Wednesday, May 26, 2010


A month? Really? A month of two Exxon Valdez's per week and no one has yet been able to plug the damn hole?

Kinda makes me worry about what will happen when we discover a near-Earth asteroid three weeks from impact...

Monday, May 24, 2010

private business compromise

Due to Rand Paul, this issue of rights of private businesses, or the line between public and private domains, has been a hot topic lately.

The libertarian part of me doesn't want to interfere with anyone's decisions, however misguided, about who to do business with. 99.9% of the time any business plan that includes refusing to sell to a group of people will fail miserably anyway.

The realist in me realizes that in certain cases, social pressures and culture completely outweigh market mechanisms, so that discrimination can be pervasive and permanent without some kind of intervention. Segregation prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is one example. The only other one that I can think of is the case of a few pharmacies in the middle of the country who refuse to sell contraceptives or the morning after pill.

So how to reconcile a desire not to interfere in people's choices and these occasional "market failures" when those failures are very bad for society? Shockingly this hasn't even been asked; people are either dogmatically against any government intervention or dogmatically opposed to allowing any kind of discrimination, public or private, about who to sell to or what to sell (as long as the item in question is compatible with their broader paternalistic goals. You won't see them complaining about grocers who refuse to sell inorganic produce or processed cheese food, even in extremely impoverished neighborhoods where financial constraints completely trump those long-term probabilistic health considerations among customers. Not that any entrepreneur would be so self-defeating as to actually attempt such a thing...)

On the other side, it's not just about bigoted choices about who to interact with. If I were morally nauseated by the idea of abortion, I would be irate if forced to perform one as a doctor or to sell RU-486 as a pharmacist. For some people, those desires are so strong that it's reasonable to guess (certainly if erring on the side of freedom, as should always be the case...) that these people would not have chosen to enter their profession if they had known they would be forced to abandon their principles. I am very pro-choice, yet even I can empathize enough to stay true to my ideal of freedom of private, victimless human interactions.

But the two ideological extremes aren't the only possibility. Why not incorporate a grandfather clause into anti-discrimination legislation? Only new businesses would be required to follow the new guidelines. Anyone entering that profession would do so with the understanding that they would be required to perform certain services, and can choose another path if they strongly object to them. That kind of regulation is more palatable to my libertarian sensibilities, but still instigates largescale cultural change as assimilation occurs in all public venues and in a strictly increasing proportion of private venues. As the tide turns, the remainder won't even want to stick to their old ways.

It's kind of unfortunate that this issue is being discussed in the context of the civil rights movement, which at this point the entire country is united in favor of. Anyone who suggests that people should be allowed to make their own stupid mistakes under the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and to squander that opportunity with doomed business practices, is therefore instantly labelled racist. The paternalists never even get to the point of considering whether it might be worthwhile to ponder the issue from the perspective of business owners whose moral compasses don't coincide with the cultural mood of the moment.

Steven Landsburg says this particularly well. No, Rand Paul is not nostalgic for the confederacy. He's just too honest for his own good at the moment.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

two puzzles

Two of my favorite puzzles that I've seen in the last few months:

The first is an optical illusion. See if you can figure out where the extra guy is coming from
(this should be a gif animation, if you don't see it moving click the link):

The second is a math puzzle. Say you have a bunch of balls of different colors moving the same speed in either direction around a circle. Any time two of them collide, they immediately bounce off each other and start going the same speed in the opposite direction. Take a snapshot of this system. Will the system ever look exactly the same again?

The answer is really simple when you see it. But think about it before reading about it here, in the first comment =)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

feminist high-horses

I can't find the feministing post on this anymore, but here's Ezra Klein's.

Admittedly, "Just wondering, are men allowed to be appointed to the Supreme Court anymore?" is a stupid question and in very poor taste to start with. But the reaction to it (on feministing, at least, and to a lesser extent by Ezra Klein) is also stupid but has not been pointed out as such.*

The feministing reaction was that "how can someone ask this after never questioning two male appointees in a row?" and the Ezra Klein reaction is a slightly more sophisticated version of the same in which he explicitly assumes a world where half of all potential nominees are women.

Taken to an extreme for the sake of making the point obvious, in a world where 999 out of every 1000 (equally-)qualified judges are male, it's completely expected that many men in a row would be appointed to the Supreme Court. If several women in a row were appointed, this would very likely indicate misandrous discrimination.

