Monday, December 31, 2012

missing pieces

After you stop taking classes, you learn things in a much less systematic fashion, reading papers as you come across them, looking up papers or topics in books as they become relevant to your work, and so on. So every once in awhile (too frequently, it seems) I come across a paper that is so cool and feels like something I definitely should have known about years and years ago.

It's not too hard to stay in touch with what is currently going on in your field of interest, by looking at new journals and working papers regularly. But there are still decades of old research, and areas of research that used to be active that you don't hear much about anymore, or that you don't notice because you don't know anything about it to start with, etc, and there's not a good way to systematically make sure you at least know the most important bits of that enormous mass of knowledge.

So, in the process of pseudo-random search, I sometimes come across things like this, and get all excited about them, but in order to share them, I have to write a long blog post about how I'm not really dumb and out of touch, I'm just a normal grad student that missed a cool paper from 17 years ago...

(Now, if anyone has suggestions on how to avoid, or avoid paranoia about, stumbling upon and revealing such holes in your knowledge during job interviews, I would appreciate hearing them...)

Saturday, December 29, 2012


This is an excellent article, stolen from David Brook's 2012 Sydney Awards list.

(Read the whole thing; it's much shorter than most of the long-form articles that make the list. But the super long ones, in particular this and this, are also fantastic and worth the time.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

there is an upside

(to the flyover states.)

Today I took a direct (¡I didn't know those existed!) flight to Oklahoma City from San Francisco. Everyone waiting at the gate was noticeably friendlier, chattier, dressed in cheesier Christmas garb, and more pleasantly accented, than the rest of the airport. When's the last time you heard Californians or New Yorkers laugh jollily at their shared conundrum of having their Christmas day flight delayed almost three hours, thereby missing out on late dinners with family, for inexplicable reasons? That level of good-naturedness just doesn't exist on the coasts...

As always, I got off the plane, and grinned upon seeing (I somehow always forget) the bathrooms labelled "tornado shelters" and ubiquitous cowboy hats. Ok, that much is my own personal nostalgia... but surely friendly agreeableness is universally considered a positive attribute.

And now back to a bitchy coastal tone of speech that I have to adopt to finish this post. (It's become too ingrained; sorry...)

I am so sick of hearing people who have never spent any time in the midwest/south, born-and-bred northeasterners mostly, say, with crinkled noses, "I can't stand that southern accent... I just can't take anyone seriously who talks that way. I hear a drawl and I automatically think you're stupid." Is there any other cultural marker in the world about which such a statement is considered acceptable? I can't think of one.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Behavioral macroeconomics

Given the slow economy, it is undesirable to reverse all or even most of the Bush tax cuts. A small but publicly trumpeted clawback of some of the cuts would send the right message to voters, while minimizing the macroeconomic fallout. The nice thing about symbols — single shots across the bow — is that they often can suffice. 
If people already rationally expect these tax increases, this signal would do neither good nor harm, but perhaps such an approach would nudge political expectations closer to reality without draining the economy.
Interesting. A way to pander to misguided good intentions while the substantive policy does the right thing?

I'm not whether I like where this leads, but it's interesting...

I do like this, for sure:
In our country, the typical approach to fiscal deadlines is to kick the can down the road. But that assumes we are kicking a can, not a grenade. It’s time for at least one party — and why not the electoral loser? — to do something just a little shocking. It can give in on much of the negotiations, but insist that both sides start stressing the fiscal truth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

intentional legal arbitariness and motivated reasoning

I think you could write a nearly identical article to this one, replacing "terrorism" with "hate crimes".

But there's a lot more sympathy from lefties towards hate crime legislation introducing intentional arbitrariness into law so that rulings can be flexibly harsh when motivations are of a certain kind, than there is towards legislation that introduces similar arbitrariness when motivations can be labelled with terrorism.

Intentions alone shouldn't drive policy or interpretation of policy.

(And, given certain intentions, coming up with or discarding logical objective reasoning that services those intentions is very easy...)

(I mean, it's easily to justify something you want to believe. Instinctive belief comes first, logical justification comes second.)

Thursday, December 6, 2012


Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov - So good! (As of course it must be, given the author.) Hilarious, and every page contains a sentence that makes you stop and gleefully re-read it four times because no one ever has or ever will again describe something more perfectly. It's only 184 pages but I savored it as long as a normal length novel. The story barely even has a plot (it's basically a long character sketch) and it doesn't even matter. And as a bonus, the character, an endearingly socially oblivious academic, is wonderfully lovable and relatable to... people like me.

