Tuesday, December 30, 2008

AEA Humor Session with Preston McAfee

Greg Mankiw, via Yoram Bauman informs:
The (first-ever!) American Economic Association humor session will take place Saturday Jan 3rd from 8-9 pm in the Hilton San Francisco (333 O'Farrell Street), rooms Golden Gate 1 and 2. The event is free and open to the public; Preston McAfee (CalTech) will be presiding, with speakers including Peter Orazem (Iowa State), Rob Oxoby (Univ of Calgary), and Yoram Bauman. There will also be an award for the funniest paper of 2008.
I almost wish I'd cut my break in half to go back to Berkeley in time to see this. Preston McAfee (my former research mentor at Caltech) is the funniest academic I've ever met. If you are in the area, definitely be sure to go. And in the meantime, read his satirical counterfactual analysis American Economic Growth and the Voyage of Columbus. And if you ever need a really good principles textbook for free, read his at introecon.com.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

recent books

"Metamorphosis" and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka - These stories took a little while to grow on me, but once I accepted them for what they were, they were quite enjoyable. Something along the lines of concept stories (like The Invisible Man, which can be summarized in two sentences but rambles on somehow for nearly 200 pages) but with more interesting plot, less ulterior motive, and in shorter, more appropriately sized portions. "Metamorphosis" was actually the least enjoyable story by far; I would much more highly recommend "In The Penal Colony" and "A Report to an Academy", and, somewhat out of place in this collection but thoroughly enjoyable, the short meditations from Contemplations.

He also has a unique knack for building the perfect opening run-on sentence, which sets up an entire scene and mood, and leaves the kicker for the satisfying end. Unfortunately, this works better in German, where it is possible (and common) to build up a suspenseful string of sentence fragments and drop the verb(s) at the end. For example, translated with respect to word order, "As Gregor Samsa one morning out of restless dreams awoke, he found himself in his bed into a monstrous vermin transformed." (The introduction to the book actually commented on this and other translation issues and on Kafka's contemporary Prague German/Jewish culture, and I was more riveted by this than a lot of the stories. I should just read nonfiction.)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera - I had high expectations for this book, and they were not quite met. The contemplative description and character analysis built into the story is indeed absolutely fantastic, but the story itself is mediocre and (a particular pet peeve of mine) the main characters are not likeable. Two secondary characters, Sabina and Franz, were more compelling but were only followed briefly, and I suspect this brevity is what made me like them - Kundera did not give me a chance not to. While I personally loved the philosophizing and off-plot rambling, I would not recommend this book to anyone who is prone to bouts of depressed or disillusioned nihilism. Good quote, among many: "Happiness is a longing for repetition."

Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald - I only read the collection of 9 stories, not 43, but I'll probably look for the other 34 sometime soon, despite the very weak start of the collection with the uninteresting and tedious "The Diamond As Big As the Ritz". While certainly not profound high literature, Fitzgerald deftly grabs you and pulls you into the world of very relatable characters and clever plotlines. The characters are from a very specific world - early 20th century upperclass New Englanders, gentlemen from the Ivy League and the ladies they court, and occasionally aristocrats from the parallel culture in the south. Despite having little or nothing in common with them, I feel that I know them well and care about their fate. I think if I were from that culture more closely, I would be at least as fond of Fitzgerald as I am of Garrison Keillor, who tells similar stories (but with consistent down-home realism, unlike Fitzgerald) about the culture I do feel personally tied to. In particular I would recommend "Bernice Bobs Her Hair", "Head and Shoulders", "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", and "May Day".

In listening to these books on my looooooong (relative to expectations) drive back from Berkeley, I discovered I like books on tape much more than I thought I did. Usually I'm much too exclusively visual to focus on spoken words, and too impatient to listen to them speak so slowly, but with nothing else to concentrate on in the car and a broken radio, it was very nice. And since my walkman is a piece of crap and plays everything too fast, they talked at a less tedious pace too (although in chipmunk voices.)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Brown Sharpie

For the math geeks who appreciate corny puns out there, this webcomic is pure wonderfulness: http://brownsharpie.courtneygibbons.org/

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Keynes's General Theory, book club

I rather adore book clubs. Even books I would never voluntarily pick up are enjoyable in a book club. (Although, books that change my life with their amazingness I would probably not want to read in a book club. It would break my heart if the group were not unanimously as adoring.)

If you like book clubs too, read Keynes's The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money with Marginal Revolution (blog of Tyler Cowen, renowned economist from George Mason University). Chapters 1 and 2 (short, you can read them quickly) will be covered tomorrow. The book is online in a conveniently hypertexted format at http://cepa.newschool.edu/het/texts/keynes/gtcont.htm.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Colette, The Pure and the Impure

Book club was last night. The Pure and the Impure, which is Colette's pseudo-autobiographical series of character studies focusing on the spectrum of romantic and sexual relationships, was thoroughly enjoyable. The narrator is a detached observer of the societal niches around her (in turn of the century Paris), and she talks aimlessly and critically of the individuals' relationships, generalizes constantly and casually, but in a way that feels genuine and nonjudgmental. On the whole, she admires wholeness (in the sense of sincerity about who you are, moderation) and criticizes excess and roleplaying (whether mindlessly embracing or knee-jerkedly rejecting societal expectations). And because you know she was part of these groups that she is a bit harsh towards, it only comes across as raw and honest instead of uppity and condescending.