In the real world, about 20% of judges are female, and likely fewer within the higher courts since the trend of higher male-to-female ratios higher up the status/power latter seems general across occupations for whatever reason (discrimination or personal preference or cultural pressure or a mix of all of the above, doesn't matter right now). This is even a much higher percentage than in the past. Therefore, it's really not so surprising that most Supreme Court appointees have been men, and while two women in row is not so strange that I'm going to attack Obama for being sexist, it is much less likely than two men if no discrimination is taking place.

If feminists want to complain about discrimination without sounding ridiculous for complaining that a comment that points out the likelihood of misandry is itself misogynist, they should try a different line of reasoning that is much more likely and much less petty. Given that Obama is not selectively choosing women, but simply choosing the most qualified candidate available at the time, the fact that two women in a row in a very male-dominated profession were the most qualified in their field potentially indicates that female judges are more qualified on average than male judges. This in turn indicates that discrimination is going on at lower levels: if it's harder for women to get jobs as judges, then the ones who do must be exceptional compared to their male colleagues on average. (Even this isn't really a reasonable set of assumptions: while I don't think Obama is discriminating against men, I'm sure he wants to gender-balance the court for more palatable reasons.)

Over the years I have become much more sympathetic to certain 'feminist' priorities, but the virulent pouncing on any stray comment that hardly matters and isn't terribly unreasonable in the first place makes me still strongly keep my distance from the label. (As do the many other less palatable goals and overly-legal tactics and rhetoric of victimhood that made me loathe the movement from a young age...)

*One of the best things about being a woman is that I can safely stand up against the crazy feminists without being dismissed as a oldschool male-establishment woman-hater/patronizer. If only I were black too... Only people like Obama and Roland Fryer currently get away with telling black audiences to make smarter parenting and life choices. And no I'm not racist; I'm not saying only (or all) black audiences need to hear that, but certain socioeconomic problems do disproportionately affect blacks in the U.S. today, and if the audience happened to be mostly black and a white person said that they would be instantly crucified, a la the insane reaction to Larry Summer's infamous speech. But anyway, this parenthetical statement has gone on way too long to be legitimately parenthetical anymore, so I'll have to make it a footnote.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

grammar nitpicking

I'm simultaneously disdainful of certain grammar nazi pet peeves, but quite picky about most other rules of punctuation, usage, syntax, etc.

I believe that language is constantly evolving and that when a grammatical abuse has become common enough, we can stop calling it an error. 'Whom' can be 'who' in most cases, especially prepositional phrases. 'Me and X' can replace 'X and I'. I actively promote split infinitives; they're more precise if you think about it. It's ok to start sentences with 'And' or 'But' and it's certainly ok to end them with a preposition. 'Media' and 'data' can be used as singular nouns. The redundant 'PIN number' is acceptable.

In the second category, I really hate plural possessives that are apostrophed before the s, commas splices instead of semicolons, incorrectly or doubly pluralized nouns like 'phenomenas' (gag), adverbs missing their -ly's, and certain abused words like 'less' used to mean 'fewer' or 'intuitive' used to mean approximately 'insightful'. (Something is intuitive if it's easy to understand; you are not intuitive if you find something easy to understand. The exactly correct word for that doesn't exist in English as far as I know. Please enlighten me if it does.) And of course there are the really common mistakes that make my skin prickle even though I make them too simply because of the muscle memory that takes over my typing: there/they're/their, its/it's, too/to, etc. And ya'll instead of y'all! That one kills me. American southerners are the only people in the world who use the word and half they time they don't get it right.

(But the WORST is when grammar sticklers try so hard to be correct that they start making the opposite mistake. Ie, "Come to the store with Bob and I." Please stop it if you do that! It's nearly as bad as nails on a chalkboard!! Especially when you act all smug for not succumbing to the same plebeian errors as the rest of us!!!)

Back to the real point. Neither the "if it sounds right, you can say it" rule of thumb nor the mechanical rules of syntax help me know how to make a name and a pronoun simultaneously possessive.

Consider "Dave and Larry's car is broken." That's fine. The second subject is made a possessive and it sounds right.

But "Dave and my car is broken" doesn't sound right at all, although it follows the same rules. "My and Dave's car" sounds a little better, not perfect, but breaks the rule that 'I' or 'me' should come last in a list, and also possessifies both subjects. Avoiding the double possessive, "I and Dave's" sounds horrible. "Dave and I's" is what I actually most commonly hear, but it is painfully, unequivocally wrong. "Dave's and my" is what I've settled on as the best option, although Dave really shouldn't be possessified.

What to do??

