Thursday, December 31, 2009

best of the decade

Happy New Year!

(I'm not up on popular culture enough to pay attention to only new things so this stuff isn't strictly from 2009 or the decade, just found by me therein...)

Favorite books in 2009: The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, A Happy Marriage by Rafael Yglesias, Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

... and in the 2000s: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig, and Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter.

Favorite movies in 2009: A Serious Man, and Fast Cheap and Out of Control

... and in the 2000s: Amelie, and Waking Life

Favorite music in 2009: Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Greg Brown, Derek Trucks, the Bowmans, Lucinda Williams

... and in the 2000s: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Tegan and Sara, Simon and Garfunkel, Third Eye Blind, and Brahms

Favorite TV show in 2009: Modern Family

... and in the 2000s: Friends and West Wing

Favorite hobbies in 2009: bluegrass music and natural hot springs

... and in the 2000s: amateur astronomy, motorcycling, camping, programming, math, and taking care of cats

Favorite economic theories in 2009: prospect theory, quantal response equilibrium, and probabilistic voting

... and in the 2000s: everything and only things micro

Favorite math subjects in 2009: Um I haven't exactly learned much math lately but have to include this for the decade category...

... and in the 2000s: Galois theory, algebraic topology, and all things combinatorics

Most exhilarating experience in 2009: seeing the Punch Brothers live at Night Grass at Telluride Bluegrass Festival

... and in the 2000s: bungee jumping, and all those startling near-death motorcycle incidents that I would prefer to avoid but sure are exhilarating in the strict sense of the word

Favorite place in 2009: Telluride, CO, and Great Sand Dunes National Park

... and in the 2000s: New York City (esp. Central Park), and the inner Grand Canyon

Favorite software in 2009: TeXShop (Stata is decidedly OFF the list despite the fact I'm forced to use it more than anything else. Take your stupid one-at-a-time rectangular data spaces and give me R any day.)

... and in the 2000s: R, Excel (yes believe it folks, Excel pre-2007 is unbelievably awesome when exploited in the right ways), Picasa

Favorite innovation in 2009: NFL game rewind online, ultra-cheap external hard drives, red bull

... and in the 2000s: wireless internet, the obsolescence of the traditional audible use of telephones, motorcycles, diet coke/diet mountain dew/red bull, google scholar/search/mail/earth/picasa/books...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

John Mackey

is awesome. (Even if the author of the piece doesn't fully realize it.)

paths to reason

As a child or young adult, one of the intellectual questions that most frequently possessed me was the existence of god. By college I had exhausted of the debate and considered the question totally resolved, so that by the time I developed this compulsive blogging habit, it no longer held my interest. However, issues of religion in general were not included in my original strictly epistemological contemplations, and my views on that wide of array of issues has continued to evolve over time and is most certainly not set in stone, so this is still interesting conversational fodder to me. Additionally, recent readings (Christopher Hitchens) have put me in the mood to lay out explicitly some of the earlier abandoned conclusions. So I'll probably be putting some chunks of religious philosophy (or just criticism, to put it less politely and more accurately) up here in the near future.

But there is a pretext that needs to be written first, which is my particular religious background and the path I took away from faith, which I think is sufficiently unique to be worth clarifying. Interpretation is always colored by the background of the speaker. So here's a brief description that can serve as a footnote to future religious discussion.

I was raised Presbyterian. My young life was more consumed by church activities than by anything else (except maybe music if you include the church-based music activities). My mom is the organist, my brother is following in her footsteps, and my dad sings in the choir. I went to church every single Sunday, multiple times on special weeks and every possible special holiday service. I went to Sunday school every single week and completed the confirmation class in junior high. I was in the children's choir, the youth choir, the handbell choir, the youth group, went to vacation bible school every year, and volunteered at the Wednesday after school program. I went to church camp, did all the fundraisers and projects, and spent countless afternoons just hanging out at church while my mom practiced, stamping envelopes and such.

Despite this extreme level of involvement at church, I never really got it into my head that faith was a truly important part of life. I took it for granted until I was 9 and went through the motions, with sincerity, of everything you're supposed to do, but I think the aura of "family business" that church had due to my mom's employment prevented any real sense of reverence from developing. Talk about church was about workplace politics rather than the meaning and importance of faith, which therefore never was something I held deeply personally and was horrified to abandon. But it was also not something I resented or was mistrustful of, it was just there, a nonnegotiable part of life like breakfast and spelling tests. (The eventual resentment was a result, not a cause, of atheism - after writing off religion, the high forced level of participation obviously got aggravating quickly.)

Somewhere around age 9 I had an epiphany that god is nothing but Santa Claus for adults, an invisible threat/reward system designed to induce good behavior, and probably somewhere along the line one generation had forgotten to inform the next about the charade. I quibbled about epistemological details for a few years after that, sometimes preferring the 'agnostic' label, but that was basically it. (And I obviously modified the Santa Claus story to something closer to, as Hitchens so wonderfully puts it, "[Religion] comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge, as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs.")

The point is, I never spent much mental effort on questions of internal inconsistency of religious logic, or the reprehensibility of religious morality, etc. There was no reason to think supernatural things existed, and so the rest was a moot point. This was a convenient license to continue to ignore sunday school lessons and biblical teachings in church, so that I am to this day supremely and woefully ignorant of religious mythology, history and literature. The burden of proof is on the other side, so they can nitpick over Hebrew translations and Bible verses all they want, but I don't need to.

The other point is that it's somewhat unusual to go from extreme religious involvement to atheism in a sudden step. Society is absolutely becoming more secular, but this is a slow trend of lapsing practice reinforced over generations, rather than a slew of individual epiphanies. Either way towards society-wide skepticism is fine with me, but I (admittedly conceitedly) have a huge appreciation for the active step of breaking out of a philosophical system previously taken for granted. Most of my friends are not religious for one reason or another but it's the ones who were raised seriously religious and broke free independently that I feel I can really relate to on this subject.

Another notable aspect of my religious background is that I grew up in the buckle of the Bible belt. Religion is so taken for granted that aside from some quibbles over exact denominations, I had no idea there was a nonreligious option in life. When I finally got the nerve to mention my atheism in junior high, my friends were literally terrified for my soul. The cultural tide was so powerful I never even considered taking a real stand on religion, except for some isolated tirades in the 'gifted and talented' class at school, where at least one or two other people were reluctantly open to the idea that god was an invented concept, and there was even a jewish kid (ironically this class included most of my sunday school class as well.) It is simply unacceptable in Oklahoma to abandon religion, and while I didn't so much care about social ostracism among my peers (obviously... I worked successfully towards that in many other ways) I certainly didn't want to attract negative attention from the various people who held the reins on my life.

The other factor is that I really didn't want to hurt my true church friends by either insulting their entire way of life or by putting myself on a direct train to hellfire in their eyes. So I basically kept it to myself until I was more or less on my own and would still never confront friends from my hometown with this debate. There's nothing to gain from it. I don't require their respect or understanding to be happy, and I have no problem with their pursuing happiness through delusion, so long as they don't subject me to their lifestyle. (Obviously this last condition is the problem... so obviously so and so prolifically described that I don't have much to add on that point.)

And that's about it. More on the superiority of secular morality later.

Monday, December 28, 2009


When You Are Engulfed In Flames, by David Sedaris: Hilarious. His voice (listened to this on the drive back) is off-putting and took some getting used to, and the first few stories weren't great, but from then on were some of the most hilarious short stories I've ever heard. (In particular, Solution to Saturday's Puzzle.) I'm surprised he's on the radio with such a voice. The title piece was the worst.

Create Your Own Economy, by Tyler Cowen: I adore Tyler Cowen but this book was disappointing. It's hard to pinpoint why. Maybe it's that nothing was too profoundly true and unexpected, but it's very likely that I'm the exact wrong person to be surprised or even intrigued by what he is saying, so that that would be too personal a critique to be worth passing on. Maybe it's that a few things were frustratingly wrong or presented badly, in particular the entire discussion of autism as such (which is one of the unifying themes for the whole book, unfortunately). I may rant about that separately later but don't feel like getting into it right now. Or maybe it's just that he uses words in unorthodox ways and invented phrases without being specific enough about what he means, so that I spent a lot of time distracted by trying to figure out what "creating your own economy" means (I think I finally understand, and think even in hindsight that's a horrible way to put it) and figuring out which of the many meanings of the word "story" he is currently referring to, than actually being blown away by the discussion. But again, I have stronger preferences for precision than most, so who knows. Maybe you'll love it.

A Mathematician's Apology, by G.H. Hardy - Endearingly absolutist and haughty, in the sense it's very clear a mathematician wrote it. A fireside-and-cocoa of books, for the mathematically tickled audience. And it only takes an hour or so.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Berkeley insanity

Berkeley is more politically insane, on the other end of the spectrum, than anyplace I've lived in the middle of the country.