Liars and Outliers, by Bruce Schneier - He intended to write a book about cybersecurity, but instead wrote a book about behavioral economics, because, well, behavioral economics is the actual driving force in most things :) It seems to be neglected by economists, since it wasn't written by an economist, but it was good (a little light on content, but very well organized/written), and I found it really entertaining to read a book on behavioral economics written by a computer scientist who stumbled on behavioral economics and felt the need to write a book about it. Somehow it's more credible that these things are really important when written about by someone other than the primary researchers.

The Lives of Christopher Chant, by Diana Wynne Jones - Dumb kids book I read for book club. Maybe I would've liked it as a little kid. As an adult, the operations of the fantasy world and magic were irritating and the book got worse and worse as it went on. Prying your way through "strands" of magic spells? Really..?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

marriage equality

This election cycle made me depressed every time I encountered evidence of its existence, so I pretty much avoided any contact with it until election night, but was then wonderfully surprised that marriage equality passed in all four states in which it was a ballot measure, after thirty losses in a row until now.

Social conservatism is rapidly becoming obsolete. I am only curious to see whether the Republicans realize this and morph into a true fiscally conservative/socially liberal party before Democrats are forced to confront the economic reality of their spending desires* and morph into that party themselves.**

Anyway, fiscal policy isn't what I intended to rant about. Back to marriage equality.

When Obama came out in favor of marriage equality, I was dismayed by his reasoning. He has been phenomenally terrible for civil rights***, and that was a perfect opportunity to show that he hadn't forgotten about them. But no. Rather than "This country was founded on the principle of an equal right to the pursuit of happiness for all citizens, whether we agree with those decisions or not. It is constitutionally unAmerican to silence those who outrage us; it is equally unAmerican to deny civil rights to those whose preferences we don't understand. I know wonderful homosexual parents of my daughters' friends. But whether or not they are wonderful is entirely irrelevant to whether or not they should have the same rights as the rest of us." we got "Now that I've gotten to know some homosexual people and observed that my daughter's don't think it's strange at all that their friends have two moms or two dads, I've come around to the idea of marriage equality." How pansy-ass is that??

(Is it possible that he's just hesitant to make such an argument because he's black and doesn't want to identify too closely with the black civil rights movement? I would hope to god that it goes the other way. I optimistically cling to the hope that he was in favor of marriage equality all along but took the politically cowardly safe road, and had to come up with a coherent narrative to justify the switch. He obviously couldn't say he suddenly realized the logic of civil rights two years ago...)

Anyway. I've been very optimistic for a long time that the country is past the point of return on gay rights, and that it's just a waiting game, so when I heard those comments, I was more annoyed by the logic than hopeful about the impact it would have. But if that logic, however flawed, somehow served to sway voters in the four states who Tuesday affirmed their respect for all partnerships, then that is wonderful, and it's worth it for the thousands of lives that are drastically improved as a result.

Congratulations to Maine, Maryland, Washington, and (any day now...) Minnesota.

*Not that the Republicans are much better at facing economic reality. But at least they give it more lip service..?
**As unlikely as the former sounds, I think the latter is actually less likely, simply because Democrats will solve the fiscal issue by morphing into an astronomical tax rate, European style welfare state, rather than to scale back their entitlement fantasies or learn how to make tough, cost-effective choices...
***and even worse, while Bush got the whole civil-rights-trampling bandwagon rolling in the first place, at least liberals spent 8 years of his presidency in outrage over it. Who's yelling now?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

personal equilibrium?

"Unexpected pleasures are the best part of life. Why not drive one every day?"

From the Buick Verano commercial.

[Explaining the joke: if you drive one every day, it's not unexpected. You can't fool yourself into being pleasantly surprised all the time.]

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

matching markets

Speaking of matching markets, it's pretty strange that the economics job market, which is so nicely streamlined and centralized, doesn't use a stable matching mechanism. In terms of the original Gale-Shapley algorithm, it's missing the feature in which women can call of whatever engagement they've previously accepted if a better man asks in the next round of offers. In other words, once you accept a job, you can't really get out of it to accept a better one. That's a problem because offers aren't made at the same time by all universities.

This causes a lot of stress for job market candidates, and I'm sure for universities too, who play a convoluted timing game to try to get their most preferred candidate. Would it really be so hard for universities to agree to a set time period in which offers can be made and accepted and then reneged if something better comes along? I'm not sure who stands to lose, and I'm pretty sure the gains must outweigh whatever losses there are.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


I grew up listening to a lot of classical music, especially for violin. As I got older and started listening to music of other genres, a particular aspect of classical music started to really bug me: there is such emphasis on virtuosity, above and beyond the emotional/aesthetic impact of the music.

