Monday, December 26, 2011

optimism update

I forgot one big item on my optimism list. I'm very optimist about the decline of religion (the rise of secularism, the replacement of evangelical flavors of religion with unitarian flavors of religion, the replacement of mythological flavors of religion with secularly spiritual flavors of religion, e.g. Confucianism or Buddhism although I would like to see other such varieties gain popularity as well, etc.)

Interesting on this topic.

Funny on this topic: How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Answer: We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your light bulb. During next Sunday's service, we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life and tinted; all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

(For the record, I love Unitarians. Honestly and unqualifiedly.)

On that note, happy winter holiday of your choosing, so long as you don't try to shame or look down on anyone else for not choosing with you. For those of you looking for a secular occasion to adopt (and why would you abstain from festivities on principle? Make up your own best-of-all-worlds festivities!), ACGPD is an easy way to go, although the lunar eclipse was a good cause as well this year. I don't buy into the winter solstice idea (only the summer solstice - why celebrate the onset of the worst time of year??). I do buy into the back-to-school celebration idea, although that was more pertinent when I actually had classes and actually lived somewhere else for school.

(Edit: as far as decorations go, I'd like to promote the traditional Christmas tree, because they smell nice, topped with a 17-point star, because they're awesome*, and decorated with rainbow lights, because they're... well they're just also awesome. And little plastic balls if you have cats :)

*yes, you have to make it according to Gauss's instructions in order to qualify as awesome. Choose your own skip pattern though.

Sunday, December 25, 2011


Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami - Best book I've read in a long, long, long time. Every time I set it down I was left in a Murakami trance for hours. I can't even pinpoint what was so good about it. The writing style is simple yet beautiful, sparse yet vivid; the plot is mundane yet riveting; the characters are ordinary yet compelling; and most amazingly, a book that exclusively examines relationships doesn't end up in naval-gazing tedium, but rather draws you so deeply into their situation that you can listen to it on your kindle and not even notice the robotic text-to-voice imperfections or that you've been stuck in rush hour traffic for half an hour or that you somehow just ran errands all over town purely on muscle memory, and then you get home and turn it off and sit dazed at your desk for who knows how long trying to remember who you are or what you're supposed to be doing or why you were supposed to care.

Are you there vodka? It's me Chelsea, by Chelsea Handler - It was laying around and the title made me curious. About as mildly amusing as you would expect from a book you only read because it was laying around.

The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford - Economists will find this boring, but I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn't learned economic theory. It's a very well done qualitative/popsci presentation. Especially those who like to argue about politics without understanding incentives or markets...

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Norway the near-miss-Persian-Gulf-state

Matt Yglesias* has an interesting column.

He shares my concern with a purely open-borders free-trade stance by risk-averse concerns about what happens when a nation puts all its economic eggs in one industry's basket (although he speaks mostly about Dutch Disease, which doesn't strictly have anything to do with that risk particular risk, but with currency valuation and its consequences for domestic industry competitiveness). And it's impossible to disagree with the conclusion that Norway has been very successful at avoiding becoming "yet another Saudi-style oil monoculture".

But, let's review. Dutch disease occurs when a large exporting commodity industry brings a lot of money suddenly into the country which drives up the value of the currency, making foreign goods cheap to export, which reduces the competitiveness of other domestic industries, which leaves the country dependent on this one industry for most of its income. There are a few ways to avoid this outcome. You can artificially reduce the competitiveness of foreign industries through protectionist policies like tariffs and subsidies. You can boost the competitiveness of domestic industries by investing in human capital, research and development, infrastructure, etc. Or you can stop the currency shock by setting aside commodity income as some form of savings.

These measures are not equally good. The last one allows the country to smooth the commodity income over time, reducing the impact of booms and busts in that particular commodity market on national income, and allows the benefits of the commodity income to be spread out over generations in whatever way desired. Investing in education/R&D/infrastructure is great for obvious reasons. Artificially changing the competitive balance via subsidies and tariffs, though, distorts incentives in a cherry-picked set of industries chosen via political whim, which can lead to major inefficiencies as soon as the situation changes at all (such as, for example, the current comical butter shortage that motivated Yglesias's post.) Beyond that, it can actually worsen the currency situation, since tariffs on imported goods reduces demand for foreign currency, driving the value of the domestic currency even higher.

With this in mind, Yglesias is first of all clearly much too quick to lump together Norway with those Saudi states. Ceteris not at all paribus. The culture and institutions and fiscal choices are radically different in many ways; the protectionist policies of the Norwegians likely explain a tiny fraction of the difference in overall outcomes. In particular, I'm guessing (by which I mean I'm pretty sure but don't want to compile proof just for a blog post...) they have a much stronger and longer-term commitment to investment, both for its own sake and as the 2nd Dutch Disease mitigation method I mentioned above, than most Saudi-style oil states.

Second of all, he glosses over the differences between those mitigation methods. Since the combination employed by Norway has been successful overall, he claims that the particular protectionist tactic is vindicated. That's obviously not a valid argument. (In fact, he mentions that the national savings fund is a much more important aspect of their efforts to avoid Dutch Disease, but then glosses over the differences between the methods again.)

All in all, though, it's nice to hear support for protectionism being motivated by rational long-sighted economic logic, rather than the short-sighted knee-jerk yet ubiquitous "stop the mean foreigners from stealing our jobs" rhetoric. I'm so happy about that I almost don't want to bother nitpicking with the details. In fact, I'd call this more of a clarification than a counterargument, since his ultimate point is just that avoiding Dutch Disease is a good goal and the Norwegians should be admired for trying, even if it leads to silly butter shortages.

*It's nice to see him writing longer form stuff now that he's at Slate. (At least, I think it's a higher percentage of his posts, at quick glance...)

Friday, December 16, 2011

self-fulfilling beliefs

A much more humorous examination :)

(I don't know why he felt the need to invent another word for it though, especially with as awkward a definition as that. Oh well.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

college as signaling/education/life-coaching

I wouldn't go as far as Bryan, but I agree with his general point that college is often more of a signaling device (I went to college, therefore I am the type of person who gets into and finishes college, therefore I'm a good hire) than an actual educational system in which you acquire the skills you need to excel at your career.

I do, though, think that part of the reason is that college is designed to be good at one kind of education, and that kind of education isn't very general, and out of some combination of inertia and a concern about maintaining credibility and the fact that the pure signaling mechanism already works pretty well at motivating enrollment, that hasn't changed very much over time as college becomes more universal. For example, a traditional college could emulate music conservatories more closely, for music majors, or a trade school education, for people intending to go into those careers. Or they could simply offer more classes that could replace/accelerate/enhance on-the-job training in a variety of careers.

But, despite the fact that I admit that part of the reason college is oversold for a large fraction of students is an avoidable consequence of its current design, and that a major, or even primary, function of it is to be a signaling mechanism, I also wouldn't go nearly as far as Seth Roberts:
At Berkeley (where Bryan went and I taught) and universities generally, the highest praise is brilliant. Professor X is brilliant. Or: Brilliant piece of work. People can do great things in dozens of ways, but somehow student work is almost never judged by how beautiful, courageous, practical, good-tasting, astonishing, vivid, funny, moving, comfortable, and so on it is. Because that’s not what professors are good at.
Um, what? Academics are trained to be brilliant and judged by their brilliance. That's what academia is, a brilliance factory. When you enter academia as a student, of course this is also the standard you will be judged by.