"Berkeley High School is considering a controversial proposal to eliminate science labs and the five science teachers who teach them to free up more resources to help struggling students." Here's an idea, MAKE THEM TAKE MORE SCIENCE CLASSES.

"The proposal to put the science-lab cuts on the table was ... [part of a] plan to change the structure of the high school to address Berkeley's dismal racial achievement gap, where white students are doing far better than the state average while black and Latino students are doing worse. ... [I]nformation presented at council meetings suggests that the science labs were largely classes for white students." Hmm, maybe the achievement gap has something to do with the fact that minority students ARENT TAKING SCIENCE CLASSES.

Not to mention that, the dilemma of helping one group of students but not the other is NOT to cancel one of the programs that is actually helping the first group.

Congressional censures of Richard Dawkins and creationism in science classes and school sponsored prayer is crazy, but at least I can chalk that up to the small-minded idiots in charge in those parts of the country, who are smug about their resistance to modernity and reason. But Berkeley is home of people who are smug about their open-mindedness and intelligence and reasonableness, and this is what they come up with.

I may end up in the emergency room with an aneurysm before bedtime.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Merry Christmas! Or happy belated winter solstice. Or happy Atheist Children Get Presents Day (this year observed on January 19, which is just too far away, so I'm making the executive decision to bump it up to coincide with my holiday mood.)

I'm at home in Oklahoma in the biggest blizzard I can remember in this state since the epic incident in 2nd grade when we got 13 inches of snow during spring break. It was the best thing that could happen to a 7 year old.

But this time it's so severe that all the Christmas Eve services are cancelled and, for the first time in my life, my mom is spending a calm christmas eve evening at home rather than frenetically playing services and rehearsing and generally frazzling herself to death. Instead, we turned on the John Rutter Christmas Album, and put lights on the Christmas tree with hot cider.

(Just thought I would mention my appreciation for these externalities of religion before moving on to the things that Christopher Hitchens's audiobook has dredged up in my brain on the long drive home. =)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

moderation, and in moderation

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

a monopoly on power

For liberals, the momentum and energy of the Obama campaign led to high expectations for quick reform once he took office. Nearly a full year of the health care debate, in which liberal provision after liberal provision has been whittled down or dropped in compromise, has made progressives supremely frustrated with the perceived impotence of government, which in this administration takes the specific form of conservatives doing their very best to prevent sweeping reform. So of course the republicans, rather than the dynamic minority, takes the face of resistance to progress.

But let's keep in mind that the same forces that prevent quick-passing health care reform now are the ones that prevented Bush-Cheney from running the country into the ground on their watch. Institutions of governance that define balances and scope of powers have to be double-edged swords in order to be remotely stable or less than viciously corrupt.

Yesterday a friend of mine mentioned his frustration with the "broken" political system in the United States. His suggested improvement was that Presidents serve a single six year term, so they can actually get something done during their time in office.

I would actually prefer that they get rid of term limits altogether for the President. As soon as those in power know they never have to answer to the electorate again, well, you know how the saying goes about power and corruption. It's indeed unfortunate that good things are forced to happen so slowly (how many years will it take for individual liberal states to make homosexuals equal under the law before that form of anti-discrimination law is incorporated at a federal level...) but I am much more worried about unreigned power than sputteringly ineffective power. A monopoly on power is never a thing you can let free from diligent oversight.

Judging by their outrage from 2000-2008, progressives know this, they've just forgotten in the heat of the moment. So take a deep breath and acknowledge that taking a few extra years to wait for the country to catch up and warm up to the agenda is a small price to pay for stability under the leadership of the chimpanzees that periodically trick their way into office.

(Not that I'm all that worried about what will happen if they do forget, since they won't be able to overhaul the whole system to their advantage anyway, but it might help with their blood pressure.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

blogging is a waste of time

(I've spent the last two weeks learning a semester's worth of political economy, hence no blogging. So rather than apologize for my absence I'll write a highly hypocritical post at an optimally unhypocritical time.)

Yes, I admit my raging hypocrisy. Not only do I waste hours on google reader every week keeping up on the latest just-deep-enough-for-two-paragraphs blogosphere conversation, I compulsively write my own trove of nonsense as well. It's a bad habit on a rampage. My cumulative blog output over six years is longer than Atlas Shrugged. I could be hundreds of hours younger if not for writing hundreds of thousands of words worth of an itch-scratching sort of pleasure.

But while I can't help subjecting the cybervoid to my thoughts every couple days (they should put that in DSM-V along with video games and shopping so I can blame an official medical condition) and wish I had a more useful addiction such as actually reading all those interesting papers on behavioral economics and political economy that might actually be useful to know about in my career, I even less understand the tendency of many potential bloggers in my generation who write in spurt(s), often about merely their intentions to write, and then agonize about not following through. From my perspective they might as well be announcing to the world "Hello world, I hereby vow to shoot up on heroine on a regular basis" and then following up repeatedly with "oh crap, it's been forever since I shot up on heroine... well this time I swear I will do it more often."

I assuage my guilty conscience with the partial justification that google reader keeps me a reasonably close approximation of an Informed Citizen of my society subset of choice, and that blogging actually does help me organize thoughts, which I find innately enjoyable even if there's no greater purpose for organizing those particular thoughts. But what enjoyment or purpose is there in forcing yourself to keep an online diary? It might make you nostalgically cringe when you're 80, that's about it. Dementia will do that too, and a lot more realistically.

So listen up young impressionables: Just Say No to livejournal, or you just might end up like me.

(Also video games, those are bad too.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold - The best authors subtly evoke experiential minutia, saying just enough for us to insert our own memories and sensations into their words, and then nudge those naked facts from mere observations into whole interpretations, building ever larger structures and hierarchies and theories and philosophies. That's Leopold's greatest strength, and the result is phenomenal.

(2 tiny caveats to my adoring recommendation: 1) It starts a bit dry, so push past the first chapter. 2) This is actually a personal failing, not anything whatsoever wrong with the book; in fact it will give me a good excuse to reread it in my future less-dumb years. But I should mention it since hardly anyone doesn't have this particular personal failing anymore. I'm just too ecologically illiterate to understand the difference between "There is an affinity between white pines and dewberries, between red pines and flowering spurge, between jackpines and sweet fern" and "There is an affinity between trees and plants, between trees and plants, between trees and plants." Call me Ginger.)

Superfreakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner - It's been years since I read Freakonomics and can no longer recall enough to compare the two, but standing on its own merits, this was certainly an enjoyable read. Sure they like to match their incendiary claims with incendiary language, which I think sometimes is a tiny bit counterproductive, but who cares (in particular, the controversy surrounding the geoengineering chapter is baffling). And the particular style of this edition, in which they interweave several different studies into a common theme per chapter, makes it read like a casual conversation with a very smart and interesting person.

Everyday Zen, by Charlotte Joko - Warning: this is going to be a rant. I got roped into reading it by a friend and skimmed the 2nd half in impatience.

First the good points. There were two things that rang true and important: 1) You are ultimately the only authority on how to live your life. 2) Aspiration and expectation are different things.

Other than that it was mostly infuriatingly nonsensical to me. Life is NOT defined by suffering and learning to accept it and detaching yourself from your emotions is NOT the path to happiness and the things in my head ARE real. The "four noble truths" are self-evidently insane. You know the serenity prayer? "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." This rings true to me. It acknowledges a balance that exists in life. Zen is focused solely on the first third.

Now, it's also true that Zen rhetoric also is obsessed with gleefully saying "no, you're wrong, you just don't understand what I'm saying" and refusing to clarify further. So to preempt that response, let me say that a lot of the specific themes I can just barely make peace with by seeing them as very horribly convoluted and misguided presentations of something that actually contains truth and value. Except for one thing. I can not reconcile or ignore the denial of my mental reality.

Just because I can't point to my unhappiness does not make it real. I really wonder what kind of desperate state these followers must be in to want so badly to buy into the argument "yes your grandfather's body died but this is not a real loss because your relationship with your grandfather is in your head." that they don't immediately strangle whoever is telling them that. Sure I have some degree of control and choice in the matter of my unhappiness that I don't have about physical reality but it is still very very REAL and relevant. Honestly, just this one theme of denying non-physical reality made reading this stuff more infuriating than reading Catholic theology for me. With Thomas Merton and company, I can ignore the belief in the supernatural and the threat of hellfire and still appreciate its practical recommendations. In fact I know of no better succinct recipe for a good life than the Desiderata, which is not at all secular (although easily read as such, as I do.) But this, which contains no objectionable irrationality and invented motivations as its base, leads to much more objectionable conclusions.

Ok I'm done ranting. How's that for dismissing two millennia of philosophy in five minutes?