Addendum: My dad (conveniently, an expert on coordination syntax theory...) confirms that "Dave and my" is technically correct but that "Dave's and my" sounds more natural. "Dave and I's" is most common not because of the impulsive "and I" correctness, but because "noun classes break down in coordinate structures": we treat the coordinate structure as a unit and then tack on an -'s at the end.

Unrelated ranting addendum: Grammar education in the U.S. is profoundly sad. I didn't learn squat about grammar until taking English as a second language in Germany in 7th grade, and then in Mrs. Ramsey's class in junior high at a still shockingly rudimentary level compared to what was standard in decades past. Grammar is fun! Why did they stop teaching it? I'm gonna have to teach myself.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Texas Star Party & Amateur Science

I wanted to be an astronomer from about age 11 through 17. I was seriously obsessed with space. I went to space camp and two astronomy camps and delivered newspapers for 17 months in order to buy a 10 inch Newtonian telescope, at which point I dragged my dad 12 hours south to Texas for a star party during spring break. I got involved in astronomy research as soon as possible and did that for three years. So how did I end up an economist?

It turns out there is a huge gulf between professional and amateur astronomy that I couldn't get past. It is so thoroughly disheartening to work with people who have spent their lives studying galaxies but can't point out constellations or find their favorite spiral in a telescope without a computer doing all the work. It completely baffles me that someone could meander their way into a lifelong devotion to astronomy without that passion having its origins in the beauty of the sky. How is it possible that nowhere along the line they asked, hmm I wonder where I can find this globular cluster in the sky and what it looks like without a 10 hour exposure and lots of post-processing?

The other thing is that science research is very tedious. I don't mind tedium so much; I'm still another kind of scientist and have enough of an OCD inclination to spend hours or days figuring out some tiny detail or bug, but there are different kinds of tedium. In astronomy, the details you fight with are fairly meaningless and technical and not relevant to anything else in your life. In economics, they are very intuitive and very relevant and have many wide-ranging implications, and thinking about them turns into a delightful 24-7 obsession. Subtracting dark frames and signal processing is not something that keeps me up at night and makes me debate with myself while walking down the street complete with hand gestures; subtleties of human behavior that I encounter daily and use in research do.

You might think that amateur astronomy sacrifices some of the scientific know-how that the professionals have, but that is broadly speaking not true at all. It's true that most amateurs probably can't do the mathematical calculations necessary to re-derive major results, but they definitely understand the principles behind them. That's really as much as professionals know anyway, unless they are purely theoretical or talking about their own tiny specialty. If you start taking part in stargazing, it's obvious how the science and the observation have to go hand-in-hand: after you've exhausted the brightest objects in the sky, frankly everything looks like a fuzzy grey blob, and then the draw comes from a combination of the thrill of finding it at all and the knowledge of what it is. If you find something intriguing to look at, you are driven to find out what it is and how it works, and conversely if you learn about some stunning astronomical process, you want to go look for an example. It's a mutually reinforcing process.

So I'm quite happy to call myself an amateur astronomy and professional economist. In fact I feel that there is a point of pride in the 'amateur' modifier; I would much rather strike up a conversation about science with an amateur astronomer any day. They are invariably extremely friendly and enthusiastic about the same things as me and definitely won't start complaining about their job or their floundering observing run proposal or their broken computer code with the cynical air of a day laborer. The people at star parties are doing what they've been looking forward to for months and are of course very fun to be around as a result.

I also enjoy learning about science from the perspective of an amateur, as I've been strongly reminded this week. A couple days ago I went to a talk on 'superthin' galaxies that they had to accompany one of the official observing lists of 25 superthin galaxies. At first I figured that they were simply spiral galaxies viewed exactly edge-on, but it turns out they're really a distinct class of galaxy that are underdeveloped, have a small or no central bulge, have low star formation, and high gas-to-dust ratio. The talk went through the science of explaining how they form, where they are usually found, why they have the features that they do, etc, but also discussed each aspect in terms of how it affects what we see:

The central bulge is the most notable feature that you can usually see through an amateur-sized telescope, and in superthin galaxies they can appear round or peanut shaped, depending on whether you are seeing the beginnings of a barred spiral from the end of the bar or the side. If from the side, the matter that is ejected above the plane of the galaxy where the arm turns into a spiral forms a peanut shaped bulge. From the end, of course you only see one bump. As for their high gas-to-dust ratios, viewed face on they would be transparent, hence their invariant superthin appearance. As for their underveloped nature with low star formation, this is because they formed in isolation in gas-poor regions between galaxy clusters, so we mostly see them individually.

Isn't that vastly more exciting that just hearing that certain galaxies form in a certain way? With this visually-oriented description, I can take my telescope out and readily verify these details myself (well, if I had a slightly bigger telescope; with a 10-inch only a few on the list are bright enough for me.)

