Monday, January 31, 2011

the next step in digitization

I was skeptical of complete digitization of the written word for a long time. Not anymore. I can't imagine any more barriers to abolishing paper that are permanently insurmountable. I don't think you can either, if you honestly set aside your sentimental attachment to physical books for a second and acknowledge that that is no more crucial than the jewel case and album art booklets that kids growing up now already hardly ever encounter, despite that formerly being the heart and soul of the (demand-side) resistance to digital music. Sure, our devices and software need improvement before digital textbooks with all their fancy graphics will be more convenient than quickly pulling a reference book off the shelf to flip through, but it'll happen. I'm already selling bunches of physical books before the prices collapse (and before I have to move again and box up hundreds of pounds of them...)

Anyway, academia (dominated as it is by grey-haired technologically-illiterate tenured boomers) is a little slower to catch on I think but it's absolutely miraculous how far it has come even since I was an undergraduate. I can quickly access 98% of the papers and book sections that I need online. On the rare occasion I have to actually walk to the library and make copies, I have to remind myself that people used to use card catalogs and long-hand note cards to do research (and no search bar! *gasp*) to keep from being outrageously irritated.

But there's a long way to go. And the next most important issue to address technologically (and culturally) is references. Why are papers not simply linked when they are referenced? It is so unnecessarily time-consuming to go through a paper and at each interesting reference, skip to the reference section, copy the title, search for it in google scholar, find a pdf of the most recent version, import it to Mendeley, go back to the original paper, and scroll back to where I was reading in the text.

Ideally, down the line, it would be nice if reference sections were omitted entirely, in lieu of embedded links, and if those links automatically directed to the most up-to-date version of the paper in addition to a list of former versions with the specific version referenced highlighted. (And simply have a "download all references" option). All that MLA guideline crap is defunct, not to mention the hundreds of various style guides for specific journals. What a sadistic headache! Let's please stick with the doi exclusively. (And think how much better library software would be if that were the standard... no more fighting with bibtex tags...)

This is entirely doable right-now, but the closest we get is the "pdf-plus" version that QJE uses that lets you click on a reference and it auto-scrolls you to the reference section to look up the title. And even that tiny, almost pathetically unambitious, attempt is enough to make me prefer reading QJE papers over any other journal. (Well, that and the fact that the pdf metadata is always accurate with QJE. JSTOR, please emulate!!)

First-world problem, I know. But really, this should have become the standard years and years ago.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

online labor markets

If you do experiments in the social sciences, please, for the love of god, read this paper.

It doesn't make any sense to pay $15 per datapoint in a lab if it costs 15 cents on an online labor market. Plus, you don't have to worry about recruitment, scheduling, payment, actually going to the lab, etc. Plus, external validity is a heck of a lot better when anyone in the world can do your experiment, not just some very WEIRD Cal students, and when they are viewing it as a real job rather than a silly game some researchers are manipulating you with.

Since this isn't yet the standard, any experiment that uses Amazon's Mechanial Turk (MTurk) labor market, or anything similar, will be met with plenty of skepticism. Since I plan on doing my experiments on MTurk, I would like to avoid having to have this discussion a hundred times, which I can do by getting everyone else to do theirs on MTurk first. So do so, please =)

Keep in mind, however, that design considerations are different online. The overview paper above doesn't go into that too much (and the experimental economics field ignores these details, like how do you present information to the subjects and how do you write the instructions, etc, way too much in general).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

grad student life

On a Wednesday in the third week of January, I spent the afternoon playing with equations and reading papers with a fishing pole propped against the railing while lounging on the Berkeley pier in lovely sunny 70 degree weather.

Life can only be downhill from here.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

the world isn't going to hell in a handbasket

I'm an optimistic person. There are a few key reasons for that:
  1. I believe we have a great deal of control over our destinies. (If life sucks, you're not stuck with whining about the oppressive ├╝berclass, change it.)
  2. I believe in the collective ability of human beings to do what needs to be done, largely because:
  3. I believe in the power of markets; i.e., the combined power of self-interest and free trade to lead the world along a steadily pareto-improving path. (If society wants something, someone will realize it and make money providing it. Everyone wins.)
  4. I believe that our gut instincts pointing us in the right direction will ultimately overpower any ephemeral digressions. (The 80's happened but we didn't get stuck there.)
  5. I prefer to think of the world as a unified progressive whole, rather than a set of isolated failed endeavors. (Rome fell but humanity didn't.)
The rest of this is really just about #4, but I like lists and comprehensiveness, so there you go.

In an era of rapid change like the current technological/information revolution, it often seems that the resilience, or at least rate of adaptation, of our species has met its match. In only a century, 0.05% of human history, we've gone from a primarily agrarian society without ubiquitous electricity, antibiotics, plumbing, and processed foods to a society that does most of its living and working on computers, goes to gyms because it doesn't get enough exercise baling hay, and pays a premium for low-calorie foods because overeating is a bigger concern than starvation. And now that we do more socializing on facebook than in person and more writing via txting than snail mail, the doomsayers are quick to warn us that we will soon no longer be able to socialize functionally or write coherently and society as we know it will disintegrate.