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Back on the subject of seemingly irreconcilable beliefs derived from instinct and logic, and on the best way to promote an ethic of respect for the environment.

I recently reread A Sand County Almanac (arguably a top 3 most beautiful book I'm aware of*) and it reminded me that my economic rhetoric in favor of environmentalism is only a tool I hope to manipulate the rest of humankind with in order that my beloved wilderness is preserved for my own enjoyment.

The thing is, I don't think the rhetoric is disingenuously manipulative. I believe every word of it. Sustainable practices pay off after an initial investment. Externalities need to be internalized. The benefit in recreation and peace of mind and natural history appreciation to humankind that comes from restricting use in certain natural areas is often greater than any more-easily-quantifiable profit from industrial activities that might be undertaken there. And even if you don't believe all that, the potential unknown impact of our actions is so high and are actions so irreversible that extreme conservationist caution is still worthwhile from a human-expected-utility perspective.

But really, I don't care about all that. It's true, but it's not why I favor conservation. I favor conservation because I love wildness. Mostly I love being in the wilderness, feeling connected to all 4.5 billion years of natural earth history, and feeling wholly human by returning to basics as much as is possible in today's world. But even if I were rarely allowed to participate in wilderness personally, I know that it is valuable. There is no logic in the world to destroy my unconditional love of nature and the belief that we as humans should protect its integrity.

Unfortunately this powerful instinct is not shared by even a majority of the population anymore, and there are many other valid and powerful reasons to respect the environment. Thus rhetoric is exclusively dominated by those cost-benefit analyses mentioned above.

Of course when motivations differ the outcomes are never quite the same. The mainstream environmentalist debate currently centers on climate change that may doom our existence. It doesn't really care about minimizing our interference in nature so as to ensure the survival of naturally occurring biodiversity and pristine wild lands untouched even by access roads and visitors centers. If we could destroy all of what nature really is and still ensure species survival, that would be fine, they indirectly say. To some extent the catch-all "we don't know what we're getting into so be careful" argument takes care of whatever else you want it to, but is limitedly convincing, and in any case all of this still misses the point.

Motivations ultimately drive the outcome even if you can manipulate them in the interim. The only way we will protect our natural heritage along with ensuring our own survival on the planet is by instilling a true ethic of conservation in the culture at large. This is what Aldo Leopold was advocating half a century ago and instead of making progress in that direction, we have scared some of the population into similar effort for very different reasons. While that may help slow global warming in the short run, it only damages the cause in the long run when we figure out how to destroy even more without destroying ourselves. The economic motivations that promote environmentalism in this century will point in a completely different direction in the next.

And so I am at a loss. I know that nature should be respected, and the best deductive train of logic I have to back that up is one that will ultimately provide license for destruction, even if I believe in its validity right now. Human behavior is hard enough to change with bulletproof logic; instincts and values are downright impossible.

*Along with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Gödel Escher Bach

Thursday, November 19, 2009

four way stops

Another chapter in the "Berkeley City Planning Is Stunningly Misguided" series: Four way stops.

Everyone knows the costs and benefits of a single isolated four way stop. In very dangerous intersections, it can reduce accidents. In an intersection where one direction is very busy and the other busy enough to have backlogs that can't get through, or in a busy intersection where pedestrians rarely have a chance to cross, it can improve traffic flow. On the downside, both of those things are better accomplished with intelligent stoplights, which don't cause backlogs of traffic waiting for each individual car to stop and then proceed. And they cause delays and waste fuel. And they are essentially impossible to remove once built, since drivers become accustomed to cross-traffic having to stop.

But there's an ignored cost of having a large percentage of four way stops in an area in general, and I'm surprised I can't find any studies that quantifies. In the few normal two-way stops in low traffic areas, the car that has to stop expects cross-traffic to stop as well and often cuts them off, resulting in many near-accidents. This is the issue in Berkeley, where almost all residential intersections are four-way stops. (I've almost been hit twice this way and now habitually slow down if there's anyone waiting at stop sign even when I don't have one.)

Of course, now that they've implemented such an insane system, it's basically impossible to undo. But since all of these four-way stops are in low-traffic residential neighborhoods where they are entirely unnecessary, and they increase danger in two-way intersections, I'm guessing they make the city more dangerous on net, on top of the time and fuel wasting. Good job, city planners.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

hurricane season

If you love geography, maps, weather patterns, interesting visual data displays, or just cool animations, you will love this:

It’s always impressive to see one person excel in two widely disparate activities: a first-rate mathematician who’s also a world class mountaineer, or a titan of industry who conducts symphony orchestras on the side. But sometimes I think Paul Krugman is out to top them all, by excelling in two activities that are not just disparate but diametrically opposed: economics (for which he was awarded a well-deserved Nobel Prize) and obliviousness to the lessons of economics (for which he’s been awarded a column at the New York Times).
(You should click the link to read the excellent support for the hilarious hot air.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

self-evident truths

Some of the questions that bother me most arise when self-evident truths conflict with logical deductions. These truths are such core values and beliefs that I can't imagine invalidating them, but on the other hand, I revere logic to the point of fetishism.

But logic when applied to the real world is a whole lot more slippery than gut knowledge. The universe is extremely complex and any time we restrict ourselves to a small set of axioms to work from, we will miss real truths or prove nonsense. Disagreement among educated interlocutors is not usually semantics, it is a result of incompatible foundations. (But often the converse is true: disagreements often aren't actual disagreements once two parties agree on a word-representation for their priors.)

Of course, in science, we pin ourselves to actual observations to sort through the infinitude of possible deductive paths. But many interesting questions are not easy to test empirically. The universe, in its mindboggling complexity, makes a poor wind-tunnel, and wind-tunnels are hard to construct to address every subtlety of interest. Hence the human race has spent the last few millennia debating the same basic philosophical questions ad nauseam with hardly any conclusive headway.

The average person is very suspicious of those who invent convoluted arguments to support views held so deeply that debate is futile. And scientists are very suspicious of those who hold beliefs so deeply they can't digest any contrary evidence. But, it is vastly easier to invent spurious logic in favor of whatever you want than to stubbornly insist on self-delusion in the face of evidence that is truly convincing (and those who do are never key players in the conversation anyway.) I think the wisdom of crowds holds here. Those who abdicate their intuition in deference to deduction are easily misguided, while those who let their gut instincts, observations, and logic interplay in a complicated and messy way to guide them towards truth, often find it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

Berlin Wall

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was a remarkable (peaceful!) triumph of freedom over oppressive government (and specifically free markets over communism; communism requires oppression) and one that has particular meaning to me, having been born in West Germany while that qualifier was still needed and lived in Berlin a decade after reunification.

I'd rather quote my dad than comment further, since he's an actual expert on the subject, as a professor of Germanic Linguistics at Oklahoma State University:

As a scholar, Te Velde was a frequent visitor to East and West Germany. While the wall was up, the differences between the two countries were considerable. “At first, the wall was built with cinder blocks and mortar. Then it was concrete blocks. There was a no man’s land with dogs and mine fields between the countries,” Te Velde said.

Russia controlled East Berlin, and West Berlin was the British, French and American zone after World War II. “East Berliners wouldn’t talk to tourists,” Te Velde said. “You felt the presence very much of the firm grip of the government.” Its higher profile citizens were the frequent target of surveillance by the East German Ministry for State Security or Stasi, he said. A good filmed representation of life under surveillance in East Germany can be seen in “The Lives of Others,” he said.

“West Berliners were a special breed. It was a place of escape for youth to be exempt from military service,” Te Velde said. It offered a western-style shopping zone, nightlife, bars and clubs, he said, adding, “West Berlin was always a great theater city.”

With the first signs across Europe that the Berlin Wall might fall, Te Velde said, “I was flabbergasted ... Within a week it was obvious the wall was coming down. There would be no jail, no reprisals.”

To Te Velde, the wall represents the unchecked strength of a government with a powerful military. After World War II, Germany was on its knees and couldn’t resist the Soviet takeover. That weakness manifested a dangerous power balance, said Te Velde. If there is collusion of political and military power ... and there is no response from the people to stand against solidification,” he said, there is a situation rife for military divide. “There are some tendencies in this country that we could develop into the same as then but the conditions are not the same. We are not helpless and on our knees. There is power of the people. The only danger is if people don’t recognize their power to stand up to restrictions of power or the military.”