Even if college adopted a more flexible educational paradigm that actually prepared people for careers in the real world (or the arts, I guess, since the standards Seth is describing seem to be relevant mostly to those), it's ridiculous that college would be the place for learning those things. Certain skills are better learned, or must be learned, in the course of life, not in a structured learning environment. Inspiration, passion, courage, etc. cannot be taught because they come from within, emerging organically and unforcibly through the course of life's varied experiences.

I for one would be damn pissed off if I was paying for an education and got a life coach instead.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

lunar eclipse

I finally saw (most of) a total lunar eclipse last night. Got up at 4:30am after a two-hour nap on an office couch, grumbled a lot about how if my parents hadn't sent me to bed before totality during the eclipse in junior high or OSSM had let us stay outside for the one in high school and if it hadn't been cloudy during the last three I tried to see I wouldn't have to settle for this one starting in the middle of the freaking night instead of comfortably in the evening hours, got the scope and binoculars set up on the roof of a building in Alameda, and was blown away for the next two hours.

About halfway through the partial eclipse, through the eyepiece of my telescope

Partial eclipse over San Francisco and the Bay Bridge

Peak Totality

totality over bay bridge; starting to get light out

And then it started to get light out. It was never unhazy, and the marine layer really started coming in towards the end, so we lost the moon entirely around 6:45. Totality ended at 6:56 and the sunrise was at 7:18, so we didn't see it emerge from totality (or the selenelion). The haze was unfortunately too thick to get a clearish picture through the telescope during totality, and you can see that even these are pretty fuzzy.

I was amazed how dark it got. Typical sequences of images of lunar eclipses vary the exposure length so that the overall brightness isn't too drastically different from the beginning to the middle of the sequence. This is of course necessary - any exposure long enough to capture the moon at peak totality would be horrendously overexposed if used to image the moon normally. Despite knowing this, I was surprised how dim the eclipsed moon was in reality.

Thoroughly awesome. As was going to sleep at 7:30 afterwards...

Thursday, December 8, 2011

social norms, morality, and psychology

Social norms are fundamentally multiple-equilibrium outcomes. In a given context, some outcome (how much to give to charity, what the housework/schoolwork balance for kids should be, what age defines adulthood, how to treat animals, rules for dating, rules for hygiene, rules for hospitality, the list is endless) somehow is chosen as the equilibrium norm, through some process that is not well understood. Then through some other process that is only becoming well-understood currently, this norm is enforced and perpetuated organically.

The best candidate for that process is, essentially, social- and self- image. We obey norms because we want to be seen, and see ourselves, as good people who obey norms, or to avoid the punishment that comes from breaking them.

But, inevitably, the line between "good" and "conformist" and between "caring about being good" and "caring about being seen as good" is blurred. This is partially because there are certain situations in which we think there is something like an absolute morality. In these contexts (random cold-blooded murder, for example), every society has the same equilibrium norm. Then there are other situations where there's near consensus, like monogamy, or rape, or violence towards women, etc. And other situations where there's a little less consensus, like marital fidelity or child labor. And this continuum of consensus continues all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum where norms of formal dress or small talk lie.

Within this smooth continuum, it's hard to tell exactly how much of a social norm is an arbitrary equilibrium choice and how much is a result of absolute morality. Even on the far end of the spectrum, we can plausibly say that it's morally wrong to ignore arbitrary norms of dress, because of the destructive disruption it can cause, or some such explanation.

In addition to this fundamental ambiguity that leads people to forget about the arbitrary aspect of norms, the moral motivation for adhering to any norm is often reinforced since the easiest way to keep the masses in line is to keep them from thinking too much about the rightness or wrongness of an action and simply prescribe a code of behavior as morally absolute. Sure, religion and other ethical codes don't usually dictate behavior in the realm of workplace attire, but they reinforce the moral interpretation of norms overall. Soon, the arbitrariness is forgotten (or never realized to begin with, after enough the moral rhetoric prevails for enough generations.)

This may keep society functioning in an orderly manner, but the sword cuts both ways. The more we motivate our actions by telling ourselves that it's the right thing to do, the more we interpret others actions likewise. Thus, a friend's gaffe is interpreted (usually not illegitimately - I'm describing a rational expectations equilibrium here) as a lack of concern about being a good person, rather than simply lack of concern for social signaling, or a reasoned objection to the governing norm, or a reasoned situational deviation from that norm.

In a society where we are already so overly preoccupied with self-analysis and psychology and we overthink  every action and reaction in our friendships and relationships, we don't need to feed the naval-gazing by making it even harder to remember not to jump to conclusions of malice. Remember that norms are flexible and definitely not always agreed on. Clarify expectations when that potential disagreement might lead to misunderstanding and hurt. Clarify intentions after the fact. Give the benefit of a doubt.

Well, that was a long way around to that point :)

Saturday, December 3, 2011


The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks - Interesting, weird, darkly humorous, engrossing at the time but ultimately not my favorite kind of book. And the ending really didn't tie up enough loose ends in my opinion.

The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon - Unsettlingly engrossing; take a break periodically to reassure yourself that only the character, not you, is toying with sanity. That caution, however, was not meant to contradict or caveat an enthusiastic recommendation. Pynchon disparages this book which makes me want to read his others even more.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien - I apparently don't like war stories very much. They were ok in a small dose, but I really don't care for having the ficton of a story shoved in my face constantly. Why would you do that? Tell a story, sell a story, insist on its truth, even if it's obviously not.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

repackaged loans

A tiny attempt to clarify one common source of confusion / ignorance: what are repackaged loans (e.g. mortgage-backed securities) and why were they created?

Say there are two types of people in the world, those with high and low credit worthiness. If you loan a high type money, he will always pay you back. If you loan a low type money, he will pay you back only 90% the time.

Banks might be willing to give a high type a $100 loan with a 5% interest rate, knowing that they will definitely get back $105. In order to be willing to loan money to a low type, the interest rate has to be higher to compensate for the risk: loaning $100 to a low type with an interest rate of 17% will on average get back the same $105 as loaning it to a high type (10% of the time you get nothing back, 90% of the time you get $117 back).

This $105 quantity, in either case, is the expected value of the loan. That is, this is the average amount of money you can expect to get back in payments for the loan.

Despite the fact that the expected value of each loan is the same, banks would obviously rather make the loan to the high type, since there is no risk involved. So, if banks for some reason can't charge a high enough interest rate to compensate for the risk of lending to low types (for legal reasons, or because no one wants to take the loan on those terms, or whatever other reason), there are people or businesses out there who are on average good loan prospects who can't get loans. This is a bad thing because if someone can turn $100 cash into $105 of expected value, society in sum is better off if they can get the financing to do that.

This is where securitization (repackaging the loans) comes in. If a hundred banks make a hundred loans to low types, and then split up the repayments equally, no single bank will be burdened by a defaulted loan and each will have the same amount of money on the line as if they each made a single loan as usual. The risk is disappears (in the limit), and any loan with a positive expected profit can be financed.

A mortgage-backed security is a slice of this big pie of loans. It gives you the right to keep a certain fraction of the payments made by a whole bunch of people who took out mortgages. You get back, with a very small amount of risk compared to the riskiness of the underlying loans, the expected value of the loan.

This is a great idea. Risk sharing allows society to undertake worthwhile things that are too risky for individuals to finance on their own, be it home ownership or startup tech firms or pharmaceutical research. And since there is money to be made once the risk is taken care of, this can simply happen through the market. Wins all around.