Virtuosity should be only a tool to enhance that impact, not an end in itself. Cadenzas, the solo interludes in concertos in which the performer gets to show off his own skills and strengths and style, should fit with the rest of the music, should be beautiful, and shouldn't sound forced.

Compare: Itzhak Perlman's cadenza in the Beethoven violin concerto, probably my all time favorite. Beautiful, effortless. On the other hand, the Paganini caprices. Aesthetically borderline offensive, blatantly designed just to show off one skill after another, painfully forced. Impressive, most definitely. But who cares? It's not a competition. Or if it is, technical skill isn't the relevant aspect.

I was reminded of this last night by an amazing concert by Kelly Joe Phelps, an acoustic/slide guitarist who is the pinnacle of effortless understated virtuosity. His musical genius is undeniable but it only serves to make the music more beautiful. Listen (main song starts at 1:30. I like the vocals on the album version a little better but I'm too lazy to upload it. I've never heard him play the same song the same way twice; more proof of the genius...)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Al Roth matched correctly

One of my favorite economists won the Nobel Prize today. Al Roth (along with Lloyd Shapley) won for his incredibly cool work on matching and mechanism design. If you've read about school choice in New York City, matching medical school graduates with residencies, or chains of kidney donations up to 60 donors long that overcome the problem in which willing donors (friends and relatives of the recipient, usually) aren't a match, you've read about his work. Heroically awesome applications of game theory, is how you might summarize it. (Take that, Ariel.)

Plus, he's a really nice guy. And he writes an excellent blog.

Shapley is also obviously a fantastic choice; he's already an icon of the profession. I blogged about the Gale-Shapley algorithm previously (which forms the foundation of many mechanisms designed by Roth.)

Friday, October 5, 2012

prerequisites and performance statistics

To answer my own question, I think we need to see more clearly differentiated tracks for classes and more clearly defined prerequisite structures.

The online class model is a significant improvement over 'learning things on the internet with disjointed articles, videos, and wikipedia' because the duration is long enough to build up from simple first principles to more complicated ideas. Now they need to improve a step further with clearer prerequisites. Rather than teaching a quantum mechanics class where "you don't need to know calculus! We will present the material in the most accessible way possible", they can teach a quantum mechanics with a calculus prerequisite (...and here's a link to the calculus class you should take first; you can sign up without it of course, but we will explicitly assume that knowledge.)

And/or, different tracks of classes should be more clearly defined. Already many classes have 'optional' assignments and supplementary material for more advanced students, and their certificate of completion sometimes says something about that. Why not make it more explicit? Every certificate of completion should say which track out of which options it's for, what the prerequisites were, and what your score was compared to the average among people who completed all coursework.

I don't think these things are directly beneficial to the "maximize audience in the short run" objective of course offerers, in play at this early point in time. But I also don't think it's contrary to that objective, and could be done in a clearly beneficial way. It could maintain current interest but also attract additional interest and conglomerate statistics of "number of people who took any track of this class or initiated this course sequence" are just as impressive as "60,000 people signed up for this course".

But more importantly, I think these changes are vital for long-run success of online education. People won't chase meaningless certificates if they want credentials, and they won't chase empty dumbed-down curricula if they want real education and employers won't give a crap about certificates that don't have a clear meaning. It's great for those who want a cursory introduction, for fun or curiosity or a jumping off point for more serious independent learning, but that's nothing that's going to ever be able to compete or seriously supplement traditional education. It's something worthwhile in its own right, but it's not "online education".

Thursday, October 4, 2012

online education

Online classes are better subject to forces of competition (no one is required to take them, and there are more options both within and between subjects.) Therefore the following forces operate:

For a given quality/rigor of curriculum, improving teaching methods will increase the number of people who want to take an online class.

For a given curriculum, lowering the rigor will increase the number of people who want to take an online class.

The former effect is limited: no matter how good the teaching is, work is required to understand and master complex subjects.

The latter may also be limited: reducing rigor loses a few people at the top end who want a very thorough understanding of a subject and picks up a lot more (because the distribution is skewed) on the lower end who want a simple introduction. But, at some point even the lower end isn't tempted by a class that can be completed by 7 year olds.

I think that on the current margin, the latter is more effective at increasing audience. At least, it seems to be the tactic overtly chosen by many classes.

Loosely speaking, the former effect is welfare-improving, while the latter is welfare-reducing, but both are potential avenues for an online course offerer whose objective is to maximize its audience. (At this point in time, at the dawn of online education, I think that is indeed the main objective.)