Thursday, November 5, 2009

More non-sniping at Ayn Rand

2005 was before I paid attention to the internet so I was happy Alex Tabarrok reposted his thoughts on Ayn Rand originally from her 100th birthday. They very eloquently and logically state exactly what I most like about Atlas Shrugged. For example:
It used to be commonly said that “Until Robinson Crusoe is joined by Friday there is no need for ethics on a desert island.” Rand replied that it was on a desert island that ethics was most needed because on a desert island you cannot free ride on the virtues of others; if you are to survive you must yourself exercise the virtues of rationality, independence, and productiveness.
(Except I don't really buy that she was such a strong feminist. But I also don't buy that she was anti-feminist, as is often said, due to some isolated statements of what constitutes femininity. I completely disregarded those, along with all of her other nonsense about ethics of aesthetics, primarily in Fountainhead. I think she was a realist and an individualist who probably couldn't have cared less about feminism in itself.)

And his last paragraph restates much better what I recently said in objection to MYglesias's (and others') whining.

As is true of most people who are extremely forceful and black and white about their beliefs, Rand attracted a worshipful following and loatheful antifollowing. Most supporters are extreme moralistic (rather than pragmatic) libertarians, and most dissenters are the liberals who hate her advocation of capitalism or conservatives who hate her adamant atheism. Her supporters tend to adopt the same aggressive and black and white style, and her dissenters mostly object not to the content of her work but to this style of presenting her case and some distorted interpretations that arise when a black and white style is used instead of a thorough discussion of the nuance. When something like Alex's notes comes along, I have renewed hope that the middle ground may worm it's way into the mainstream debate.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Wikipedia it if you don't know, now please

"Economists" on Jeopardy. I'm not sure if this makes me laugh or cry harder. Is the Laffer curve really not common knowledge among educated adults? Let alone Adam Smith?

I take it back. It makes me laugh harder. Look at her expression during double jeopardy =)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

academic library software

Any suggestions..? I'm using Mendeley, which after the most recent beta upgrade thankfully doesn't crash every five minutes and drastically improved in other ways, but which has two critical failings: I can't tell it to "automatically import new files from this particular folder into this particular collection", and it doesn't save notes and citation data to metadata or highlighting/other edits to the pdf itself. And it doesn't support .doc or other paper formats, which I suppose is a good default but occasionally annoying not to exist.

My boyfriend uses Bookends, which he says is ok as far as the auto-importing goes, and does some kind of auto-downloading-from-bibtex-data that sounds awesome, but which also appears not to save data to the files themselves, and which I would have to go to the trouble to crack since it's trialware (and which will eventually kill it in the face of competition so stop being stingy please...) So I haven't tried it yet.

Is there other software does both of those things? I'm envisioning something like Picasa for pdf files plus bibtex exporting and citation data extraction and Mendeley/gmail style collections (same file in multiple places). I want to be able to uninstall it and move my files around however I want on my harddrive and make changes in any other software and when I start it up again it'll all be there as usual...

I still have hope for Mendeley though. The things I complain about are on their "to-do" list, it's just in the early stages of development.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

why god is unnecessary

Now I happen to agree with Professor Dawkins that God is unnecessary, but I think he’s got the reason precisely backward. God is unnecessary not because complex things require simple antecedents but because they don’t.
I happen to be in the "this is a pointless discussion because there is by definition no way to prove or disprove god's existence" camp, but if you want to replace "God" with "an unexplainable black box in the laws of science", then the argument is truly interesting (although no one would care about this question either if "god" wasn't a convenient summary of that idea that comes with all the connotative baggage that people do care about.)

It's much more reasonable to say "I don't understand this because I don't understand this" than to say "I don't understand this because it's impossible to understand." The only context in which people like to forget this is the realm that is allegedly attributable to god.

So anyway, strip away the religious rhetoric, and you've got an actually interesting philosophical discussion.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pedestrian equilibrium

One of the things I love about New York City and hate about the Bay area and hate for different reasons about Los Angeles is the social equilibrium governing whether cars or pedestrians have to yield to each other.

In the Bay area, pedestrians can whimsically meander at whatever rose-sniffing pace they prefer into oncoming traffic, or ride their wheelchairs in figure 8s in busy intersections, and if a car so much as thinks about continuing through their green light, they're in trouble (minimum fine $140 as posted all over town), and screamed at / flipped off / socially ostracized by every onlooker. Pedestrians rule.

In New York, it's every man for himself. If you want to jaywalk, go right ahead, but it's your own responsibility not to get killed. The taxis might honk but they won't slow down, and they're moving pretty darn quick down that narrow one-way road...

In LA, pedestrians are strictly confined to the sidewalks, and jaywalking is ticketed diligently. I'm not sure what would happen if someone dashed in front of traffic a little too close for comfort because I've never seen it happen...

It's hard to find suitable data to see what the outcome of these different equilibria are, but as far as I can tell from various independent reports, the 5 boroughs of NYC have about 250 pedestrian fatalities per year. San Francisco has about 17. When you scale that by population (NYC has 8.5 million, SF 800,000), the equivalent number would be around 180.

But, New York has VASTLY more pedestrians than San Francisco. Sure, certain areas in the Bay area, like the Mission and downtown Berkeley, are crowded with people on foot. But EVERY neighborhood in the five boroughs of NYC is like that. I couldn't find data on the percentage of people who primarily get around on foot or anything comparable, but anyone who has been both places can attest to the fact that it's not even close. I would guess NYC has several times as many miles-walked per capita.

When you take that into account, I'd feel statistically much safer as a pedestrian in NYC than in San Francisco, despite the higher real death toll.

(I'm not going to look up LA because I don't really care. I prefer to imagine that LA doesn't exist.)

This goes against the grain of the (annoyingly moralistic without regard to outcome) reasoning about traffic laws in Berkeley. "Pedestrians SHOULD always have the right of way because they're doing the environment a favor. Cars SHOULD always yield to crazy people because they don't know any better." Well frankly LA and NY have just as many crazy people and I've yet to see one there walking into the middle of a busy intersection at rush hour, causing cars to swerve and slam on their brakes, and yelling inane nonsense and flipping off anyone who almost kills them (this happened last week a few blocks from my house, nearly killing ME, because swerving and braking simultaneously is kinda dangerous on a two-wheeled vehicle...)

Even if you're batshit nuts, you'll learn pretty quickly that moseying down 5th avenue in Manhattan will get you killed. And if 95% of the time cars come to a screeching halt as soon as you head for the road, you'll stop thinking about looking both ways. That other 5% of the time brings up the accident rate drastically.

Berkeley city planning should hire a behavioral economist.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Marriage in Oklahoma

In the "maps that show Oklahoma as an outlier in funny ways" category of this blog, it doesn't get much better than this.
  • Oklahoma has the 5th highest share of divorced men, and 4th highest share of divorced women.
  • Oklahoma is number 2 for youngest median age of men getting married, and number 4 for youngest median age of women (26 and 24 respectively).
  • But I save the best for last... Oklahoma has the highest share of women who have been married 3 or more times, and 2nd highest share of men (a startling high 10 and 9 percent respectively. Now that's depressing.)
Go figure, those last two are strongly correlated. Relatedly, I find it striking that, while it is true that 10-year divorce rates have exceeded 50% in some demographic groups in the United States, the rate among those who get married after attaining a graduate degree is less than 15%. Unfortunately I can't find that reference at the moment...

It's also true that outcomes such as divorce rates and multiple-marriage rates and kids-out-of-wedlock rates are correlated with the prevalence of religious fundamentalism... Recall the highly entertaining study from a year ago crowning Utah as the state with the highest rate of internet pornography subscribers.

What surprises me (and I think should be studied further) is that this seems to be primarily a cultural phenomenon, not a result simply of higher numbers of poor or uneducated people who get married young for economic reasons or because they don't anticipate improved prospects with time or just because they don't question that it's 'the thing to do'. Anecdotally, among my high school class, a group of very smart students selected to attend a public magnet school, many of the ones who stayed in the state for college are already married, and few of those who left. Same thing with my junior high friends to an even more extreme degree - many of the ones who stayed in Oklahoma are married with kids already, and none of the ones who left. I suspect that religiosity is the component of culture that captures most of this phenomenon, along with the spillover effect in which the (very small) minority makes similar decisions as the fundamentalist majority in non-religious matters when enveloped in that culture.

Just to be clear, I certainly don't judge anyone's individual decision, but statistical generalities are true regardless of the circumstances of individuals who may or may not fit the pattern...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

football analysis

This attempt at logic, from a blog that is too bad to bother linking, pains me on so many levels...:
If A equals B and B equals C, then A must be equal C. The Transitive Theory. We've all seen it. It makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, the sports world tends to abuse the general concept behind it.

Take the 2009 Denver Broncos. As we all know, during the off-season, the Broncos left everyone feeling that new coach Josh McDaniels was in over his head. The biggest factor leading to that common conclusion was the trade that sent Jay Cutler to Chicago.
So, using the transitive theory, you would conclude that the Cutler trade was a good idea. The Broncos traded Jay Cutler. The Broncos are better than anyone expected. Therefore, the Jay Cutler trade was a good idea.
However there are some other good statistical football sites I've discovered recently. AdvancedNFLStats in particular. In just the last week they've addressed onside kicks, resilience of particular statistics to QB changes, and irrational punt vs field goal play calling. Tons of good stuff.