The problem, as with so many things, isn't with the thing itself, it's with the stupid use of it. Seatbelts and antibiotics are clearly wonderful inventions. But people who drive recklessly or contribute to the evolution of resistant superbugs, thereby hurting themselves and others, need to be held accountable. Likewise, people who blindly purchased mortgage backed securities, thinking they were riskless investments, and then lost a lot of money when it turned out that the expected profit was actually negative, can't blame the securitization process itself. They can only blame themselves for not doing due diligence (which, yes, is very hard when you're dealing with huge pools of loans, and with contracts that are, in actuality, extremely complicated).

(It goes without saying that deliberate misinformation is another matter. But still not something you can get upset at the loan packaging mechanism about.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Death Valley

What to do when you have a four-day weekend but the Sierras are snowed under? Backpacking in Death Valley! Where the weather is sunny and beautiful exactly when everything else isn't, and the landscape hides a cornucopia of treasures to satisfy the most voracious wilderness junkie.

First you can go for a hike on some sand dunes:

Then, the badlands:

And an enormous plain of salt boulders:

And canyonlands:

And even some snow-capped mountaintops, towering twice the height of the grand canyon above the valley below:

It doesn't get better than that. And did I mention you can camp anywhere, for free, without a permit, as long as you're at least 2 miles from the paved road? And that the park is huge?

Monday, November 28, 2011

perilously, empiricism verges on magic

In my awesome junior high gifted-ed class we studied the Kennedy assassination, and I've had a residual fascination with that universe of conspiracy theories since then. Turns out one of my favorite writers, John Updike, had something to say about it in the New Yorker in 1967. My friend Dan kindly provided me the text, which is (bittersweetly) short enough to quote here:
We used to think that only the vagueness and enchantment of distance could create mythical figures; now, after reading Josiah Thompson's "micro-study" of the Kennedy assassination, entitled "Six Seconds in Dallas," we conclude that closeness of scrutiny is also mythopoeic. For example, "the umbrella man": though the day was clear and blowy, he can be detected, in photographs, standing on the curh just about where the assassination would in a few seconds occur, holding a black umbrella above him; seconds later he is again photographed, walking away, gazing tranquilly at the scramble of horrified spectators. His umbrella is now furled. Who was he? Where is he now? And would any crowd, caught in the matrix of interlocking photographs taken in those few momentous seconds in Dealey Plaza, yield a figure or two equally anomalous and ominous? He dangles around history's neck like a fetish. And what of the other substanceless figures sifted from the clouds of witnesses: "the tan-coated man," seen now running away from the Texas School Book Depository Building, now riding in a gray Rambler driven by a Negro; and "the Secret Service agent," who identified himself to Patrolman Smith hehind the stockade fence, though all Secret Service men had gone to Parkland Hospital; and eeriest of all-the blurry figure visible, in some frames of Robert Hughes' 8-mm. movie film, in the window beside the pair of windows from which the shots, or some of the shots, were fired? We wonder whether a genuine mystery is being concealed here or whether any similar scrutiny of a minute oection of time and space would yield similar strangenesses-gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles in the surface of circumstance. Perhaps, as with the elements of matter, investigation passes a threshold of common sense and enters a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for the absolute truth. The truth about those seconds in Dallas is especially elusive; the search for it seems to demonstrate how perilously empiricism verges on magic. 
Isn't that wonderful, both in content and conveyance? That's Updike for you.

Updike was the master of the microstudy in the fictional realm; I wish somehow the story of those six seconds could be told via his voice. But possibly even better than that, it turns out that one of my favorite film directors, Errol Morris*, has done just that, in his new six-minute documentary "The Umbrella Man", with the author of Six Seconds in Dallas referenced above. (Psst, the umbrella man himself shows up.) Fantastic. Go watch.

*you MUST see Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control if you have any interest at all in the defining boundaries and limitations of our humanity. Or just really great cinematography (so great that even I can identify it...)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

behavioral economics in action

The New Yorker says "Buy access to the article you're looking for and you'll receive the entire December 9, 1967 issue".

Instead of "In order to access the article you're looking for, you have to pay for the entire issue."

(For 5.99 for one year of access... You don't need reference dependence or loss aversion to explain that one, i.e. the price differential between buying the magazine now and buying a single article from half a century ago, but I suspect they play real roles there too.)

(I swear I have other tools than prospect theory. There just really are so many nails.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

grammar of think different

Jeff at cheap talk says
Here’s how Steve Jobs explains “Think Different” as quoted in Walter Isaacson’s biography (thanks to Mallesh Pai for the pointer.)
We discussed whether it was correct before we ran it. It’s grammatical, if you think about what we’re trying to say. It’s not think the same, it’s think different. Think a little different, think a lot different, think different. ”Think differently” wouldn’t hit the same meaning for me.
I may have been taken in by the GDF but after thinking about this for a day or so I am convinced that I understand what he means, even if he didn’t explain it very well. Constructions like “think X” are used all the time where X is a noun and what the writer really means is “think about X” or “consider X” and especially “join the X movement.” (Think “Think Green”, a familiar slogan that is saying “be enviornmentally conscious.” ) “Eat Local” has a different interpretation than “Eat Locally” which would not make sense in its stead. For that matter, “Think Locally, Act Globally” suffers from excessive adherence to grammatical rules. What “Think Different” was supposed to convey is essentially “be a member of Team Different.” But I am sure that was lost on most people and has nothing to do with why it was a successful campaign.
Why is this so complicated?? "Think different" uses "different" as a noun (and maybe silently implies some punctuation that would clarify that). That's all. Like many people, I love grammar (I'm even particularly particular about adverbs!), but it's much more fun to play with (even abuse) its flexibility than to pounce on alleged mistakes and then triumphantly award yourself a gold star.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


As much as I am bored by and lack respect for Occupy*, I much much more strongly oppose any intervention in the right to peaceably assemble (or peaceably do anything else for that matter.)

And I really REALLY oppose cops on power trips (is that redundant?) who think they have (or worse, have) the power to use unnecessary physical force to maintain the peace.

Students linking arms isn't an excuse to use force, and I don't want to pay taxes that go towards tear-gassing my friends on their bike rides home from work. So I signed this.

Law enforcement is so disturbingly corrupt and abusive in urban America. I wish there was a petition that would fix that (rather than just the university administration reaction to it...)

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Set aside** for the moment the merits of the arguments/complaints made by Occupy*.

Like many campus protests, this is fundamentally a movement of bored (unemployed) people desperately looking for anything to blame their frustrations on and get angry about in a somewhat active way. Even if they have to invent problems to get riled up about, they're bored enough to do so. And so, like this ridiculous rioting over the firing of a football coach, these stories fill me with leaden ennui.

I just don't get it. What do Berkeley students hope to accomplish by forming a mob for a few hours? By intentionally stirring up trouble, looking for ways to get maced and arrested? Being able to tell heroic-sounding stories about standing up to the Man? Do they hope that from a distance it's less obvious what's really going on, that it appears sincerely desperate? Because from downtown Oakland and the campus of U.C. Berkeley, I can tell you it sure doesn't. Do they hope that by acting out the story, history will make it real?

*Haha did you think that was a footnote marker? .... er wait.

**Sure, it's impossible to entirely disentangle my interpretation of the sociological phenomenon from my interpretation of their complaints. I can't get riled up about a few people getting rich in small part because some systemic issue amplifies the returns to their hard work in some way that other people call unfair. I just don't care that some people who are enormously rich by worldwide standards are upset that a few others are even richer. Maybe that colors my interpretation of anyone who does.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

mind your p's and q's (still more on self-fulfilling beliefs)

If you believe you've failed, you have.