How do we set up the system so that the former is the more tempting option?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Linus Torvalds was right to call it an unholy mess.

Even worse, not only is it an unholy mess, it's an unholy mess you have no control over. Instead of being highly configurable, as linux and linux software is usually designed to be, every design choice was a paternalistic executive decision that you can't change if you don't agree or if you have different needs from the limited set of uses they had in mind (except by digging into the code, of course.)

They want to "encourage" certain ways of interacting with your computer, which is even worse than the Apple design philosophy. At least that philosophy limits your freedom for the sake of the unsophisticated masses that their products are directed at. Gnome3 tries to limit the freedom of linux users.

Hah! Good luck with that. When you're done, I have a herd of cats you can have some fun corralling.

Anyway, if anyone knows of a Gnome3 Classic theme (I gave Shell a chance; it is persistently infuriating) that looks like Gnome2, please let me know. I find the high contrast black aesthetically offensive and depressing, and both bars are way too thick.  (That is, a GTK+ theme, I think... Whichever one of the six kinds of themes controls the taskbar and top menu colors...)

(But at least after upgrading the Wheezy, my SD card reader, external monitor, Wifi driver, and suspend functionality all work perfectly... <3 Debian.)

Saturday, September 15, 2012


The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt - Excellently written (please, please, everyone follow the practice of summarizing each chapter in an organized outline form...), endlessly fascinating. More to say on particular points later.

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson - I can't count how many people have told me I should read this, upon hearing I don't like sci-fi. They were very very wrong. Here's a good rule of thumb: if the author spends more time building up some arbitrary alternate universe than developing compelling characters, it is sci-fi, and I won't like it. Y.T. is great but can't carry the book on her own, and saying 'It's not sci-fi, it's cyberpunk fiction' is like saying 'It's not green, it's emerald.' And if I'm going to slog through endless tedious historical detail, I at least want it to be true. Also, the writing style is offensively aesthetically irritating. (Yet, Neal Stephenson can definitely be fantastic: read this.)

Song of the Dodo, by David Quammen - Very interesting book about island biogeography and extinction. But it could have easily been half as long, and his manner of turning scientific research into personal epics loses a lot of credibility after the age of world-exploring death-defying Darwin-esque research. I'd rather just have the unadorned facts... science is beautiful and compelling on its own. (Or, his shorter essays are amazing and a much better setting for his skills.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I'm happier about this invention than anything I've come up with in economics recently

Go to your local Chinese grocery store. Buy some Thai iced tea mix packets. Thoroughly whip together two packets, two cups milk (or 1 milk/1 cream if you're less concerned about calorie intake than I am), an egg, a teaspoon of vanilla, and about a 1/4 cup of sugar (more if the tea mix doesn't already contain sugar). Put it in one of those frozen ice cream maker things that are at every Goodwill for less than $5.

Then thank me :)

...Thaice cream?

Monday, September 10, 2012

not actually so comical

15% of Ohio GOPers believe Mitt Romney deserves more credit than the president for the killing of bin Laden; 47% aren't sure.

Yeah, that's pretty hilarious. And of course that doesn't mean 62% of Ohio GOPers actually believe that. But don't dismiss the importance so fast! Think what it implies for the validity of polling statistics for other, serious questions...

People do what they think they are supposed to do based on their group identities and group norms, or they infer the expected choice from the question itself. Asking the question at all suggests it's a question worth asking, and for GOPers, of course then the answer is Romney. They aren't entirely stupid, so most hedge that by saying 'not sure'.

I'm sure it works on Democrats too (ask them about markets/incentives...) Group identity is powerful.

*I'm more interested in those 47%: 15% is well within the 'not paying attention/don't care' margin for surveys...

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Shimano STI shifter repair, Oakland CA

Here's the deal. Bike shops don't work on STI shifters - they are really intricate and difficult to take apart and reassemble. The labor cost just isn't worth it. They don't even have the one tool you really need (I asked around at a ton of places looking for one...)

If your shifter is under warranty, send it back to Shimano. If not, you have nothing to lose. So bring it to me. If I am able to repair it, pay me $30, and you're back in business for a lot less than a new shifter will cost you. If I can't, I get to keep the broken parts but you owe me nothing.

I'll be very honest: the most likely outcome is the latter. That's part of why the bike shops won't even try. If any internal component is broken, Shimano doesn't sell replacement parts. It may not even be clear what the problem is, since the mechanism is so intricate. The best you can hope for is a disengaged spring, perhaps. But at least I'll try.