Fifth Down, the NYTimes NFL blog, of course is good journalism and that is enough to make it worth reading (it's amazing how much reading amateur blogs and typical shouting-really-fast sports journalism makes you appreciate the writing from places like NYT.) Less nerdy though.

And Cold Hard Football Facts is entertaining. More on the list-lots-of-cherry-picked-numbers end of the spectrum than the insightful-big-picture-analysis end, but hey that's fun too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

unnecessary bureaucracy

I've gotten two (blatantly, heinously invalid) motorcycle parking tickets here in Berkeley, despite the fact I almost always park in the free university motorcycle parking areas. The system is broken and the city exploits the grey area because it leads to lots of extra revenue when, after months of trying to fight it, the infuriated citizenry just gives up and pays.

1) The EZ Park system DOES NOT WORK for motorcycles. There is nowhere to put the parking receipt, and even when I have tape with me or stick it in some non-obvious strap somewhere, half the time it blows away, and is easily stolen in any case. That's why car drivers put them on their dashboards and not under windshield wipers. I can park hardly anywhere in downtown Berkeley as a result.

2) If a motorcycle parks between two occupied spaces, and one of those cars leaves and lets their meter expire, parking enforcement zealously decides to assign blame to the motorcycle, even if the motorcycle is parked directly in front of a DIFFERENT parking meter.

Please tell me who it is in elected office that can officially instate free parking in these situations until the city comes up with a sane, enforceable, consistent way to charge for motorcycle parking?

And these are motorcycle-specific problems. Then there's the infuriating city bureaucracy I'm sure you're all familiar with already... in particular, first-round appeals are automatically denied and the 2nd time you have to include a deposit for the full amount owed. Obviously they have no motivation to listen to you once they have your money...

Again, please tell me who is accountable?

It's insane that the biggest bureaucratic pain in my neck in life is a city system that is supposed to make everyone's lives easier by enforcing reasonable parking restrictions. And it's sick that that system has morphed, with no accountability, into a revenue maximizing program.

[It's afternoons like yesterday, involving four hours of bureaucratic hassle and running around begging for answers that will likely never get me off the hook for lots of money I don't owe, that make me suspicious of any government bureaucracy... How government has come to connote a nice harmless paternal safety net is beyond me.]

Thursday, October 15, 2009

oh dear

I thought I had developed a pretty thick skin to the horror that is popular culture and modern society (I even held my tongue about the new DSM-V standards...) but this commercial I just saw makes me want to cry and start a new secular version of Amish society pegged at approximately 1975. A prescription drug "for inadequate or not enough lashes, also known as hypotrichosis".

(Apparently anything translated into a latin compound word is a legitimate medical disorder.)

Show of hands, men: how many of you have ever met a woman you were just mad about, except that naggingly thin eye hair was just too much to get over and you kept your distance?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I'm really baffled by foodies and the popularization of cooking essentially as a sport. Why does the enjoyment of food need to be infused with snobbery an upper-class attitude?

I really love food. Really really love. An expected ~85 years of three meals a day still seems like such a terrible constraint on allowed food-based enjoyment that I figure everything consumed should be extremely delicious to make the most of the opportunity. But this most certainly does not translate into a preference for expensive or exotic foods. I LOVE broccoli-cheddar rice-a-roni. My favorite food in the world has always been baked potatoes. McDonalds french fries are my personal heroin. Canned green beans, diet mountain dew, creamy chicken ramen noodles, cauliflower, kool-aid, easy mac... these are all large components of my (maybe not always nutritionally recommended) diet. It's not because they're cheap; it's because they're delicious.

I also really enjoy cooking. After a week of intense studying or the end of a big project, the most frequent way I'll unwind for the rest of the day is to cook massive quantities of delicious foods to eat for the next couple weeks of intense work. But I like to cook the things I like; I don't go out of my way to incorporate porcine pancreas or south american fungii and I have no problem substituting lemon juice for those crazy citrusy indian spices that are impossible to find or canola oil for $22/pint olive oil. Tastes the same.

The concept of cooking or food enjoyment as a "hobby" is also strange. Maybe some people take eating seriously enough to qualify definitionally as a hobby. Maybe some people take breathing seriously enough to qualify as a hobby. But I don't think I could claim such a thing with a straight face. Not only that, but elevating the status of food to such a level is just damaging to society overall. It's an absolute myth that poor people are forced to eat unhealthy fast food because healthy food is too expensive and/or time-consuming. I can prove that a couple dozen different ways and definitely spend less on food than if I went to McDonalds twice a day, even sticking to the dollar menu... Insisting that healthy food is only the domain of those with lots of money to buy it or lots of time to cook it just reinforces those expectations (and people rise or fall to expectations.)

So, foodie snobbery is clearly an unnecessary component to true enjoyment of food and cooking. But connoisseur commentary also eerily evokes the Emperor's new clothes. It's well-established that people's wine preferences in blind taste tests are uncorrelated with price. And that adding tasteless red dye to white wine causes people to describe the flavor with red fruits. I'll admit that maybe different types of oil taste different when you eat them plain, but I dare you to distinguish them after being used to stir fry vegetables. So when I see these ridiculous food reviews that are so popular (yet so mind-numbingly dull... I am once again baffled) I just can't take them seriously. Judgments of food quality should be subject to blind tests.

I guess it just boils down to the fact that food has become a fashion statement. And fashion is purely in the domain of the irrational. So I shouldn't waste my breath.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Nobel Prize in Economics

Congratulations to Oliver Williamson, of the University of California at Berkeley, and Elinor Ostrom, of Indiana University, for their shared prize for work in economic governance.

Here's hoping that the 2009 win of both the John Bates Clark Medal and the Nobel prize will provide immunity to economics department from the fiscal disintegration of the University of California system...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

inherent tendencies of government

I swore I wouldn't post more David Brooks but he's on such a roll I can't help it. Read.

But he doesn't make a big deal out of the more general point, which is that government has inherent directional tendencies. Government will always make itself bigger. Government will always try to "do something" rather than leave the solution up to something/someone else. Government will always give more influence to lobbyists than unorganized groups. Federal government will grow relative to local government.

This has nothing to do with party lines or the particular attributes of lawmakers. The natural mechanisms of government will filter in actions that make these trends inevitable.

We have checks and balances to prevent similar trends in the branches of government. Unfortunately there are no checks and balances between levels of government, and I can't think of what other party would be on the other ends of a system of checks and balances on size and action and influence. Even when explicit limits are written into the constitution, the government will eventually change the constitution to favor itself (eg, the 16th amendment).

And even concerned citizens wanting to mitigate particular inevitabilities have to play the system to get anywhere (lobbyists for a lobby-free government?)

(Poor Hume. All he wanted was to let the smart engineers battle it out over sustainable energy, but instead he got ethanol subsidies.)

Monday, October 5, 2009

randian confusion

Matt Yglesias says
One thing that does always strike me about Rand, however, is that there strikes me as something particularly odd about the Randian tendency to assume that the business executive class generally constitutes the most intelligent segment of society. As if an Albert Einstein is just a kind of middleweight hack but the VP for Marketing at Federal Express is one of ubermenschen.

One thing that always strikes me about people who have issues with Rand, is that they are so hung up on this particular choice of main character occupations in Atlas Shrugged (they are neglecting Fountainhead or We the Living or Anthem, although I'm actually ok with limiting attention to the former since it is a hundred times better and a hundred times less flawed than the others.) I'm also struck by the fact that the many other (minor, yes, but there) "good guy" characters who are musicians or scientists or mothers or teachers are completely ignored in order to cast the book this way as something written to soothe the egos only of business executives. In fact, it should appeal to anyone who takes pride in what they do.

The industrial world setting in Atlas Shrugged was appropriate to the times and the obvious choice for a writer from the Soviet Union whose parents' business was confiscated and the obvious choice for that plotline in general. That doesn't mean these are automatically supposed to be the only heroic or smart people in society. What analogy can you think of that would work for academic physicists? A lowly unaccomplished scientist sues the Nobel committee for recognition for a discovery he had nothing to do with on the grounds that scientific prestige should be distributed equally? Yeah right...