I don't think I can put it more simply than that. So remember that.

In substance, this doesn't add anything to what I've previously harped on. And yet I'm so continually shocked to see so much self-fulfilled failure that I keep wanting to harp more.

I think part of the problem is that the inverse statement is decidedly false, and a little crazy-wishful-thinking-hippie sounding (i.e., "If you believe you can succeed, you will."). And, since we are not very good at automatically recognizing that contrapositives, not inverses or converses, are the truths that are equivalent to any if-then statement, we are too quick to dismiss the crucial inverse of the crazy hippie poster slogan.

Yet another reason to replace the relatively useless bits of high school curricula with logic, probability and statistics, and economics...

For the record, if p implies q, then not-q implies not-p. But q does not imply p, nor does not-p imply not-q. Within this example, if you believe you have failed, you have. Therefore, if you haven't failed, you must still believe you can succeed - the contrapositive. But, if you fail, it doesn't mean that you just stopped believing in yourself - the converse. And it doesn't mean that if you believe in yourself, you will succeed - the inverse. Don't be embarrassed if you were never taught this; you're in the vast majority. Just get it straight now and please spread the sanity.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


I love octupuses. Great story*.
"octopuses even learned to open the childproof caps on Extra Strength Tylenol pill bottles—a feat that eludes many humans with university degrees." 
" The four-hundred-gallon tank was divided into separate compartments for each animal. But even though students hammered in dividers, the octopuses found ways to dig beneath them—and eat each other. Or they’d mate, which is equally lethal. Octopuses die after mating and laying eggs, but first they go senile, acting like a person with dementia. “They swim loop-the-loop in the tank, they look all googly-eyed, they won’t look you in the eye or attack prey,” Warburton said. One senile octopus crawled out of the tank, squeezed into a crack in the wall, dried up, and died." 
"Some would let themselves be captured, only to use the net as a trampoline. They’d leap off the mesh and onto the floor—and then run for it. Yes, run. “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat,” " 
"Octopuses in captivity actually escape their watery enclosures with alarming frequency. While on the move, they have been discovered on carpets, along bookshelves, in a teapot, and inside the aquarium tanks of other fish—upon whom they have usually been dining." 
*overanthropomorphized, but I'm kind of ok with that. Little else is so effective at getting the human race to care about the rest of the natural world...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

college is oversold

This is a truly striking chart:

Read the whole excellent post, by Alex Tabarrok of MR.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

comparative advantage

Someone dared me to write a limerick about comparative advantage, since I said too close together that 1) I'd take suggestions for entertaining limerick topics, and 2) that economics is a tragically unfunny subject. Months later while trying to fall asleep*, this is what I came up with...**

There once was a locavore named Hugh
who learned in an Eskimo igloo:
an advantage comparative
is an advantage imperative
when you only have ice for your stew.

Other suggestions/requests?***

*or rather, the day after while roughly reconstructing what occurred to me while trying to fall asleep... never believe yourself that you'll remember in the morning.

**this doesn't illustrate the most important / misunderstood aspects of comparative advantage, but give me a break, it's a limerick...

***I already did "Darwin's barnacles" but I can't post that one online. Ask me in person ;)

Monday, October 31, 2011

too good

Zach Weiner is a genius.

Except that his frequently-expressed hostility towards economists needs to be rephrased as towards businessmen/financiers/etc because he's perpetuating our undeserved bad name, and that's what he really means anyway :)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Quietly and untelegenically,

Americans are trying to repair their economic values."

I like that sentence. That's David Brooks, saying that the occupy wall street protests (and etc) are less representative or important than their media coverage would lead you to believe, whereas the silent moderate majority is making the common-sense choices and changes to get back on the right track.

I sure hope he's right. Imagining that he is always makes me feel better about the world.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

without loss of generality

Every time I read "assuming x rather than y drastically simplifies the analysis and doesn't substantively alter our results" in a theory paper, I wonder how how conclusively the authors really know that. Is it just intuitive, or did they really do all that `drastically harder' extra work and leave it out of the paper..?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Dear science journalists,

Last week, three physicists were awarded the Nobel prize for discovering that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.

That's all I know about it. I don't even know their names. But I do know that when you drop the last four words off of a sentence, its meaning often changes.

We've known the universe is expanding for a very long time, since Edwin Hubble, in the 1920s and 1930s, observed that galaxies that are farther away appear to be moving away from us at a faster rate than nearby galaxies. (Think about it for a second: If you draw dots on a balloon and imagine yourself living on one particular dot, this is what the other dots would appear to do when you blow the balloon up, thereby expanding the ballooniverse.)

In 1998, three physicists discovered that this rate of expansion is increasing. If you need to abbreviate to fit that in a headline, say the prize was awarded for the accelerating universe theory.

I wish I'd bought the [relatively reputable] newspaper I saw at the corner store so I could quote verbatim and confirm which paper it was exactly, but it was essentially "Berkeley physicists wins Nobel Prize for discovering universe still expanding." I'm utterly baffled as to how the `still' got in there, on top of omitting the relevant information.

Really. I know science is hard*, but how hard is it to read and quote the already-dumbed-down blurb released by the Swedes? I sure feel bad for the scientists whose discoveries aren't so incredibly easy to describe. They must come through the media-filter as utter nonsense.

*I'd say `harder than journalism' but that's just too snarky even for me :)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

self-fulfilling beliefs

Again and again, it appears that success is strongly determined by self-fulfilling beliefs. Belief in unlimited willpower causes willpower to materialize. Belief in self-determinism leads to self-determinism. These things are so powerful and yet so underestimated.

The latest awesome demonstration of this (stolen from Wired via Farnam Street) shows that belief in unlimited capacity for developing new skills causes higher capacity for skills, through more efficient learning. Skip the details and concerns about the paper; this interpretation is the point and I'm confident in its truth without seeing any evidence at all:

"While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education."

Nuff said. Obvious, but so often forgotten.

Friday, October 7, 2011

communism's greatest triumph

[Stolen from MR] Neil Stephenson says "A grizzled NASA veteran once told me that the Apollo Moon landings were communism’s greatest achievement."

Well that's amusing, but the rest of Stephenson's essay is what I actually wanted to talk about. He lament's that Big Things aren't getting done anymore, advocating for large centrally-planned projects such as the Apollo missions, but then uses a very bizarre(-ly misguided) metaphor with island evolution to place the blame for this on the modern ease of information access:

In his recent book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Tim Harford outlines Charles Darwin’s discovery of a vast array of distinct species in the Galapagos Islands—a state of affairs that contrasts with the picture seen on large continents, where evolutionary experiments tend to get pulled back toward a sort of ecological consensus by interbreeding. “Galapagan isolation” vs. the “nervous corporate hierarchy” is the contrast staked out by Harford in assessing the ability of an organization to innovate.
Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one—or at least vaguely similar—and has already been tried. Either it failed, or it succeeded. If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it’s patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions.
What if that person in the corner hadn’t been able to do a Google search? It might have required weeks of library research to uncover evidence that the idea wasn’t entirely new—and after a long and toilsome slog through many books, tracking down many references, some relevant, some not. When the precedent was finally unearthed, it might not have seemed like such a direct precedent after all. There might be reasons why it would be worth taking a second crack at the idea, perhaps hybridizing it with innovations from other fields. Hence the virtues of Galapagan isolation.
There are so many things wrong with this...

