Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dear Wal-mart,

I love you, usually. I regularly defend your honor against crazy economically illiterate Berkeleyans who don't realize that you've done more for the American poor and lower-middle class than any liberal government initiative. I love that you've used your market power for good in many ways, and I have full faith that you'll soon get over your stubbornness with regard to endangered fish as well.

With every subpar stop at Safeway or Target or any shopping need past 10pm, I bitterly mourn the fact that the nearest 24-hour Supercenter is an hour away in Napa. You were an integral part of my childhood, as the teenage hangout in small-town Oklahoma, the truly one-stop shopping center for everyone (regardless of class), and after many weekend field trips from OSSM to your blessedly off-campus utopia, your reliably cheerful blue billboards even became a true symbol of freedom [so long as we were back at the van in exactly 55 minutes.]

But for someone who has turned the business of giving consumers exactly what they want at prices that can't be beat into an exact science, you have an astonishing misconception compromising your women's clothes department: not everyone who likes to shop with you is either a skanky teenager or an overweight adult.

All of your women's shorts are too big on me, and all of your junior's sized shorts barely cover my crotch. Seriously. And I am perfectly averagely sized, except being a little on the tall side, but that doesn't matter with shorts.

I understand that your target demographic tends to be a little bit heavier than average, since nowadays poverty is perversely correlated with obesity, so fine, stock a disproportionate number of size 13's. But really, if you are serious about working your way into skinny-obsessed New York City, you could do better than to completely ignore their clothing needs.

Please rectify this situation so that I may sing your praises without caveat!



Friday, March 25, 2011

open-access citations

Duh =)

I mean, this must be obvious to anyone who actually cites things. It may not be the ideal scholarly practice, but if I read a paper that cites multiple papers to make one point, and I want to make a similar point, so I look up those papers and only one is open-access, that's the one I cite. The trip to the library, the copy-card refiller station, and figuring out how to use those damn copiers to get a readable page once again and spending four times the advertised amount per page, is just not worth the added smidge of integrity of potentially discovering something unique about that one paper...

This is actually the ONE upside to the insanely long publication delays in economics, on the order of multiple years on average. By the time it actually comes out in print, the working paper version has been circulating the internet for years, copyright free. This of course means there's an added problem of citing specific dated versions of working papers that change over time... but that's ok. Rarely do you need to cite something so incredibly specific that it's only in one of the versions and not the published (peer-reviewed) one.

Edit: actually, by "open-access" above, I don't actually mean "open", I mean "open to the Berkeley network". But you get the idea. That rules out all those annoying journals that only put volumes on JSTOR on a timelag basis.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

wealth vs income

"The richest 400 Americans are richer than the bottom 150 million combined." I've heard this statistic half a dozen times in the last few weeks. In case you weren't tipped off by the fact that Michael Moore is one of the louder voices spreading it, you should take it with a spoonful of salt.

Wealth is not the same as income. The poorer half of America has almost no wealth because it doesn't save very much. They choose some small level of savings as an emergency buffer and spend the rest of their paycheck month to month. Some of these households are making six figures but choose to send their kids to private school instead of investing. That's their choice, and quite possibly the right one for their circumstances and values. Doesn't mean that wealthier investors owe them anything for it.

If I lived in a communist society where wealth was perfectly redistributed and everyone had exactly the same income, but one out of a million citizens lived in a cheaper home and didn't go on vacation and managed to save a buck a result, that one person would have more savings than everyone else in the country combined. I don't think that's a sign of grotesque income inequality. In fact that one person could even have a lower income and higher savings rate and still be "richer" than everyone else combined.

The U.S. isn't like that hypothetical country, but the mathematical point is what matters. That statistic doesn't tell you anything useful. I want to know what the number is for income.

Monday, March 21, 2011

the executive branch

Given what a scandal the Iraq war turned into, and what outrage there was over Bush-Cheney's unilateral decision to commit the country to more than a decade of violence, and given how forcefully Obama personally was against the Iraq war, it is fairly stunning and extremely disheartening that he would allow the same kind of unilateral decision making with regard to Libya.

It's also perpetually disheartening that the civil rights abuses (privacy and due process) induced by the Patriot Act have continued unabated since Obama took office, and yet the left has mysteriously shut up about it. This was something they were absolutely right to get up in arms about under Bush, and they should absolutely still be up in arms about it now. Not to mention the right, who claim to want the government off their backs, but somehow didn't see a problem with this totalitarian move in the first place.

Did I mention I hate partisan politics? So many people say they hate partisan politics, but those who are in one of the two relevant parties have very different revealed preferences.

spring break

Spring break: a hiatus from those pesky seminars and classes and meetings so you can really focus and get some real work done.

I swear to god this is the last year I'll forget multiple times that it's spring break at all, after not even knowing it was this week until last Tuesday. I am not a workaholic...

Friday, March 18, 2011

school standards

Gautam Rao, on the demise of standards in New Delhi private schools: "Unlike when I was growing up where these fancy schools beat you and tested you all the time, now they hardly ever beat you and almost never test you."

See, economics seminars can be very entertaining!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

bleeding heart libertarians

In case you missed it on MR and various other places, this new blog is great. It's always nice to hear from libertarians who don't deny that the world doesn't always reflect an idealized theoretical model and who don't exclusively rely on moralistic reasoning (from a property-rights-above-all-else foundation) in their political philosophy.