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Economic systems with cows

Thanks to Economists Do It With Models, here's an updated-for-the-financial-crisis version of an email that went around when I was in middle school. Surrealism still makes me nearly die so I wanted to share...
You have 2 cows. You give one to your neighbor.
You have 2 cows. The State takes both and gives you some milk.
You have 2 cows. The State takes both and sells you some milk.
You have 2 cows. The State takes both and shoots you.
You have 2 cows. The State takes both, shoots one, milks the other, and then throws the milk away…
You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull. Your herd multiplies, and the economy grows. You sell them and retire on the income.
You have two giraffes. The government requires you to take harmonica lessons.
You have two cows. You sell one, and force the other to produce the milk of four cows. Later, you hire a consultant to analyze why the cow has dropped dead.
You have two cows. You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt/equity swap with an associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax exemption for five cows. The milk rights of the six cows are transferred via an intermediary to a Cayman Island Company secretly owned by the majority shareholder who sells the rights to all seven cows back to your listed company. The annual report says the company owns eight cows, with an option on one more. You sell one cow to buy a new president of the United States, leaving you with nine cows. No balance sheet provided with the release. The public then buys your bull.
You have two cows. You go on strike, organize a riot and block the roads because you want three cows.
You have two cows. You redesign them so they are one-tenth the size of an ordinary cow and produce twenty times the milk. You then create a clever cow cartoon image called ‘Cowkimon’ and market it worldwide.
You have two cows. You re-engineer them so they live for 100 years, eat once a month, and milk themselves.
You have two cows, but you don’t know where they are. You decide to have lunch.
You have two cows. You count them and learn you have five cows. You count them again and learn you have 42 cows. You count them again and learn you have 2 cows. You stop counting cows and open another bottle of vodka.
You have 5000 cows. None of them belong to you. You charge the owners for storing them.
You have two cows. You have 300 people milking them. You claim that you have full employment and high bovine productivity. You arrest the newsman who reported the real situation.
You have two cows. You worship them.
You have two cows. Both are mad.
Everyone thinks you have lots of cows. You tell them that you have none. No one believes you, so they bomb the **** out of you and invade your country. You still have no cows, but at least now you are part of Democracy….
You have two cows. Business seems pretty good. You close the office and go for a few beers to celebrate.
You have two cows. The one on the left looks very attractive.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

When did overconsumption stop being shameful?

Simultaneously in the "Vera is getting a head start both on being a crazy old cat lady and a crotchety grandpa who loves to moan about the decline of civilization" series and the "David Brooks adulation" series, here's one more you should definitely read and take to heart.

And then stop giving me such a hard time about being cheap wisely frugal. (More on the virtue of stingyness coming post-midterms.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

When Writers Speak

This is one of those articles that made me internally jump up and down excitedly saying "yesyesyesyesyes exactly!!"

Why, oh why, are in-person meetings considered so crucial and more-productive compared to written correspondence? And why, oh why, are scientists forced to teach?

I'll admit a couple caveats. In person conversation is often faster and at a minimum forces those present to engage rather than skimming your email and then ignoring you or responding with a one line "got your message, sounds good". And I do think that spreading ideas is an integral responsibility of scientists; a thinker who can't communicate his thoughts is as good as none at all. That's about where my empathy for these standards ends.

Why should you force someone whose comparative advantage is in thinking to be judged based on a completely unrelated standard - their ability to speak about those ideas to students or colleagues in person? The world would be vastly better off if students had better choices than research universities with research opportunities and horrendous teaching, or liberal arts colleges with great teachers and little else. And research seminars are only good for debating details and asking questions; I'd always prefer to read the paper and skip to that than waste so much time with powerpoints recited by awkward scientists with thick accents.

And why insist on communicating face to face when writing is more precise, complete, avoids talking past each other, avoids forgetting what was said, and allows for deeper and more careful contemplation before making your next point?

As anyone who knows me even at all can testify, I am an absolute moron at verbal communication. My mind turns into a barren staticy nothingness when faced with the requirement of small talk. Or large talk for that matter. Any talk not written. I never, ever go into a meeting without writing down exactly what I have to say ahead of time. And even then I'm lucky to get a coherent sentence in edgewise and invariably follow up by email to clarify the gibberish. I suspect that with practice and a well-defined script, I wouldn't be the worst lecturer in history. But one-on-one tutoring, requiring verbal give and take? Forget about it.

But writing is a different story altogether. I'm certainly not a great wordsmith but, I think, am perfectly competent at conveying ideas clearly in written form. And, I love doing it (if I weren't a scientist, science writing would be way up on the list of preferred alternatives) exactly because of the phenomenon described by Krystal in the essay linked above -
"‘People talk about thinking, but for my part I never think except when I sit down to write.' ... And it’s not because writing helps me to organize my ideas or reveals how I feel about something, but because it actually creates thought or, at least supplies a Petri dish for its genesis." How true. Even the nibble-sized bits of pseudointellectualism that end up on this blog are only ghosts of thoughts until I actually have fingers on the keyboard and the details and organization spontaneously pop into existence.

And I'm far from alone! Especially in science. Please, let's embrace it.

(And if you're a Berkeley non-macro economist willing to be my advisor and communicate near-exclusively by email, please email me...)

Friday, September 25, 2009


"It’s funny how the nation’s mood was at its most humble when its actual achievements were at their most extraordinary."

(Did I mention I love David Brooks? Although, I would go farther and insist that the trend he speaks of is a sign of cultural decline.)

Monday, September 21, 2009


Matthew Rabin in class last week made an off-hand comment that, as expected, richer people turn out to be happier when you measure happiness correctly. I'm curious as to the details of these measurements because I would reject both the accuracy (or at least the robustness) of that trend (based on my own observations) and the assertion that that's what we should expect to see. But, I'm not surprised that this is the common wisdom.

First of all, here's why I disagree with the overall claim (note that I am referring to day-to-day happiness, not a long-term sense of fulfillment or long-run discontentment): Wall Street Investors: rich and unhappy. Parents with lots of kids to support: A little poor, medium happy. Destitute and dysfunctional Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn residents: poor and fairly happy. Average Oklahomans: a little poor, a little happy. Average Manhattanite: a little rich, a little unhappy. Enough examples, you see my point...

And, to a large extent, this still holds when you take long-term happiness into account. Not many single moms with boyfriends in prison in section 8 housing living on food stamps in Brooklyn expect life to be any different or better. They won't be disappointed. Meanwhile, doctors expect to heroically fix the world's problems and retire millionaires with loving families comfortably taken care of. They will be.

There are plenty of reasons to doubt a priori that more money makes you happier:

  • Ambition is a result of perpetual discontentment: people who are never happy will tend to get farther because they're always trying to get to the next level where magically they will finally have enough money to be happy.
  • Ambition is also a mix of a reaction to actual desires and societal expectations: and when you're doing something just because you think you have to, it won't make you very happy.
  • Ambition is also a result of putting high standards on yourself: and when you do that, you're frustrated or disappointed whenever you inevitably and probably perpetually don't live up to those expectations completely.
  • Material comforts are like candy: there can be too much of a good thing. Everyone wants the option to afford a car to drive to work and to live in a climate controlled environment and to have other people cook for you, and when you have that option, you almost always take it. But exercise, fresh air, and manual labor is still needed to avoid falling into a metaphorical sugar coma (ie the perptual depressive nature of suburbanites) and to appreciate the material comforts when you use them.

Of course it's not impossible to have your cake and eat it too. Figure out what you love and do it for a living. If you're lucky you happen to love something that pays the bills. (And this is why academics are so happy.)

And of course it makes sense that the common wisdom is that, nonetheless, richer people are happier. We all think we would be happier with more money. After all, how can having more options make you less happy? But we fail to take into account that having more options leaves you more prone to self-destructively hedonistic behavior, and that if you had more money, you would be a different type of person entirely, so it's not a valid comparison (outside of universal lotteries and unexpected inheritances...)

And yet, I wouldn't know how to go about proving my theory. I bet if you ask all those Brooklyn teenage single moms if they're happy, they will say no. And it's mindboggling to me to think that they could be, in that situation. Yet I've never seen a population of people who spends such a high fraction of time hanging around laughing and dancing to music and having fun with friends and family. They're evidentally usually in a very good mood despite the impossible situation, I assume just because they've gotten so used to that standard of living, but the impossible situation is what they refer to when asked if they're happy.

Actually, I bet they'd admit to being happy to their peers. Maybe that's the way to do it. Being asked by an anonymous third party triggers a comparison to the overall average standard of living, which doesn't have anything to do with what mood you're usually in. Or, specifically ask about moods in short timespans: "how happy were you at 8am, 9am, 10am..."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Theory of Grad School

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

football science

For the small percentage of science geeks who love football, or the small percentage of football fans who are science geeks, via Freakonomics, a great NYTimes article on football injury statistics.

These observations are so fascinating and far enough from common knowledge, sometimes even counterintuitive, that it points out a broader need for better football statistics. Baseball sure is boring to watch but it's a statistic lover's paradise - why can't football follow suit? There's a much richer realm of subtle patterns there than in baseball to start with and I want to hear about it.