Not so. That may be the initial visible effect of new technology but we are adapting to our technology rapidly. First we come up with something that has an immediate obvious benefit. Then we quickly adopt that thing before worrying about what undesired side effects it may have. Then we slowly behaviorally adapt to that thing so that we can make the most of its benefits while mitigating its downsides.

Lo and behold, our social instincts imply that we merely use the internet as a more effective means of communication and organization to facilitate our in-person interactions, and children are growing up better writers with the plethora of practice they get online in forms more varied than the essay to the teacher, and social networks (by which I mean, dating sites, etc), rather than the virus infecting all human relationships that people like to think of them as or the last hope of desperate social outcasts that even their users sheepishly partially believe, they facilitate efficient sorting of people, in our newly dense population centers, into happier, more compatible, pairs and groups.

So stop worrying and make the best of it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


The Flight of the Iguana, by David Quammen - Beautiful book. Every time I read one of these naturalist books I have to fight back an uncontrollable desire to buy a ranch in southwest Texas and make just enough money to drop out of society. If Mr. Ingalls can build a house by hand, I sure as hell can do it with borrowed power tools. Anyway, back to the book. It's a collection of essays that combine personal life stories with natural history in a wonderful way. The last section, which includes the story "The Same River Twice" is the best. In fact, that particular essay is so amazing that I intend to post it here later when I can compile the full text. It does not appear to be online anywhere except in fragments on google books...

Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem - Great story, and Lethem is one of my favorite wordsmiths ever (I might say the favorite but I started reading a book by an even better one last night...). Not as psychologically complex as Fortress of Solitude (and therefore not as engrossing and moving), but it is nonetheless an amazingly vivid portrayal of a man with Tourette's syndrome working as a detective in Brooklyn.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon - I really have no idea why this book is so highly recommended. It was irritating from beginning to end, because it's written in the voice of an autistic character. I don't like reading dialects and the same principle applies here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

smarm school

Yesterday while waiting for the AirBART shuttle bus, I asked the guy standing behind me if he knew if another one was coming, as the clock had just passed the alleged midnight stopping time. He grinned back at me with a big soupy grin, adjusted his sweaty polo shirt tucked neatly into the kind of crisply ironed slacks that people should only willingly wear on long flights if being picked up directly by their job interviewer, and said "Well I checked the schedule on the plane on my iphone and it said it ran until 12:30, so I'm sure staying!"

Oh god, not one of these corporate schmoozer types, I thought. He looks like a business school graduate eagerly trying to 'network' with anyone who gets snared in his cobweb of smalltalk platitudes and too-loud laughter at not-funny commiserations about the working life.

"Ok, good. I guess I just need to be worried about missing the last BART train then." I answered. "Are you going north or south? The last southbound train is at 12:28 and..." (he whipped out his iphone) "the last northbound is at 12:26".

"Thanks, I'm going north" I said. "Oh, are you a student at Berkeley?" "Yeah, economics grad student." "Business school?" "No," (chuckle chuckle, of course not) "phd program. What about you?" "I'm in business school at Duke."

Duke?? Boy, I aimed for the barn door and hit the bullseye.

What is it about business school that breeds these people? They don't go into it like that. If they did, I probably still wouldn't get along with them, but at least I'd understand it. But they don't. Business school teaches it, and the students practice it. This much I also understand; the world operates according to mysterious and unnatural rules of conduct that need to be learned and mastered to succeed in certain contexts.

But after enough practice they seem to actually, genuinely, become it. There's no other reason to talk to a random person on the street like you're at a networking cocktail party. Unless, maybe, they just truly believe that this is the best way to talk to people, in which case I would really like to hear the logic behind that. I am still stubbornly sticking to my belief that you should be genuine in all situations, as much as reasonably possible, because getting places by faking it lands you in places you don't want to be anyway. It's worked for me so far.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

paying the poor

Last week an article in the NYTimes reported on the successes of Bolsa Familia, the conditional cash transfer program in Brazil that now serves a quarter of the population of the entire country. Unfortunately, the article (especially the headline) focused on "cash transfer" and deemphasized "conditional", and entirely ignored the less salient impacts of the policy.

"To Beat Back Poverty, Pay the Poor". Wow, so simple! I can't believe we didn't think of this before. Unfortunately, that headline is shameless pandering to the insane contingent of leftist American politics who so naively believe that poor Americans are already virtuously doing everything they can to help themselves, and therefore all we have left to do is to bail them out from whatever untenable situation is keeping them in poverty. (Of course, most people in this contingent are upper-middle-class suburbanites, who I would like to collectively invite to go work in a disability benefit office for awhile or live in section 8 housing and see what really goes on in the lives of a significant fraction of welfare-state beneficiaries...)

