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.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

get the money out of politics

I hate politics. And I especially hate so many valuable monetary resources being wasted on two-year long commercials for all the slimy weasels in politics. But, I understand the impulse to contribute to those campaigns, since, after all, politicians do have a lot of power to affect the world and everyone wants to make sure their right guy has that power.

So if someone is waiting around for a lucrative non-profit idea, how about: set up a website where people can make political donations, but if that donation can be matched with an offsetting donation to the other side, both donations go to some nonpartisan charity of your choice (e.g. the Red Cross or the Humane Society or Nature Conservancy.) That way all those billions of dollars normally spent on winning the campaign volume war will STILL have that effect (by damping the other side rather than ramping your own), but will have two wonderful additional side effects: widespread weasel muzzling, and good deeds done.

You could even expand it in complexity to cater to specific preferences: say someone wants to donate $20 to the Mitt Romney for president campaign. They could specify that if a matching donation to any of a number of organizations (the Obama campaign, the Michele Bachmann campaign, or the ACLU, for example) is found within a certain number of days, that matched amount will be diverted to a specified service-based organization like those mentioned above, and the remainder, if any, will be donated to Mitt Romney at that time. Either way, a receipt for relevant tax deductions is provided at that time as well.

Has anyone done this? If so, why have I not heard about it? Are there some weird non-profit legal issues that make it difficult to implement? Is there some fundamental flaw in the concept that I'm missing? I know I'm not the only one cynical about all the money in politics and sick of hearing the commercials and really sick of all the phone calls from campaigns who aren't restricted by the Do Not Call list...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Vera Lynn

When I first saw this on my facebook news feed, I thought it was personalized advertising, and I laughed at the fact that my name itself was enough of a reason to target me with this (as though I could possibly have gone a month, let alone 25 years*, without having the conversation 'Hi I'm Vera' 'Oh like the Pink Floyd song!'**, rendering this infomercial unnecessary).

Then I realized that it's just a coincidental post by a page I apparently 'liked', and I laughed at how cynical the modern ad-driven world has made me that I assume everything I see has been specially selected with the intention of selling me something.

*Doesn't it annoy the crap out of you when people switch the order of things in a `let alone' statement? like that awful song that was on the radio all the time when I was in high school with the line `let's go and see the stars, the milky way, or even mars', as though, after travelling hundreds of thousands of light-years around the galaxy, the one last barely-attainable goal is to stop next door on a red pebble. I've finally come around to accepting that the `could care less' thing could be a vestige of sarcasm, but I can't understand the `let alone' thing except as product of ignorance or verbal carelessness.

**or `hey that's my grandma's name!' Or, in certain circles that I rarely frequent, `like Vera Wang!' I've sadly never gotten a `like Vera Rubin!'***

***This blog post has clearly ceased to have a clear purpose, if it ever had one to begin with.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


I forgot to write these down awhile ago since I stopped reading for a few months when preparing for oral exams... except for hundreds of papers, of course.

Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn - Lest you be deceived by such a great title, this "geek" refers to the original meaning of the word: "a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake." Continuing in that spirit, this book was apparently written with the sole purpose of coming up with as much disturbing material as possible and throwing it together in a single story that could've been really good, if done in in moderation, and if any of the characters were lovable or worth rooting for. (Ok, Chick, the telekinetic angelic youngest child who bears the burden of all the world's pain, is a little lovable, but he's a side character.)

My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell - If you loved the James Herriot books, as I did, you'll love this. Gerald is a passionate naturalist who grew up on the Greek island of Corfu and wrote this (and two sequels) about his rather unique and creature-filled childhood. Very sweet. Lacking in overall plot, but who cares?

Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond - Good, and Jared Diamond is undeniably brilliant, but I much prefer the writing of Dawkins and Pinker and many others. This felt too much like a collection of miscellaneous essays that he wanted to make a book out of and came up with an overall theme of ... "all of human history". I guess that's fine but I would've liked it more if I'd been expecting that.

Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming - I love Bond movies, but had never read any of the books, so I figured I'd give it a try. Far cry from the movies.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

inventing hypotheses

Humans are amazingly good at rationalizing things. If you ever wanted striking proof of this, and to be convinced of the importance of falsifiability and testability of theories, browse through and count how many correlations between really random human traits immediately make you think "well of course that's true, because...[insert convoluted story here]." Like, of course extroverted people are disproportionately fond of corn off the cob (as opposed to on the cob), because they tend to be more externally focused and less contemplative, so why eat a form of something that'll distract you from the dinner conversation?

Who wants to write me a widget that'll take a correlation from and black out the numbers, until you click 'reveal'? That way you could guess which way direction the correlation goes before 'testing' your theory of the human brain by revealing the truth. They should turn it into a game...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

meta-(behavioral economics)

I'm not fond of the idea of libertarian paternalism.

Part of the reason why is that I'm partially just a stubborn classical economist who believes nearly dogmatically that people should be left alone to do what they want to do because they know best what is best for them, and the whole concept of sneakily coercing people into making different choices that they might not want to make is creepy.

And part of the reason is that I personally really want to be left alone to do what I want to do, and I really don't want to be sneakily manipulated into doing things I might not want to do.

And probably most of the reason is a purely irrational gut negative reaction to the word `paternalism' which I and most other economists are firmly opposed to for a host of perfectly reasonable reasons and some personal preferences too of course; and another negative reaction to terminology that taints such a wonderfully optimistic and freeing philosophy of libertarianism with such an ugly, pessimistic, patronizing thing as paternalism.

But beyond all that is another, very significant, reason. That is that people have consistent types of irrational behavior that will likely lead to abuse of libertarian paternalism as soon as it's accepted as an option. I worry that behavioral economists who propose behavioral solutions to behavioral problems are forgetting how other behavioral problems will lead those solutions to be counterproductive.

  • We're overconfident about what we believe to be true: when we pick up on some reason that people might make irrational decisions, we're then convinced that we know what's better for them.
  • We project our own preferences and values on others: if we see someone doing something that we wouldn't do, we overestimate the likelihood that they are mis-optimizing their own utility via some kind of irrationality. When a smoker starts begging me to tax him so they'll have an easier time quitting, I'll listen, but until then I'm inclined to trust their revealed preferences more than my own guess of their preferences.
  • We have delusions of control: we think we're capable of tweaking the world for the better without having to deal with endless fallout that often outweighs any benefit of the tweak.
  • We hate being passive: give us an option, any option, to actively do something to address an imperfection in the world, and we'll take it, whether or not we know how to do it well or what the side-effects might be or who might get hurt in the process.
  • And we pay more attention to salient information: it's easy to see that a default savings program helps many people increase their savings, but it's not obvious how many people are coerced through that program to save more than they should in their personal circumstances; a policy maker who isn't as used to searching for those hidden effects as economists who invent the policies are are going to be too keen on the policy. Not to mention, `small' costs or reductions in freedom are too easily written off as `no' costs. I for one really don't want to have to actively opt out of every silly nanny state policy the government wants to coerce me into. Government bureaucracy is never a trivial detail.
Obviously libertarian paternalism is a step in the right direction from paternalism. But that's only true when comparing two alternate policies of each type. But people react much more negatively to paternalistic policies, so it's hard to get them passed in the first place. Libertarian paternalistic policies are less damaging but also much easier to implement because moral libertarians can't really object and the downsides are much less obvious. So I worry that shifting towards this type of solution upsets the balance of volume in favor of the nanny state champions that I really don't want running the country.