(And as I was typing that, I noticed that the tagline for the website that the above article's author normal writes for, Football Outsiders, is "Innovative statistics, intelligent analysis". *grin* I will soon be assessing the legitimacy of that claim...)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

sluggishness and urgency

Woke up to a cold rainy day today. I was instantly un-tempted by the possibility of football and tailgating, or a barbecue with old college friends, two possible alternatives to catching up on homework and RA work all day. In fact there's really not much of anything I want to do besides stay home, and not much of anything to do at home besides work. The opportunity cost of homework collapsed.

Yet I'm less inclined to do it anyway. Who wants to get energized for deep thinking when it's so dreary? And besides, having to pass up on fun is great motivation to work hard, so that just maybe you'll have time for both or at least not have to pass it up in the future. But now the urgency is gone.

So instead I lazily muse about how these two factors might influence aggregate economic outcomes.

And then hit the limit of a reasonable amount of musing in the medium of blogs, and decide to get back to work...

Monday, September 7, 2009

David Brooks on Health Care

I don't have a lot to say about the raging health care debate. The current system is already so dysfunctional that, despite my libertarianism, I sometimes think single-payer would be an improvement that's at least more likely to be politically feasible than fixing the problems in the piecemeal opaque disaster we have now. And maybe medical innovation won't even collapse when the last first world economy strangles its health care industry - can't China pick up the slack...?

(The fact I'm capable of this train of thought makes it clear what a depressing mess the issue really is.)

But, while I skim halfheartedly over most health care arguments, David Brooks's editorial (hands down my favorite NYTimes opinion columnist. Always sensible and inspiring, vehemently unbeholden to party line in exactly the right ways, never petty or gossipy.) really hit the nail on the head. Must read.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Behavioral economics makes you a better person

There's a cliche, or a stereotype, about psychologists, that they're in the field to learn about and work out their own problems. I find this amusing and certainly containing more than a grain of truth, but what they should be doing if they want to analyze their own behavior is become an economist.

Psychology is mostly about pathology. It's less concerned with how normal people act, and very concerned with the origin and remedy for pathological deviations from that normal behavior. Studying psychology to understand yourself most often just leads to hypochondrial interpretation of normal actions or normal ranges of actions that can be pathological only in the extreme, just because that's all the literature is talking about.

Economics, meanwhile, is exclusively concerned with how people behave on average, and thus is much more relevant to the average person. And it tells you exactly where you're going wrong, how much it's costing you, and how to do better (well, we usually know how to do better anyway, but pointing out the mechanism and cost and TRUTH of the cost is a darn good impetus to actually make a change.) Procrastination? Overconfidence? Underconfidence? Underestimating the probability of bad events happening to you in particular? Overestimating the probability of winning the lottery or of that sniffle being a sign of ebola? Commitment? Follow-through? Failure to anticipate future desires when you have a chance to do something about them? A strange affinity for credit card debt or payday loans? Grass-is-greener syndrome? Taking too big or too little risks? Economics can help you!

Maybe I'll write a self-help book.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


A Happy Marriage, by Rafael Yglesias - This book was absolutely beautiful. I'm not usually fond of fiction and skim through as much extraneous description as possible, but I savored every single sentence in this book. It is autobiographical, and reads strongly as such despite the third-person pronouns and adamant subtitle "A Novel", but if anything that only enhances the integrity and genuineness of the story and writing.

The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouak - This was admittedly many leagues better than On the Road. However, while I hated On the Road for its complete lack of substance and senseless careless rebel-without-a-cause attitudes of the characters, I still hated a lot of the substance of Dharma Bums for being utter self-evident nonsense. I appreciate the sentiment, I can somewhat empathize with the broad goals of the characters, and a few nuggets of wisdom did sneak through, but overall the main character, who is autobiographical, is such that I am not at all surprised to find out that Kerouak switched back to Catholicism and died of liver failure (I swear every other sentence is something like "we drank some wine and things got crazy") while living with his mom at age 47.

Also, it is hard to fully enjoy Kerouak's writing as a woman due to the fact that the only role females play in these people's lives is as objects of momentary inauthentic passion that they can trade around or dispose of at will. I know they participated willingly, and that was partly just the culture of the time, but hey, if it gets under my skin of all people's it's obviously significant.

Foundations of Human Sociality, by Henrich et al. - I just read this collection of cross-cultural studies of experiments designed to measure fairness and cooperation norms because it is closely related to a project I'm working on, but I highly enjoyed it. (And am self-admittedly very biased since this is the collaborative project that Jean Ensminger at Caltech has been working on, which was got me interested in economics in the first place.) If you have any illusions that any universal human norms exist, read this.

I also enjoyed it in the context of it being a collection of anthropology studies, and standards of research and writing and evidence are quite different between that field and economics. Economists are usually quite smug and superior about their quantitative methods and rigor, and I certainly think those are worthy priorities, but I frankly love reading this anthropology stuff much more than economics papers just because you get so much more contextual information and story telling and they hypothesize wildly and offer anecdotal evidence and statistically very weak evidence without apology, and while that isn't proof of anything, it is still extremely interesting, thought-provoking, and good for guiding future research among scientists who didn't have the privilege of physically being there and acquiring that circumstantial knowledge. Intuition and anecdotes can be very misleading and we should certainly be wary of that, but at least they point in interesting directions to pursue, whereas editing that out for the sake of rigor offers nothing at all.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Um, is this a hold up?

Effective spiel, read by 3rd party activist groups: "Please support small-time entrepreneurs in general in order to keep them off the streets and out of trouble."

Ineffective spiel, read by an individual small-time entrepreneur: "Please buy some of this candy to keep me off the streets and out of trouble."

Someone should notify these subway-hopping candy sellers that their script is fundamentally flawed.

Friday, August 28, 2009

types of taxes

Such a list as I will formalize below would be mind-numblingly boring to someone who understands economics, but unfortunately only 14% of legislators understand the law of supply and demand (People buy less when it costs more! That's not even the law of supply of supply and demand, just demand, but it's already too much for these people!), and I'm sure far fewer in the general population (god bless representative democracy), so I'm going to write it anyway. (At least so my roommate can read it and hopefully have one more source of economic logic in her life than personal anecdotes on This American Life.)

There are some types of taxes, categorized by intent, that are easily confused and have very different pragmatic requirements/implications. Let's get them straight for once.
  1. Taxes to price in negative externalities: Also known as Pigou taxes. If driving your car to work costs you five dollars, and costs society 3 dollars in pollution and road congestion, you should be taxed by 3 dollars in order to correct the market failure that will result. This shifts the equilibrium from one in which too many people drive to work back to one in which the socially optimal number of people drive to work. Practical issues of calculation and enforcement can be complicated but I'm all in favor of these types of taxes when they can be done well.
  2. Taxes to punish "bad" behavior. For example, a tax on soda or fast food or SUVs. If you just want to slap people on the wrist for doing something, whether or not they keep doing it, it doesn't matter what the target is. But if you really want to curb consumption, you need demand to be very elastic. A tax on soda may cause a lot of people to switch to juice or water, but a tax on heroine is not going to get anyone to break the habit and stop shooting up. These types of taxes are paternalistic bullcrap.
  3. Taxes to raise revenue. This can be levied on anything you want, but it needs to be something with very inelastic demand, so you won't just kill the market and fail to collect any tax revenues. These types of taxes are a necessarily evil but can be done in very good or very bad ways. Bad, mostly by failing to remember the "inelastic demand" qualification, but also by having undesirable implications on wealth distribution. This leads to:
  4. Taxes to redistribute wealth. This would be a secondary goal along with #3. If you can raise as much money by taxing private jets as by taxing bread, clearly the former is much better at transferring money from the rich to the poor. That's sometimes a good goal and sometimes not, but if it is the goal, that's what you should do. Note that this is very different from taxing "conspicuous consumption" or something like that. That falls under #2. Inelastic demand is again important for these taxes. If you want equality, you want rich people to spend their money so it gets transferred back to poorer people, and it doesn't much matter what they spend it on (and a tax on luxury goods with very elastic demand could just make them hoard it in their bank account or stick it in a trust fund to create more rich people, exactly the opposite of spreading the wealth.)
Let's consider an example... Tolls on the Bay Bridge. If you want the toll to compensate for the negative externalities of using the Bay bridge, charge the per user cost of bridge maintenance, plus the cost of increasing road congestion by one car (this cost varies based on current congestion. Tolls should automatically increase during rush hour.) Additionally, the toll should be much higher for cash payers than Fastlane payers, since the latter hold up traffic less, lower for motorcycles, higher for semis, etc.

