender at all, and express more respect in the subtle manner of asking honest questions.
  7. People overestimate how difficult auto-body work is, and the auto-body business is a giant scam exploiting that fact. $600 to replace one window in your car? Try $50 in parts, and 20 minutes of work that anyone can do very very easily. Sure, sanding down a dent, filling it in with bondo, and repainting the area is a bit of a pain in the neck, but still only a few hours of labor and $30 of materials, not $1600, which is how much I got from the other guy's insurance company when someone backed into my door in a parking lot a few years back. I think the problem is that since cars are so expensive, people are terrified to try to repair them by hand, so they never learn how easy it is. I didn't try either until my car had accrued so much damage that I had nothing to lose...
  8. Despite the sexism, it made me smile when the woman across the street wanted to know if I own a shop she could go to because "us women got to support each other." That's so much better than the typical female backstabbing. And it's nice to know if I get sick of economics and open an auto-body/motorcycle/popsicle shop instead, I can corner the female market share... (Well, I already knew that, since the "women owned and operated" motorcycle shop Werkstatt in SF charges about 50% more than anywhere else for standard maintenance.) Not that I would ever try such a thing. I could never do anything girl-power-ish without gagging.
  9. Don't sit in a puddle of paint stripper - it BURNS. And always wear a dust mask when sanding to avoid paint-inhalation headaches. And don't get impatient when using screw cutters. And use low-gage wiring for heat guns. And keep your fingers away from the sandpaper clamps. And don't spray-paint in erratic winds. And mineral spirits would be more fittingly named miracle spirits.
  10. Those career predictor tests in elementary school that always told me I should be a mechanic were probably right.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Brownian Bummer Theorem

There isn't a single google hit for the phrase "Brownian Bummer". I am going to rectify that. All funny phrases that are lucky enough to mean something should be google represented.

Koszegi and Rabin (2009) presents a model of news-utility prospect theory in which people are loss averse over changes in beliefs about future consumption. As a result, people would rather learn about some future outcome (such as the value of their retirement portfolio) all at once rather than updated on a daily basis, since the psychological losses and gains are always, ceteris paribus, dominated by losses due to loss aversion.

An omitted result in the paper is the Brownian Bummer theorem, which says that in the limit, as you update your beliefs more and more frequently, this leads to pure torture (in utility terms of course).

*giggle* I like funny theorem names...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Prop 8

Woohoo. Now let's win it in the Supreme Court so we can put all the nonsense behind us once and for all.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mars is normal right now

My mom sent me a hilarious email recently, asking if it was a joke or not. Unfortunately it's not, but very wrong nonetheless. As much as I'd love to see what new insane features this rumor acquires as it mutates through time**, this has gone on long enough...

"Two moons on August 27" was the tagline. "Planet Mars will be the brightest in the night sky starting August. It will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. This will culminate on Aug. 27 when Mars comes within 34.65M miles off earth. Be sure to watch the sky on Aug. 27 12:30 am. It will look like the earth has 2 moons. The next time Mars may come this close is in 2287."

The best part though, is the picture showing what it allegedly will look like:


To any astronomy buff, this should of course be instantly recognizable as a photo taken by the Cassini spacecraft as it orbits Saturn, of two of Saturns moons hovering over the rings. I can't find the exact image attributed to Cassini, but here's a similar example, showing Dione (the larger moon) and Mimas in crescent phase over the rings (Dione is additionally lit up on the 'dark side' by Saturn off to the right. Mimas is much farther forward, on the near side of Saturn, so it's not):


Pretty, huh? But no matter how close any other planet gets to Earth, we're never going to see "two moons" in our sky. You'll have to fly to Mars for that. Sorry.

Anyway, as already documented on all those websites like snopes, this email has been going around since 2003 when Mars did indeed come closer to the Earth on August 27th than it had in over 60,000 years - all of human history. But even then, to the naked eye it only looked like a very bright orange dot. You'd need a telescope to appreciate the increase in angular size of the disc.

So if you get an email like this, please tell them it is both grossly incorrect and seven years out of date, and instead tell them that Jupiter is reaching opposition on September 21, and this is when it will be the closest to us in 12 years, since Jupiter is nearing perihelion (which occurs in March 2011). That is, when Jupiter is closest to the sun (perihelion), which happens once every Jupiter-year or once ever 11.8 Earth-years, we can get as close as possible to Jupiter by being directly between it and the sun (opposition). We are directly between Jupiter and the sun once every 1.1 Earth-years (a little more than a year because Jupiter orbits in the same direction as us, so we have to catch up a bit after going back to the same point in the solar system that we were in during opposition the year before), so every 12 oppositions is a particularly good one. That's this September. Make sure you get a look at it through a telescope at high magnification. Pretty spectacular.

**Natural selection depends on two things: a source of mutation, and replication. I understand the replication of these emails. Gullible preteens forwarding every email they get to all of their friends, a fad that has recently been transferred to middle-aged women as well... but where is the mutation? Who decided to add a picture of Saturn? Who changes the year of the alleged event every year? Is there some secret club of astronomers who are giggling as they see how many new ludicrous details they can get to catch on??