First of all,  the process he describes can only lead to innovation stagnation if the story ends where he stops telling it. In reality, while it may be true that innovators who don't do due diligence may write off good ideas too quickly when they see something similar has already been tried, they write them off and (eventually) proceed to something else even more novel.

Secondly, if there is a downside to innovation from easy information, I would bet it's the opposite of the phenomenon described by Stephenson: if anything, easy information will trap minds within boxes that have already been exhausted, not cause minds to write off profitable boxes that weren't fully exploited.

Thirdly, the metaphor itself is fundamentally flawed. Galapagan isolation leads to amazing biodiversity because isolated populations diverge genetically and each face dissimilar sets of predators/environmental challenges that natural selection has to overcome. Many many different equilibria, consisting of different sets of species coexisting in their own unique ecosystems, develop on each island. There is no process even vaguely similar to the business meeting described above; ecosystems don't set out with the goal of coming up with a new, better solutions to life, take a look around to see if anyone has done something similar, and then write off trying out a leopard when they see there's already a cheetah.

This isn't a superficial flaw either; a truer metaphor would point against the thing Stephenson advocates for: large, centrally planned Big Things. Continental evolution doesn't produce the same variety of solutions because every `idea' is filtered through the same, huge elimination system. Island settings allow for a decentralized, diversified approach to evolution, like a hundred start-up aerospace companies instead of one big NASA.

Maybe I'm overly optimistic, but I'd rather live in a politically-impotent world with a thousand struggling startups than the cold war. I'll put my money with the crazy think-different geniuses before government bureaucracy any day.

Monday, October 3, 2011


So there's this great new paper on the impact of economic blogs (confirming the things you would expect, but which are sort of hard to confirm.) The introduction talks about some of the perceptions of blogs and two things really jumped out at me:
  1. "Bell (2006, p.75) summarizes another common perception of blogs, as '…a largely harmless outlet for extroverted cranks and cheap entertainment for procrastinating office workers.'" [Note, this comment is made about blogs generally.] ...Extroverted? Really? I am pretty confident that your average blogger is substantially less extroverted than average. Certainly one of the reasons I like blogging is because I like talking about these things... but not so much in person. Surely this must be the case for people more generally: after hashing something out or sharing whatever it is with whomever you run into at the water cooler, surely the impulse to write it down is lessened. Introverted people just don't like hanging out at the water cooler as much.
  2. "...the freedom to write about topics outside their area of expertise (what Jacob T. Levy called `public-intellectualitis' in his blog)". Well, clearly this happens, but I would say it's mostly a disease in interpretation rather than a disease in blogging. Sure, `blogger' columnists for the New York Times and other reputable institutions need to stick to their areas of expertise, and there are many ways of subtly asserting authority that anyone who says anything publicly should pay attention to, but on a normal blog that covers anything more than the tiny sliver of knowledge that the author happens to be an expert in (which I'm convinced can never sustain an interesting blog for more than a short time, despite many such attempts) I'd say the first interpretation should be to give the author the benefit of a doubt. Especially if their motivations are in line with what I described above, simply to have a casual interesting conversation in a public setting, or to work through thoughts in writing, or anything similar, then even if the post defends a particular view or claim, this type of writing is very different from providing an authoritative view on something. As with all things, a good rule of thumb for getting the most possible value from something is to be logically skeptical and sympathetic to the intentions of the writer.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

optimism list

I'm a sucker for memes and Tyler Cowen started another good one: the optimism list.
  1. I'm optimistic that information technology and sheer density of humanity will make it very hard to maintain walls. I'm optimistic about patent/copyright law and therefore innovation, immigration, the demise of dictatorships, information censorship, a decrease in war, etc. [Conversely, I'm pessimistic about mob mentality, the political culture, epidemics, and other well-known downsides to density...]
  2. Similarly, I'm optimistic that with increasing wealth and widespread English literacy will come increasing international mobility, and that with increasing mobility will come increasing competition between national governments, and that with this comes better policy. So long as no one has any more bright Eurozone++ meganational ideas...
  3. I'm optimistic that crazy and/or rich people will continue to do wonderful things even if governments do their best to disincentivize them and even  if it becomes difficult to enforce property rights in a way that incentivizes them. You only need one person to be convinced of the profitability of exploring Mars to get humans to Mars; you also only need one eccentric billionaire with an interest in Mars to get humans to Mars. [Conversely...well you can imagine.]
  4. I'm optimistic that there will be more and more rich (in money OR time) people doing wonderful things just because they want to and can (and because among 7 billion people, a tiny percentage goes a long way). I'm optimistic about economic growth and the developing world in general.
  5. I'm optimistic about the scarce resources that we depend on. The world isn't going to end when we deplete our oil reserves or the easily-accessible fresh water. Prices will adjust and innovation will occur. Likewise, I'm (less so, but more so than most...) optimistic about climate change, pollution, overpopulation, etc. [But, I'm very pessimistic about scarce resources that are considered by most to be expendable, or that have clear but indirect and uncapturable value, and that won't recur or be fixable once we realize what we've done. Save our national parks; protect biodiversity.]
  6. I'm pessimistic about mental health and the general adjustment to a modern lifestyle that is very foreign to our evolutionary roots. We will make ourselves crazy and miserable continuing to live in cubicles and sit at keyboards a majority of our waking hours, but the immediate incentives never lead away from this. I'm pessimistic that the long-term accepted solution is going to be pharmacological, in an inevitably flawed attempt to change human nature rather than our environment.
  7. I'm pessimistic about human nature and our mental limitations encountering a world that operates with many cognitive prerequisites, but optimistic about our ability to work around those limitations. (I'm also quite optimistic about the increasing level of self-knowledge, both as individuals and as a species, but pessimistic that even on its best day, self-knowledge can't trump self.)
  8. I'm pessimistic that, in a world run by the extroverted mafia majority, the transition away from [work-on-site / perpetual meetings and real-time collaboration / verbal, in-person communication / etc] workplace norms, as facilitated by information technology, will be slowed enough that my own career options will remain severely limited by an extreme aversion to these things...
  9. I'm optimistic that, as bad as things might get, there will still be rainbows, kittens and LaTeX.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

waste, more generally speaking

...than just politics or advertising in particular. I meant to link to this article yesterday when I stole a wording from it, but it's worth it's own post anyhow. Go read.

(Ignore the "Darwin vs. Adam Smith" thing - the phenomenon in discussion is of course well-known, and in more general terms than to biologists I suspect, to economists. The phenomenon itself and the analogy between how it plays out in the ecosystem and the market is what is interesting.)

(Also, I would strongly disagree with the following claim about modern liberals, aside from that tragically small subset of liberals, or conservatives for that matter, who actually understand markets...: "Like modern liberals, [Smith] saw market failure as rooted in insufficient competition.")

Anyway, enough asides. The point is, if individual competitive interests diverge from the common interest, this can* lead to waste, such as 40-pound antlers or billions of dollars spent on advertising.

(And then he talks about consumption taxes, which is interesting - and nice to see; consumption taxes are left out of the tax policy discussion despite being a great idea...- but I think more than an essay is needed to link that discussion to the earlier one robustly.)

*emphasis on can. The author claims will.**

**Now how is that for a blog post consisting entirely of asides and footnotes?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Politics leads to waste as each side tries to out-shout the other with progressively louder commercials. I suggested that there is a way to divert most of this wasteful spending in a way that preserves the competitive impact of the foregone campaign donation. Unfortunately, this doesn't work in advertising, since individuals don't pay for it.