Say, on the other hand, you want to keep people off the bridge, polluting the air and clogging the highway, and put them on the BART. You should just raise the toll until few enough people want to use the bridge, however many you decide that is. Cars should be taxed MORE than semis, since the drivers of cars are making a "bad" decision to drive, whereas truck drivers have no choice. Hybrid cars should be taxed less than regular cars, since they're being more "responsible" about gas usage, and motorcycles taxed even less, since they're more responsible about both gas usage and traffic congestion.

Now how about the case where you just want to use the bridge as a holdup to raise as much money as possible. Then it doesn't matter what kind of vehicle it is, you just adjust the toll upwards until your revenue is maximized (for awhile you can increase the toll without many cars stopping using the bridge, but eventually people will switch to BART and revenue will decrease. Just before that is where you set the toll.)

Now say you just want to redistribute wealth. Then you put higher tolls on more expensive and emptier cars and make sure you're not just killing your wealthy consumer base, so you actually raise money to give to poor people. City busses don't have to pay (remember that taxes on businesses are just passed on to customers - higher bus tolls translate to higher fares for their poor riders.)

Luckily, it looks like the toll structure most closely follows an effort to correct externalities. Taxes are higher for larger vehicles, and carpools are free during rush hours. Not perfect, but in the right direction.

So, next time someone tells you they want to tax SUVs to offset vehicle pollution, call their bluff. If they wanted to do that, they would tax gasoline by the gallon (which, lo and behold, already charges SUVs drivers more since they use more gas.) All an SUV tax does is spitefully punish "bad" behavior, and redistribute wealth.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The placebo effect

Very interesting article (via Matt Yglesias) about the placebo effect, and particularly how it is increasing, culturally dependent, and recently studied more directly.

I've always wondered why it was not the focus of study, but exclusively the baseline for study of other drugs, and why there is not a protocol (the ethical dilemmas should not be impossible to address) in place for directly prescribing placebos in cases where it is is likely to be effective and when, for example, side effects of "real" drugs are severe in general or for a particular patient. Doctors self-admittedly already do this by prescribing ineffective treatments - why can they not simply prescribe a placebo and call it something else (and I mean really brazenly: prescribe Valium and give them sugar pills, don't prescribe drug RG8789 which is secretly a sugar pill). This should at least be allowed in situations where the patient has previously signed on to such a program (maybe as an option through your insurance plan that any doctor can see - or as an option with each individual doctor or hospital, although I suspect that the more often you say "yes you are allowed to lie to me", the more you expect to be lied to, and the less effective is the placebo effect, so ideally it would be through insurance, which is both rarely changed and psychologically removed from the actions of particular doctors during particular office visits.)

Anyway there are lots of really interesting points in the article and this question of making placebos a mainstream remedy was not really one of them, that's just my own interest. More relevantly, placebo effects are highly culturally sensitive (drug companies now like to go offshore to run trials) and are increasing over time (possibly due to the success of pharmaceutical advertising raising our expectations of the effects of pills in the last 20 years). They have certain known chemical mechanisms (opioids released in the brain under stress, which reduce pain and moderate heart rate and respiration), and many un-understood mechanisms (blue pills typically reduce anxiety except in Italy where it is the national soccer team's color...). The placebo effect is more potent when fake drugs are administered with higher frequency, but can be a long-term benefit, contrary to popular wisdom. And, most intriguingly, it can be very very strong.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sign me up!

Oh thank you marginal revolution for absolutely making my day with this. Atheist pet lovers paid to take care of animals when they're all left behind at Rapture! I need to look into this further - do volunteer pet care providers get paid a fraction of the $110 immediately or only in case of Rapture? Frankly either way I'll take the money. What better way to celebrate the end of evangelism than new kittens?

I also am very amused by the flip of asymmetric belief. More frequently, skeptical buyers purchase from sellers who claim to believe in their product (psychics, banking in the afterlife, etc). But here's a business run by people who are required to not believe in the value of its product, counting on customers who do.

You've committed your life to Jesus. You know you're saved. But when the Rapture comes what's to become of your loving pets who are left behind? Eternal Earth-Bound Pets takes that burden off your mind.
We are a group of dedicated animal lovers, and atheists. Each Eternal Earth-Bound Pet representative is a confirmed atheist, and as such will still be here on Earth after you've received your reward. Our network of animal activists are committed to step in when you step up to Jesus.

We are currently active in 20 states and growing. Our representatives have been screened to ensure that they are atheists, animal lovers, are moral / ethical with no criminal background, have the ability and desire to rescue your pet and the means to retrieve them and ensure their care for your pet's natural life.

Our service is plain and simple; our fee structure is reasonable. For $110.00 we will guarantee that should the Rapture occur within ten (10) years of receipt of payment, one pet per residence will be saved. Each additional pet at your residence will be saved for an additional $15.00 fee. A small price to pay for your peace of mind and the health and safety of your four legged friends.

Unfortunately at this time we are not equipped to accommodate all species and must limit our services to dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, and small caged mammals.

Thank you for your interest in Eternal Earth-Bound Pets. We hope we can help provide you with peace of mind.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

academic humor

Greg Mankiw strikes again, the decidedly unhumorous economist always leading me the way to hilarity. You must read this.

And, on a similar subject of the journal submission and referee process, you must read this, by Preston McAfee (who, as I have previously mentioned, is one of the most hilarious and interesting economists I've met.)


Friday, August 21, 2009

high-speed rail

I have to ask, what is with all the hype about high-speed rails lately? As far as I can tell, it's originated and propagated solely by Europhile liberals with wistful idealistic daydreams of zipping silently through the Swiss countryside. That may be a practical solution where major hubs of business and government are clustered within a couple hundred kilometers of each other across an entire continent and where a long tradition of rail travel has ingrained in the population the idea that rail travel is the default and easiest mode of transportation and that the noise associated with railways is just something society has to put up with, but these are two massive cultural differences that the U.S. cannot overcome to make such a system worthwhile here, even in the few isolated areas where major cities are close enough to warrant rail construction (and where a rail system does not already exist. This eliminates ... everywhere.)

Amtrak is an unmitigated disaster. A trip I can make in 15 hours by car from Los Angeles to Seattle for about $120 in gas money costs more to do by train and takes about 40 hours (despite schedules that persistently insist trains will arrive 16 hours before they do.) I can make the same trip for about the same price as it costs to drive by plane, and that only takes about 5 hours, including airport waits. I've never travelled this exact route by Greyhound, but I'd bet anything that is also cheaper and faster than the train, and has the added advantage that every few hours you can actually get off and buy some food that isn't sold at a 1200% markup. The only people who ever travel via Amtrak are rich vacationing retirees. And more of those Europhile idealistic liberals.

Not to mention Amtrak is a bankrupt company that only survives on government aid (guess which government figures push for that aid...) This is absolutely insane. An inefficient and outdated private company with a disproportionately wealthy clientele propped up by the US government? Please.

Rail travel is so much better for the environment than car or plane, and are a net benefit when you take into consideration those hidden costs, you say? Well then, please take a look at this (and the linked-to reports for details.) I will quote (emphasis mine):
Edward Glaeser (over at the Economix blog) and I have been writing about high-speed rail (HSR) over the past couple of weeks; he just finished his cost-benefit analysis of a hypothetical Dallas-Houston line with a look at land-use impacts. His overall conclusion, even making some very generous assumptions in favor of rail, is that the line would be a net cost to society of at least $375 million per year. This includes HSR’s potential environmental benefits as well as the direct gains to riders.
Just because one thing is better environmentally doesn't mean that it will automatically be economically worthwhile when you include those hidden costs to society. I am very sympathetic to these arguments when they are valid, having been an ardent environmentalist making exactly this argument for renewable energy and conservation since I was about 10, but it has become the knee-jerk explanation sans followup recently and we should impose some discipline on the makers of these claims.

Why is there not a push for innovation and reforms to make air travel cleaner and faster? The only reason people would consider even a high-speed rail journey, 2 or 3 hours, from LA to San Francisco, over a half hour flight, is the 2 hours of bureaucracy and security we have to endure to get on the plan. I suspect that if rail travel became more dominant, not only would security waits for trains drastically increase as security concerns mounted, thus eliminating much of that advantage, but that there is quite a bit of room for improvement in airport efficiency, especially for tiny regional hops that would be the substitute for rail travel.

Also, I suspect that similarly to the environmental gains of replacing a 9 mpg hummer with a 16 mph SUV dwarfing the gains of replacing a Toyota Camry with a Toyota Prius, there are enormous potential gains in environmental effects in airline travel.

Why are these things not being explored thoroughly and aggressively before to committing the government to billions and billions of both fixed and ongoing costs for infrastructure for an outdated mode of transportation in an ill-suited environment and skeptical potential consumers?

If the government hadn't been looking for every possible avenue to force money into the economy earlier this year, there is no way such a ridiculous plan would now be taken so seriously.