(If I start talking about how I also love sitting in the cold in the middle of the night spending an hour drawing a single open cluster with a tiny red flashlight between my teeth and eyepatch over one eye, and how I love hopping from one star to another very very precisely until I finally find the tiny fuzzy blob that I can only see with averted vision and only intermittently, and how I love staring at sky maps, and love switching between 27 combinations of eyepieces and barlow lenses trying to get the best view of something, and love lists of objects to observe and log, and love making tiny adjustments to finder scopes and telrads and mirrors until they are perfectly collimated and aligned, you might start to think I'm a little crazy, so I'll stop now.)


Three random things that I really love from the New York Times (opinion section):

Bill Hayes, who has been writing a series of columns relating to insomnia. Beautiful writer. This latest piece literally makes me ache to return to New York, the most perfect city in the world for all its standard appeals, but more importantly for the gritty details and cultural quirks that most people try to ignore.

Ben Schott's vocab blog. Utterly delicious for word nerds. My recent favorite is "durchmerkeln", the German word for "to muddle your way through something". It comes from "durch" meaning "through", "Merkel", the name of Germany's recently-notorious Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the n at the end makes it a verb.

Steven Strogatz's series on mathematics for the layman is consistently very cute and explains things with intuitive analogies that are often new to me.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Texas Star Party & Meteors

I'm spending the week at a remote ranch in southwest Texas for the king of all amateur astronomy events, the Texas Star Party. The sky here is the darkest found within the 48 contiguous states, and 700 amateur astronomers converge on the site every May to find the most elusive deep sky objects possible, compare 'scope equipment, and talk science.

The are some serious amateurs, too. There are plenty of 30- and 36-inch (!) telescopes loaded into huge trailers, and my 10-inch Newtonian that barely fits in my car when disassembled is probably about as small as it gets except for the toy telescopes that they bring along for fun or for the kids. (About 99.5% of attendees are middle aged men and their wives, or occasionally women with their husbands, but always old enough to have enough income to invest in all this fancy equipment. It's expensive to do it right.) All lighting is strictly forbidden after 9pm, except for dim red-lensed flashlights pointed at the ground at all times. The earliest scheduled events all week are after 1pm, allowing the astronomers to go to bed at dawn and still get a full peaceful morning of sleep.

Anyway, I just heard a presentation on meteors that taught me two very cool things that I didn't know before, and it was so exciting I had to share. But first a quick review of the basics:

Meteoroids are grains of sand or dust or, rarely, chunks of rock flying through outer space. When they hit the Earth's atmosphere, they burn up and sometimes survive long enough to hit the ground. When they are visible as streaks of light across the sky, they are called meteors. Once they hit the ground, they are called meteorites.

The composition of meteorites helps scientists understand what's going on in other parts of the universe. For example, one meteorite found on Earth contains black diamonds that formed around 7 billion years ago, several billion years before the formation of our own solar system. This meteorite also contains fossilized bacteria, proving that life of some form has existed extraterrestrially. In fact, a great many meteorites contain both left and right handed amino acids.

Anyway, awesome new fact number 1: The glow that we see when a meteor is burning up in the atmosphere is not actually from the burning grain of sand. We're seeing extremely compressed air just in front of the meteor: the meteor is traveling so fast (20 miles per second or so) that the air in front of it is compressed so much that it heats up and glows. This is a fairly recent discovery actually, and JPL allegedly recommended sticking with the burning story in primary school books because it's easy to understand, and they would straighten people out when they got there =)

Awesome new fact number 2, also very recently explained: You can hear meteors! This doesn't make any sense at first because meteors are many miles away, so any sound waves would take a long time to get to the observer. There's no way you could see and hear it simultaneously. Yet people have reported for quite a while, somewhat incredulously, hearing a sort of "electrosonic" buzzing sound as meteors flash across the sky. Now we know why. The meteor creates very low frequency radio waves, which travel much faster than sound since they aren't slowed down by the atmosphere so much. Nearly the speed of light. Of course, such low frequency waves are not audible, but antennae, in particular wire rimmed glasses (conveniently located right next to your ear) vibrate when these radio waves hit them, which we can hear. So, if you go to a meteor shower and don't wear glasses, buy some cheap reading glasses and knock out the lenses; you might get lucky and hear one.

With that, I will leave you with my favorite object in the entire night sky, visible only at very southern latitudes, which I gleefully stared at for at least twenty minutes last night.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Antanas Mockus is running for president!