Advertising is just like politics in the sense that individual firm interests (to sell more Dr. Rootsicola brand liquid sugar) diverge from public interests (to have access to, and be aware of, the highest quality-for-the-price liquid sugar) in such a way that leads to massive wasteful expenditures by Dr. Rootsicola as they try to stomp out their possibly superior, but underfunded, competitor. In the process, we get bombarded by a thousand times more advertising than we want or need for informational purposes and have to pay higher prices for the privilege of funding this war. Unfortunately, the war is indeed successful at planting certain brands in our brains; otherwise it would be a viable strategy to spend just enough on ads to inform the public of the superiority of an alternate, and charge less for it.

Other than sparking a cultural tideshift that makes advertising repugnant (New, all natural low-fat low-sugar low-ad water!™) I don't see a way to a effect change actively. But yet I'm not pessimistic. Two trends are shifting the advertising industry into a value-creator:

  1. The internet. We're all familiar by now with how advertising supports an economy of free things that are valuable but nearly impossible to make money off of directly as a result of being non-concrete/zero-marginal-cost and imitable/piratable. I like this symbiosis.
  2. Groupon et al. It's not yet clear how short-lived this fad will be, but deep-discount coupon sites are popping up faster than wackamoles. I suspect there's going to be a substantial backlash / redesign for awhile as people learn how bad they are at remembering to use coupons they've already paid for, and businesses figure out how to design the best offers in a given context, but I don't think they're disappearing. Last week one afternoon I had a free smoothie, ice cream sandwich, falafels, and deep-fried oreos. Now I know how good those smoothies and falafels and sandwiches are (...and not to ever eat deep-fried candy again if I want to avoid a mid-motorcycle-commute heart attack.) Instead of strapping me to a chair and forcing me to watch a video spot they spend thousands of dollars to create, they fed me and informed me, and I'll be going back. Everyone wins. I don't know how the cost-benefit comparison* works out, but I have an inkling: I can't name a single n-dozen-times repeated hulu commercial at the moment, but I know exactly where to go for good falafel.
*Yeah, it completely depends on the context. A multinational automobile firm advertises differently than the local ice cream shop. Still...

Monday, September 19, 2011


Civilization is a mild torture mechanism, a Harrison Bergeron-style device constantly preventing us from fully experiencing moments like the moments we were evolved to thrive in. We become so accustomed to this subtle soul-upsetting buzz that we embrace it as the new normal; until, when an unexpected reprieve grants us the time to float back to equilibrium, we fleetingly glimpse how much energy we've been expending just to tread the water of our day to day lives.

In Golden Gate park is a particular tree. In the middle of millions of people you can reclaim a piece of your peace of mind, by only climbing sixty feet or so above the hobos and traffic and power suits and jogging ipods. Leave behind the torture device, lay out on the branches, and listen to the wind gradually drown out the bustle below.

This is what it's supposed to feel like to breathe.

It's an imperfect fix, and far too short of a break, but any opportunity to set foot on solid ground, for however long, is a valuable relief. And when it's over, carry with you that reminder of what is really important. You'll know which one I'm talking about.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

best. distraction. ever.

...for cartophiles, anyway:

(thank you Gautam!)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

intervening in suicide

Freakonomics mentions suicide; specifically asking the question, would you stop someone from committing suicide? This was motivated by an anecdote told by a taxi driver who picked up a passenger who said he wanted to be taken to the Golden Gate bridge so he could jump off of it. The taxi driver didn't object, so the passenger said "you're not going to stop me?" and the driver said "No, why should I?" It's a free country after all.

Two things:

1. It's a very bizarre line of argument to invoke our `free country' in a discussion about interactions between individuals. Yes, it's a free country, and the government should butt it's big head out of our decisions about when and how to end life, or any other victimless action. But also, it's a free country, and if someone I care about is suicidal, I damn well am going to try to talk them out of it or intervene in more direct ways and get them help. If they want to kill themselves so bad, being stopped one time by trying it within my sphere of influence is a minor setback.

2. This is a strategic interaction, not a one-sided decision to interfere. The taxi driver didn't magically come across information about this guy's intentions; that guy told him outright. That itself was a strategic decision:

On that Freakonomics post, they also have a poll asking if you would intervene. Predictably, a vast majority of people say they would, at least in certain circumstances. I'm not the least bit surprised by this, and I'm sure the taxi passenger was also aware that most people would react in that way (as evidenced by his surprise at the driver's reaction...) When he made the decision to state his intentions, therefore, he expected to be interfered with. To me, it sounds like he was looking for the universe to provide any sign of unambivalence, and the taxi driver cruelly didn't provide it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

social security is a Ponzi scheme

(Well I just posted something an hour ago but this'll probably be old news by tomorrow...)

Matt Yglesias gets it wrong; Alex Tabarrok refutes him, but not very clearly, mostly by appealing to authority. Judging from the comments, no one seems to know what a Ponzi scheme IS, just that some bad guy got caught running a big one two years ago so it must be bad.

Let's get this straight. In a typical investment vehicle, like a mutual fund or a 401k plan or the stock market or whatever, you put money in, that money is transferred to people who are using it to build more wealth through their business, and that growing pile of wealth is shared with the investors, who thus end up withdrawing more than they put in.

In a Ponzi scheme, some number of people originally invest in it, the guy running it takes their money, and then finds more people to join, using their money to pay back the original investors with some attractive rate of return. Eventually, he fails to find enough new investors to keep paying back his old investors, and the scheme goes bust with lots of people losing everything they put in. No wealth is created in this process.

Social security is a Ponzi scheme, at least partially. The current young pay for the current retirees, with the first generation of covered retirees getting a free ride. Social security doesn't collapse because there are always more young people to join, and the government has the power to force them to.

Whatever is paid into the system that isn't immediately distributed is invested, and yes, this is not part of the definition of a Ponzi scheme. But, just because a Ponzi scheme uses investment as a side tool doesn't make it not fundamentally a Ponzi scheme.

I'm not sure how this is even a controversial statement. It wouldn't be, if Rick Perry hadn't said it, and if the terms 'Ponzi scheme' and 'social security' didn't translate immediately to 'bad' and 'good' for most people, and if those who don't like Rick Perry didn't reinforce the confusion for political purposes. Did I mention I hate politics?

science is compensation for smallness

The same essay I was just talking about also has this great paragraph stuck in towards the end, fairly separate from the rest of it:
Indeed, one could define science as reason’s attempt to compensate for our inability to perceive big numbers. If we could run at 280,000,000 meters per second, there’d be no need for a special theory of relativity: it’d be obvious to everyone that the faster we go, the heavier and squatter we get, and the faster time elapses in the rest of the world. If we could live for 70,000,000 years, there’d be no theory of evolution, and certainly no creationism: we could watch speciation and adaptation with our eyes, instead of painstakingly reconstructing events from fossils and DNA. If we could bake bread at 20,000,000 degrees Kelvin, nuclear fusion would be not the esoteric domain of physicists but ordinary household knowledge. But we can’t do any of these things, and so we have science, to deduce about the gargantuan what we, with our infinitesimal faculties, will never sense. If people fear big numbers, is it any wonder that they fear science as well and turn for solace to the comforting smallness of mysticism?
Isn't that great? The same thing applies in the social sciences, even though these by definition study things that are on human scales. If we could live for millennia and hold terabytes of information in our minds easily, we could simply see the phenomena we hope to deduce through the social scientific method. Just like we don't need studies to tell us that smiling at people makes them happy, or paying more on rent than you earn will land you broke, we wouldn't need studies or statistics to sort out the subtle interactions between education and social norms and property rights and social preferences (to take a random example...)

