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.