My favorite politician, mathematician / de facto behavioral economist Antanas Mockus, is running for president of Colombia. This guy is awesome.

charter schools

I keep seeing charter schools in the news lately for being largely a disappointment. Some are great but most are mediocre, even a little worse than regular public schools, says headline after headline.

But why are they judging them collectively? The whole point of charter schools was to allow for innovation in education, to try out new things and stick with the ones that work. Success isn't guaranteed - this disparity between the occasional great charter schools and the mass of mediocre ones is exactly what was expected.

It's like saying life is a failure because most mutations fail and most species die out. I sure don't want to be the reporter who says we should give up on evolution. Why are so many jumping on the anti-charter school bandwagon?

Friday, May 7, 2010

NASA pilot Triple Nickel

Triple Nickel is probably the coolest person I know. He's a NASA pilot who trains the space shuttle pilots and last summer got to fly a 747 with space shuttle Atlantis riding piggyback from Columbus AFB in Mississippi back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (He also taught me everything I know about amateur astronomy along with some other great folks from the Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society, rides an awesome motorcycle, and grills the best steak I've ever tasted.)

Anyway, he wrote about that flight in a very exciting letter to the JSCAS mailing list, and it apparently went viral, for good reason. Read it, all the way through, I guarantee it's three minutes very well spent. And here's the pdf version with some more pictures from the JSCAS newsletter Starscan. And here's a video of the landing!

I love science.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

social norms >> policy

Yep yep. This is one of those "duh" things that people forget because we don't know what to do about social norms, but we do know what to do about policy, so we spend all our time and energy fighting over policy and forget the rest. But culture is just vastly more important.

(That, along with the fact that paying attention to politics is an utterly depressing use of time, makes me interested in studying the mechanics of social norms rather than other more traditional kinds of economics.)

Of course, policy is endogenous to culture, but culture influences policy far far more than policy influences culture. Therefore, Brad DeLong is being obtuse. (He doesn't elaborate in detail but I'm pretty sure the endogeneity is his objection. That would take more than one of David Brook's columns to discuss; I'm sure he's not just too dumb to realize it...)

MYglesias is also missing the point, but if he convinces people to stop listening to Brad DeLong, I'm ok with it... Of course when you take away people's freedom of choice, rendering irrelevant the culture that might inform their choices, then policy dominates culture, as in North Korea. Now can we ignore the trivial uninteresting cases and get back to the real issue please?

(Sorry to sound so snarky, but that's what happens when I'm forced to look at DeLong's blog. He puts more effort into insulting people than informing people. He and Krugman must be best friends.)

Monday, May 3, 2010

walmart's organic lettuce

Wal-mart has a new commercial explaining how they can sell organic lettuce at the same price as regular lettuce, because "our customers shouldn't have to pay more for a product that's good for their families and good for the earth."

That's fine and dandy, but don't forget two glossed-over details:

1. Organic lettuce costs more than regular lettuce to produce. If Wal-mart can charge the same thing for both, all that means is that they are over-charging for regular lettuce in order to bring the prices in line. They are failing to cut their profit margins on regular lettuce, or failing to aggressively negotiate equally favorable contracts with regular lettuce farmers, in order to sell the two goods at the same price.

2. This partnership directly with farmers, negotiating low prices in exchange for huge contracts, is great for eliminating middlemen and delivering goods closer to marginal cost to customers. Yet this is exactly what anti-Walmart crusaders complain about for making business harder for the middlemen and smaller establishments. Are they still complaining about it now that it's used to serve their other political agendas?

Saturday, May 1, 2010


Animal Spirits, by George Akerlof and Robert Schiller - Very interesting, well organized and well written consideration of the implications of behavioral economic concepts on macroeconomic phenomena. Aggregate implications of microeconomics is of course always an ultimate goal but behavioral economics is too young to hear much discussion of that aspect yet, so this was nice and fresh. I craved formal theory, but that's to be expected from a popular audience book.

Dr. Neruda's Cure for Evil, by Rafael Yglesias - Yglesias is my new favorite fiction writer. I went on a three day backpacking trip intending to spend the free time studying game theory but instead inhaled this book cover to cover, all 700 pages. It's a psychological thriller in three parts that keeps changing directions unexpectedly and is unrelentingly scintillating. This one and A Happy Marriage were great in different ways but both so good I can't pick a favorite.

The Poorhouse Fair, by John Updike - I usually love Updike but this one was exceedingly dull. It got better towards the end, and he is invariably a genius at exposing subtle emotions and human interactions, but I still wouldn't recommend it. Read The Same Door instead.