Although, I think it'd be a stretch to describe mathematics or engineering in this way. Mathematics doesn't concretely exist in the world; we invent or choose axioms and then discover what truths they imply, and those truths frequently tell us something about the real world, but they don't exist to be observed until after they're created/discovered by mathematicians. Likewise, engineering. When I say engineering I don't mean studying the world with the aim of using that knowledge to build things (that's just science, and the above applies), but building things and studying what we build. Then, once again, the object of study doesn't exist until we create it (whether it's the effect of nuclear waste disposal or of the design of government institutions) and we can't, with large enough brains and enough time, just look at the world and know the answers.

Science vs. anthroposcience? Science vs. quantitative 'art'? I'm not sure how to define that latter category exactly. But you see what I mean.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

computability and big numbers

I recently realized (through finding a computer version of trivial pursuit, which provides player statistics) that I'm a little less terrible at the geography category than the science category. The resulting minor identity crisis put me on a bit of a science kick, which included reading this great essay a friend of mine sent me (thank you Kenny!) that I can't believe I've never seen before. Read the whole thing if you like numbers or computation in the least. In particular, the relation between computability and big numbers is fun. The idea goes like this:
  • Consider a computer and all the possible programs we could write for this computer (intuitively, don't think of interactive software programs, think of a program you start running, and then you wait, and then it eventually gives you an `answer'. Like a calculator.) Specifically, consider a Turing machine.
  • Computer programs can be written to compute whatever you want them to. The problem is, it's hard to know if it will finish computing that thing in finite time. It might get stuck in an infinite loop, counting all the way to infinity looking for something that doesn't exist. The halting problem is: can I examine an arbitrary program and decide whether or not it will terminate in finite time?
  • It turns out that it is not possible to write a computer program that solves the halting problem. The proof is great but repeating it would take too much length and specificity, so just read at that link.
    • But since I can't resist, it basically goes: Say h(i,j) is an algorithm that returns 1 if program i terminates on input j, 0 otherwise. Then define g(i) to be 0 if h(i,i) is 0, and to loop forever if h(i,i)=1. But then either g(g)=h(g,g)=0, or g(g) doesn't terminate and h(g,g)=1. Either way, you have a contradiction with the definition of h. As Aaronson puts it, "Like a hound that finally catches its tail and devours itself, the mythical machine vanishes in a fury of contradiction. (That’s the sort of thing you don’t say in a research paper.)" *grin*
  • Any program is defined with a certain exact number of rules. Think about all the possible programs that contain exactly N rules. There are only finitely many of these programs, since N is finite and there are only finitely many possible types of rules, so we can hypothetically make a list of all of these programs.
  • Now consider what happens when you run each of these programs. Some might terminate and some might loop forever, but among the ones that terminate, one of them takes the longest. So, you can define BB(N) to be the length of time that the longest-running program with N rules takes (that is, the Nth Busy Beaver number.)
  • Can a Turing machine compute these numbers? If it could, it could solve the halting problem by simply watching a program with N rules run for BB(N) steps, and if it hasn't finished by then, by definition of BB(N), it never will. Therefore, the BB number sequence grows too fast to be computable, because we already know that the halting problem isn't computable.
  • Even more striking, BB(N) grows faster than any computable sequence: Say there is some number sequence that is always greater than BB, D(N)>BB(N). Then if we can compute D(N), we can automatically compute BB(N), because we just run every N-rule program, and among those that stop within D steps, the longest-running one takes BB(N) steps. Therefore D doesn't exist.
    • One minor addendum to that: even if we don't know that D is greater than BB, or even if it was somehow not possible to know for sure, having computational access to D allows us to unknowingly calculate BB, which is in principle not possible.)
  • So in summary: the BB number sequence is really, really big. So big, no computer can possibly keep up when trying to calculate them. And this connection between computability theory and big numbers is cool :)
A side note about amateur interests: isn't it nice learning this stuff in bite-sized chunks instead of in five-minute flurries in math classes that are so dense with mulling-requiring ideas that you can never catch up enough to enjoy how beautiful it is? Sure, at this rate I couldn't never learn enough to be a theoretical computer scientist, but what's the point if it's not enjoyable? Not to say it's not possible to learn enough or work hard enough where that pace would be enjoyable, but I already picked a different niche specialize in, and I don't want to completely lose touch with science just because I can't devote so much time to it.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

winners and losers

Colloquially thinking, history favors the righteous. Good triumphs over evil and the moral compass of the collective world because more finely tuned as deviating groups get weeded out.

It would be implausibly coincidental if the morally righteous (in the absolute sense of the phrase; let's not worry about whether there is such a thing for the moment) side of all of these historical struggles just happened to be the more powerful, and thus victorious, side. So how to explain the colloquial thinking?

Is is that the ones who won pass on their own definition of morality, which we forget was not unambiguously true? Or similarly, do we simply prefer to adopt the morality of victors, as though their victory is evidence of the absolute goodness of it, or because we initially just fear crossing them and later generations forget that our stated beliefs were disingenuous?*

Is it that we simply selectively remember the incidents in history in which good triumphed over evil, because we are ashamed of our history as an imperfect people?**

Or is it that true morality is defined by the system that works, in the sense that it survives and perpetuates itself among the greatest number of people? And that therefore, the righteous must eventually be triumphant?***

I really believe each of those three explanations are in operation, and yet two of them imply that conventional wisdom is misguided and the third implies that it's dead on. Which one wins out, most of the time?


*see: missionaries. maybe replace 'fear' with 'bribe'. it's amazing how much more receptive people are to Gods Word when lip-service to such a thing comes with a livelihood. and amazing how deeply entrenched Christianity is in Africa and such missionary-drenched places after so short a time.

**see: public school lessons on the holocaust vs. the trail of tears.

***see: the cold war. no need for a war against communism; just sit back and watch it implode.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

unfunded mandates

(Not endorsing unfunded mandates, but promoting a less discriminatory scrutiny of ALL mandates...)

The difference between a funded mandate and unfunded mandate in the private sector is, for example, the difference between requiring your kids to go to private school or requiring your kids to pay for their own private school.

The difference between a funded and unfunded mandate in the public sector is, for example, the difference between the federal government taxing citizens and giving that money to the state to implement some educational reform, or the federal government telling the state it has to do the taxing itself. Either way, the people have to pay for the reform.

Sure, this ignores redistribution amongst the states. Zero-sum game => I don't care. On the contrary, most of the time I'd rather the burden of a project be squarely on the shoulders of the ones benefiting from it. People make more careful choices when they have to pay the consequences.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I don't understand social networking

Does anyone actually use twitter for news, rather than to promote twitter and/or themselves as a platform for news?

And does anyone actually use quora to find answers to questions, rather than to promote themselves as answerers of questions?

And does anyone actually use linkedin to find jobs or contacts, rather than as a personal advertisement / to demonstrate your linked-in-ness? Are those things one and the same?

These are supposed to be such Big Things that demonstrate the importance of social networking (twitter especially) but I don't really see them being used except for the sake of using them... (unlike facebook, blogs, etc.)