Bolsa Familia doesn't just pay the poor to keep their heads above water. It pays them to keep their kids in school, take them to the doctor, and attend classes on disease prevention or other life skills. And, it limits the benefits to only a couple kids per family. In other words, it pays the poor to ensure that their offspring aren't doomed to repeat their mistakes.

I think this is a nice pseudo-solution to the biggest problem with welfare programs, which is that they make poverty more attractive to stay in. The implicit marginal tax rate (the sum of higher taxes and lost benefits when making an extra dollar) on the poor in the U.S. is over 90% in many cases. Who on earth would work extra hours for that? Conditional cash transfers aren't any different, but at least they prevent hereditary poverty. It still makes advancement less attractive for the adults but much more attractive for their kids. Dropout rates have indeed plummeted since Bolsa Familia was introduced.

The hidden downside to such programs, completely ignored by the article, is that they are LARGE and suck government support from other programs that may be more worthwhile, such as education and infrastructure. This is a longer term effect that is harder to pinpoint, but some people already have.

Monday, January 10, 2011

tell it like it is

Caltech has no dumb jocks, dumb legacies, or dumb affirmative action admits. And the result is pretty great.

(Says the girl who, as a math major at Caltech, was outnumbered by men approximately ten to one. Don't try to lecture me about the value of a diverse student body. I'd obviously much rather be part of a smart student body.)

Also, since I served on the admissions committee for two years, I can comment on the comment by a member of the basketball team, that "the admissions committee probably does take into consideration athletic background of Caltech applicants, particularly if an existing sports team is so poor that it loses by too many points, but ... the large pool of indistinguishably well-qualified candidates makes it possible for Caltech to give a small boost to a needed athletic recruit without compromising its off-the-charts academic standards." Nope, not at all. The forms filled out by coach recruiters sometimes made for some good laughs ("They want us to take this kid who got a B in multivariable calculus just because he played water polo? Hahahahahaha...") but had zero impact on the admissions decision.

I should also mention, though, that the "pure meritocracy" of Caltech only applies to students from the United States. Due to cutbacks in the last few decades, I don't remember when exactly, foreign students are ineligible for financial aid, and the quality of applicants from around the globe that they have to reject is absolutely tragic.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Sidney Awards

David Brooks every December lists the best essays of the year. Three of them were so great I had to re-re-link them.

"The End of Men" is a so-true-it-hurts account of the rise of women in the American economy and higher education.

Two quotes in particular, I think, exactly capture the source of the shift. A college admissions officer says "A typical female applicant, she said, manages the process herself—lines up the interviews, sets up a campus visit, requests a visit with faculty members. But the college has seen more than one male applicant 'sit back on the couch, sometimes with their eyes closed, while their mom tells them where to go and what to do.'" Later, a student body president says "Guys high-five each other when they get a C, while girls beat themselves up over a B-minus. Guys play video games in each other’s rooms, while girls crowd the study hall. Girls get their degrees with no drama, while guys seem always in danger of drifting away." Oh how true, how true...

In the past, more jobs depended on brawn or creativity and extreme risk-taking. Men tend to be good at those things. Now, career success depends on getting an education, which depends on being diligent and driven from a young age, and assiduous (and good at doing what people tell you to do...) for many years after while climbing up the ladder. Girls, who mature earlier and are much more 'careful' (ie self-motivated, over-prepared, ahead of deadlines, etc), are thriving in that environment.

The sad thing is, I don't think this is inevitable at all. I think it's a result of kids meeting expectations, and expectations meeting reality, in a self-reinforcing cycle. Boys used to "act like men" from early elementary school. Their job was to work hard and build a career that could support their future families. Now you only hear "boys will be boys" as mothers sigh about their sons' apathetic obliviousness to the realities of survival. Meanwhile, since women have entered the workforce en masse, expectations for what they can juggle and accomplish have skyrocketed, and girls in middle school are already worrying about how they can jumpstart their career in time to have enough job security to raise a family, and how they can earn enough money to provide a middle-class lifestyle for them (...who can depend on men to pick up the slack, after all?)

Moving on, "Solitude and Leadership" is a fantastic commencement address at West Point by William Deresiewicz (who also wrote the wonderful essay "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education" which makes me profoundly grateful that I somehow escaped all that college-prep pressure in high school and went to a decidedly unpompous, quirky, intense, tech school instead of a stuffy pat-ourselves-on-the-back Ivy.) The message is that to be a true leader, you need to think for yourself, which requires concentration in solitude.

The third is "The Inequality that Matters" by MR's Tyler Cowen. This is the most level-headed and honest discussion of income inequality in the U.S. that I've ever read, and anyone who likes to rant about the issue on any side should read it.