But, most of the other people in the group disagreed with me, so you'll have to read it for yourself (it only takes about two hours. But again, while it was the fastest book I've read since John Updike, everyone else seemed to think it was dense and hard to follow...) This is actually a major downfall of this book club - it is made up of only queer, fairly literary girls in their 20s, and that comes with a whole lot of skewed views about feminism, homosexuality, homophobia, misogyny, etc. I don't think they're capable of reading anything, no matter how innoculous, without referencing feminism and the establishment and subconscious homophobia/misogyny. It's alternatingly hilarious and frustrating.

Roland Fryer and education innovation

This is most excellent. Roland Fryer on the Colbert Report talking about his program to pay kids for getting good grades (and you know if I link to the Colbert Report, it must be good, because I hate that guy...) Freakonomics link

Fryer: You're not the first person to call me racist. It's not racism, it's reality. [Note: I wish I were black so I could say these things. Damn PC movement.] The achievement gap in this country is our biggest civil rights concern.
Fryer: I watch a lot of TV.
Colbert: Do you watch this show?
Fryer: No.
Colbert: It's all theory?
Fryer: I'm a professor, what do you expect?
Colbert: What was wrong with the older generation's way of doing things, where they paid kids to do well in school by not opening a can of unholy whoop-ass? That was the currency I was raised with. [Note: Yes, exactly. Damn kids are so spoiled nowadays... back in my day I had to beg my parents to do homework after 9pm. No really.]
Fryer: When I first started this program, my grandma called me up and said 'hey you stole my idea, I had the first incentive program. It was called the Go Get Your Own Belt program.'


But, now I'm mad because I had almost the exact same idea this summer, except I was also going to incorporate some ideas relating to incentivizing improved teaching and self-teaching effectiveness, and was going to test it during summer school programs, since this focuses on the subset of the student population we'd be most interested in helping, and I'm guessing it would be easier to have a pilot program there than in an entire school during the year. Maybe I can still do something like that at some point though. I'm curious about this Harvard Education Innovation Lab now.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Atlas Shrugged, updated

oh god, ribs splitting, cant stop laughing...


(thanks marginal revolution)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bail-out game theory

Last week Shachar Kariv mentioned something interesting in 201.

Anyway, it was just a pseudo-serious reference to the so-called inconsistent bailout policies of the Fed (facilitate buyout of Bear Stearns, rescue AIG, let Lehman go bankrupt, etc.) but he mentioned that there might be a mixed strategy equilibrium in the bank-Fed game, and that the inconsistencies are probabilistically chosen outcomes. We could have a payoff structure something like this:
Bank / Fed Bail-out Don't Bail-out
Responsible 4,4 3,5
Irresponsible 5,3 2,2
Essentially, banks have a choice between responsible practices, which pay off moderately, and irresponsible practices, which pay off more most of the time but occasionally lead to disaster. Thus a bail-out helps responsible firms, but helps irresponsible firms much more. The Fed, which maximizes the utility of society, prefers for banks to be responsible, but the fall-out of a disaster when a bank is irresponsible is large.
There are three Nash equilibria in this setup. If banks are always irresponsible, the Fed will always bail them out. On the other hand, if the Fed never bails out the banks, the banks will behave responsibly.
Or, the bank and Fed can randomize their response. If the Fed bails out banks half the time, and banks are responsible half the time, both are playing their optimal strategy given the other player’s strategy.
So, if half the banks are responsible, the Fed’s inconsistent response could just be their mixed strategy response.
Of course this is an insanely simplified model. In reality, big banks hurt society much more when they fail than small banks, and the Fed can observe the systemic risk a particular bank failure poses, the banks choose policies before the Fed can commit to a bail-out policy, and the Fed can choose individual bail-out policies for different types of banks. And, more hypothetically speaking, the Fed can commit to policies that otherwise might be viewed as non-credible threats, by passing laws on what it can and can’t do. Really the complications are endless. But I thought it was a cute idea.

Monday, November 24, 2008

recent books

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts - This is one of those books that is crammed full from page 1 to page 931 with stories and anecdotes that you'll remember the rest of your life, and each time you do you'll wonder what you did wrong to be so mundane in comparison. Not exactly high literature, but an amazing read. My only complaint is that the main character is not likable enough for you to become really emotionally invested in the story. He is only selfishly selfless; that is, he's a hero when it's the thing to do, and then it stops being the thing, and he doesn't look back. He merely loves to love.

The Age of Reason, by Jean-Paul Sarte - A very good book, but one that makes life seem depressing and hopeless. And I could not get over how full of crap the character is about his imaginary "freedom". I think I would have hated Sarte, along with every single character he wrote. This quote sums up the whole tone of the book: "Various tried and proved rules of conduct had already discreetly offered him their services: disillusioned epicureanism, smiling tolerance, resignation, flat seriousness, stoicism - all the aids whereby a man may savor, minute by minute, like a connoisseur, the failure of a life."

Thoughts in Solitude, by Thomas Merton - I was in a rush at the $1 shelf at Strand when this title caught my eye and I confused Thomas Merton for either of Robert C or Robert K Merton (the sociologist and economist, either of which would have been worth buying.) Turns out Thomas Merton was a Catholic monk. But I still enjoy ponderings in solitude, and if I ignore all the crazy aspects of the religious life, there's plenty of truth to the rest. It was worth the half hour it took to read.