Am I misguided in thinking the userbase is the correct measure of importance? Maybe it's the ubiquity of those little sidebar boxes with tweets pertaining to the subject of the page / tv newscast / etc.? (Am I in the minority in finding those not much less irritating than youtube comments?) Or the availability of answers in google, or the availability of contact information for industry professionals?

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Commuter's Lament

The ceiling of the Times Square subway station has poetry in its bones support beams.

Don't worry, bitter New Yorkers. You, too, can quit your soul crushing job and go to grad school!

Brain and spirit crushing, after all, don't have nearly the same long-term side effects as soul crushing.

(P.S. I'm no photographer or anything but dotcha love my accidental blurred-masses effect of using a long exposure setting? It's simultaneously the same selective-focus effect from a small F-stop AND it's subject-appropriate... *grin*)

(Subway artwork by Norman B. Colp. Pretty entertaining departure from all of the rest of the metro transit artwork, which is cheerful and colorful and uplifting and clearly designed to get people out of this particular mindset...)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

misc things about Gabon

I completely forgot I wrote this stuff down when I was on the train back to Libreville. So I guess this is Gabon part 4. At least two more coming, at some unknown distant point in the future when I get around to writing about that train trip and about the visa saga.

1. Car horns have an entirely different purpose here. Instead of being an emergency device to call attention to someone about to run into you, it serves a multitude of common practical purposes which are surprisingly fairly clearly differentiated merely by context:

1. Don’t move, I’m about to pass you.
2. Move, I’m about to merge.
3. Hi I’m a taxi; do you need one?
4. Hi little village, look at the car passing through!
5. Get out of the road.
6. Look out whoever is around this blind corner, I’m coming around full speed.
7. I accept your price, get in the taxi.
8. Which way are you trying to go?

2. I would love to live in Africa for awhile (although in a more pleasant climate…) but I would dearly miss the variety of fruits and vegetables that are always available in California. You would think that in a tropical country there would be tons of fresh produce around, but that’s definitely not the case. Avocados and African oranges (which you half-peel and squeeze for juice instead of eating like a real fruit), apples (which I can’t eat because foreigners are supposed to avoid uncooked produce unless it has a thick peel that you can peel yourself), and plantains are the only ubiquitous things. I’ve also seen some watermelons which are insanely expensive (about a dollar a pound… I don’t buy them in the U.S. until they hit around 29 cents) and a very few unripe mangoes in Libreville, but not the rest of the country where I’ve been for all but 3 days. Canned fruit is almost impossible to find and about $3.50 per can. I’ve been craving fruit since I got here.

The food is actually kinda weird more generally speaking than the produce. Most of the African food I’ve had in the U.S. is from east sub-Saharan Africa, which is mostly delicious (kinda sorta a bad approximation of Indian food… but nothing competes with Indian food so that’s still a compliment) or Ethiopian (which is it’s own very delicious thing) except for one Ghanian food festival I stumbled into in Chicago which was also very good, but obviously food festivals are a little bit of a biased take on things. But here, while some of it is very very good (chicken and beef kabobs, roasted chicken, plantains) despite the big globs of mayonnaise that they put on everything, some other stuff smells unbelievably vile, like something I would never dream was food unless I was watching it being prepared. And it’s not just unclean cooking environments – one dish at the fancy dinner I went to at Jake’s conference also seemed to be intentionally prepared with that particular vile essence. It’s really bizarre, and I really can’t figure out what it is.

Then eating with these Wildlife Conservation Society scientists at their camp in the Bateke forest, a few more strange things have popped up. For one, the salt fish, which I’ve seen everywhere but not tried (at Jake’s advice). They ship whole fish from the ocean around the country, preserved like jerky with lots of salt and by smoking it. Most of them are little perch-type fish, but you also see giant slabs of other kinds of fish preserved this way. The WCS guys cooked up some of this stuff in some other kind of sauce, and even with the sauce, it was like eating partially decomposed very fishy meat with ten times more salt than is tolerable. And also some of a local vegetable, asperge, which is so bitter my whole mouth involuntarily puckered upon tasting it. I totally understand eating these things if there’s nothing else available or affordable, but that’s definitely not the case at a fancy-pants conference.

It must be an acquired taste but even that’s hard to comprehend. I’m not particularly fond of the staple carbohydrate (‘manioc’, which is made from cassava root, is the texture of rubber, and tastes weirdly sour, kind of like raw sourdough) but I can see how you’d like it if you grew up with it, and the locals indeed love it. Same for the ubiquitous “piment” sauce, which is so hot that three drops of the oil in a whole pot of rice makes me sweat, and after I cut up a couple of the peppers it’s made of, my hands for two days felt like I’d put them on a hot frying pan and literally blistered. I suppose you could grow up liking salt fish too, I guess, but it’s obviously something people do out of necessity for preservation, so I’m not sure why you’d eat it when you’ve got a riverful of fresh fish ten yards away. But that unknown vile essence is so profoundly awful it provokes a visceral “this is not edible! Run away from the toxic waste center!” reaction.

(Then again, coffee does the same thing to me... maybe it's cappuccino salt fish :)

3. The French here sounds less awful than in France but still not a beautiful language. Better than German, though, which I’ve discovered still resides in my subconscious, in a surprisingly large vocabulary, but only peaks out when I’m trying to think of a word in French. What’s worse though is that since Spanish and French are so similar, French has completely crowded out the Spanish that I’ve been studying. Hopefully an hour of rosetta stone back at home will rectify that. I don’t WANT to learn French, grr…

Turns out grammar is highly overrated as well. I don’t know anything about French grammar and stumble along with isolated words plucked from my vocabulary of about 50, strung together in things that represent sentences well enough to be understood about three quarters of the time, correctly about half the time. The English equivalent is probably something like ‘Us comes here more late at five o’clock’ or ‘you know where possible buy what is this?’ But hey it gets the point across. Pronunciation, however, is critical, and I am not physically capable of talking with my sinus cavity in the way required to mash all these syllables together like they do. Or to grunt instead of pronouncing “un” like in Spanish.

4. The language pride is a strange carryover from French culture. Somehow despite the fact that French colonialists forced their language on the country that still speaks 500 regional tribal languages relatively recently, many Gabonese are incredibly disdainful of anyone who doesn’t speak French. We got a lot of “Why can you not speak French! Here in Gabon we speak French.” While I of course think it is important to be able to take care of yourself and not get in trouble or offend the locals when traveling, and that requires some degree of language ability or at least a good phrasebook, who in their right mind expects Americans to learn every language of every country they visit? Get off your high horses Francophones!

On the opposite extreme, since very few people in Gabon speak English, when we met someone who did they were overjoyed to be able to use it with us. We walked into a cafeteria-in-a-tent restaurant type place and met a man who pilots shipping ships between several Gabonese ports who spoke English, and he was so happy to talk to us he insisted on buying our meals. Amazingly friendly guy. The next day we went to a bookstore and met someone from Cameroon who spoke English (parts of Cameroon speak more English than French) and he told us all about his business and translation service that he was starting and got our contact information and told us to call him if we were ever in Cameroon. He emailed us later that night too to say once again that he was happy to meet us and that if I knew anyone who was visiting Cameroon, we should give them his number. Another time we met a kid from Nigeria who spoke English and he also insisted on trading contact information and telling us to call him if we were ever there. And another time in Libreville a student talked to us for about 15 minutes about his youth organization and got our facebook information, not to get money from us (which is almost always the case…) but just to practice his English.

It’s a really weird dichotomy between quite disdainful, unhelpful and unfriendly French people and exuberantly friendly English-speakers.