Most libertarian discussion falls into one of two categories: either it takes place in a heterogenous population and quickly devolves into a bitter debate about fundamental values and assumptions, or it takes place in a exclusively libertarian crowd and quickly devolves into a ludicrously extreme set of normative proclamations that much of the world would use as reductio ad absurdum arguments against classical liberalism.

A middle ground where libertarian values are taken for granted as the starting point but that acknowledges the subtlety and complexity of real-world issues is a breath of fresh air.

calculating optimal date nights

This is what happens when I have a few hours off one evening after several weeks of nonstop staring at a computer screen or notebook and generally stressing myself into premature greying.

Or rather, this is what happens when that coincides with the day of having lunch with my friend Mike, who is the first person in my own generation that I've met who is as enthusiastic, if not more so, about amateur astronomy as I am.

First I go rockclimbing since I haven't had any exercise whatsoever in a week.

Then I splurge on tuk tuk thai takeout for dinner.

And then I spend over an hour calculating the required azimuth of the sun at sunset, and the dates when it falls in that range, to see the sun set over the water from the Eastbay, as it slithers just between the city and Marin county and under the Golden Gate bridge.

Backing up. The graduate student lounge in the Berkeley department of economics (known as the P-room) has an unbelievably gorgeous view from the 6th floor of a building at the top of the hill, looking out over the entire bay. The main upside to spending evening after evening banging my head against problem sets as a first year student was seeing sunset and twilight progressively fill this room. For some reason, I always only saw it set over Marin county and didn't think twice before writing off the possibility of sunset over the water.

(Backing up further: I've somehow only seen sunset over the water four times in 7 years of residence in California. In LA, the coast faces south, and here, the eastbay is hugged inland by Marin and the peninsula. The first time I saw it completely unintentionally while on a motorcycle trip up highway 1, and it so shocked me with how beautiful it was compared to the normal thing, which is already pretty dang great, that I've been somewhat obsessed with the phenomenon ever since. Plus, every time is both beautiful and comes with a ticket to the green flash lottery, which I've yet to win. But it IS real.)

I guess I got too accustomed to the beautiful bay area scenery, because it took until a couple months ago to come back to this question. That was when I was fishing on the Berkeley pier at sunset and lamenting the fact that it sets behind the city. (I'm really unbelievably obtuse sometimes; even then I didn't remember well enough or think about it enough to realize that that means that sometime during the year it must go from the north peninsula to the south with a window of opportunity in between.)

But today at lunch, Mike and I got on the subject of Cassini and Saturn fly-bys, astronomy videography, clear sky prospects, and the upcoming showing of Mercury a full ten degrees above the horizon half an hour after sunset next week. And then onto sunsets. And only then, when Mike told me flat out that it's definitely possible, did I realize I had never figured this out.

An itch like that can't go unscratched, even if it means that you find yourself playing with mathematica at 1:30 in the morning, while studying tables of sunset azimuths by gps coordinates and going absolutely giddy over the scrumptious trove of practical geekiness that is this website.

So to get to the punchline: we just missed it, unfortunately. The south end of the golden gate bridge is at about 250.4 degrees azimuth, and the north end at 254.6. There's also the obstacle of the southern suspension tower at 251.7. The sun itself is right around half a degree wide, which gives you probably one day unobstructed under the southern portion, and 9 or so days under the main body of the bridge. That was from approximately February 4-14. (No, I'm not going to try to be more exact than that... there's all kinds of other factors to take into account, such as elevation above the horizon and atmospheric refraction, but the fact of the matter is that the table of sunset azimuths has three significant digits so that's the limiting bottleneck.) The next run will be from October 27-November 5 (with a gap day or two on the back end from the suspension tower).

BUT, you still have a day or two to catch it from treasure island. If the turnoff from the highway that I'm thinking of is where I think it is on google maps, this is about the ideal time to watch the sunset directly under the bridge from there, which has the added benefit that you're half as far away and on level with the water, so the gap between bridge and horizon is much larger.

That's where I'll be tomorrow at 7:18 pm.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Help me out here. Think of a situation where you are completely anonymously interacting with another person. You have the option to behave fairly towards them, or to screw them over for your own gain.

In one type of situation, where the other person won't find out that you screwed them over, you are more likely to do so. In another situation, where the outcome is exactly the same but the other person will find out, you are more likely to behave fairly. (Think about if you and someone else won a prize and you have to give them their half of the money. You might act differently if they know how much you won.)

Why is that? This is a completely anonymous situation, so you don't have to worry about vengeance, and no one but yourself can judge you for your decision. But of course the decision is the same in both cases, so your own self-judgment can't be the reason.

The obvious explanation is that you don't want to make other people feel as if they're being screwed over. But somehow I can't make myself believe that that's all that's going on. That doesn't feel like what is going on, if I imagine myself in that position.

I mean, if that were the reason, people should interfere with random strangers screwing people over. We should tip for other people when we see them eating and running. We definitely don't.

Ok, maybe this is it. We don't like feeling responsible for other people's hurt feelings. How does that sound? Guilt applies both to material outcomes and emotional outcomes.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

shameless hero-worship

David Brooks has a blog again!

I think if I didn't have to work for money, I would spend my time attempting to be David Brooks. With a little more math, for fun. And on a ranch in southwest Texas instead of D.C.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

important skills

No time to blog but always time to quote David Brooks:

Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.

Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.

Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.

Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.

Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.