I'm in downtown Oakland, CA. Email me at the link on the right with a description of the problem, to the best of your knowledge, and the model, number of gears, and whether it's the left or right shifter.

(In related news, sheer stubbornness will get you a long way... My broken set of $243 shifters on my new used road bike that had been banged up pretty good in an accident are now almost as good as new. After more hours of effort and visits to bike shops than I can count. Now I feel like I've invested enough that I should put the knowledge to generalized use :)

Friday, August 10, 2012

celebrating diversity

I love the Olympics. Total sucker for all the hype, buildup, drama, personal stories, celebration of internationalism, all of it. But I don't have a TV, so I just finally watched a bit of the opening ceremonies on my computer.

Within about 5 minutes I was astounded by how British it is. That may sound silly: It's in Britain, so of course it will celebrate Britain, just like the Beijing Olympics celebrated Chinese culture. But I usually think of the U.S. and Europe as being close cousins, one a recent semi-direct descendant of the other, with overlapping histories and cultures as a result. I mean, that's certainly the narrative you get growing up, in which you study American history by first studying European history (focusing on Britain, in fact), up until the point at which they diverged, and again when they re-overlap during the world wars. But the opening ceremonies that Britain threw would never be done by the United States.*

Ours are/would be more radically inclusive (to borrow the phrase if not the elaborated meaning from Burning Man). We celebrate diversity, multitudinous heterogeneous experiences and stories, equality of opportunity, and nonjudgmentalism. We don't care where you came from or who you are, but what you make of yourself. We don't care what your cultural identity is, only that you reciprocate that indifference. We, like any other human group, do rally around our group identity, but that identity is critically defined by a lack of identity.

What other nation can say that their patriotism is defined by rejecting empty notions such as patriotism, while still being truly patriotic? It's a very difficult balance point that we struggle with in countless political controversies; many differences between Democrats and Republicans could be categorized as differences in the domains in which we push back against that founding principle. But at least we're trying.

*I mean, it was still fantastic, just very different from my expectations. (And there I go again, wanting to be sure you know I have no problem with cultural differences...)

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Nothing to add, just so well put...

(Also, did you know that home improvements worth over $500 have to be performed a licensed contractor in the state of CA?)

Friday, July 20, 2012

finding Pluto

I have a bunch of astronomy-related things I should've blogged awhile ago, but I haven't had time to edit the related images yet, so that'll have to wait even longer. In the meantime, reporting from the Golden Gate Star Party, near Adin, CA...

I found Pluto! Which is just barely visible in my ten-inch telescope, at magnitude 14.04. Right now it's near the center of the galaxy and right on the edge of an open cluster, so there are literally hundreds of stars in the field of view, and you have to pick out just about the dimmest of them, and that's Pluto:

Which one is Pluto?

That one, of course!

You'd think (or at least, I thought...) that the incredibly rich background field of stars would make it really hard to pick out Pluto. Actually, though, since I had a very good finder chart (just like the images above) that I printed from Stellarium (awesome free software with libraries of stars you can download up to any limiting magnitude you could want!), I could use those hundreds of stars as a super fine grid to look exactly where I was supposed to. And after staring just next to that spot for about 15 minutes, I'd held Pluto in steady vision for about a cumulative total of one minute, but that was good and consistent enough to convince me it wasn't my imagination. Victory! I certainly couldn't have discovered Pluto in that manner, but I only wanted to find it, so good enough.

(If you are inclined to ask "So why are you so excited to look at a tiny barely-visible dot, amongst hundreds of other dots?", I unfortunately can't answer that; you're just not the target audience :)

Friday, July 13, 2012

introspection; altruism over unknown social image

Introspection seems like a flimsy basis for science, but in the social sciences, it's just another source of data. If you notice a strange data point, of course that single data point doesn't prove anything (and it might be completely misleading), but it can certainly point towards interesting avenues for research.

This happens to me constantly. That's what's so fun about being a behavioral economist.

For example, awhile ago, a friend of mine who is a wonderfully sweet and considerate person made an accidental faux pas in front of other people who don't know her. My immediate reaction was, oh no, now they're going to be annoyed at her because they don't realize it was an honest mistake by someone who would never do it intentionally. Despite the fact she wasn't even aware of the incident, I don't think, and probably won't interact with those people again, I felt bad for her for accidentally establishing a negative social image.

Why? I don't know. Humans can rationalize anything but I'm puzzled by this when I think about it from the perspective of a social preferences researcher. If she wasn't a friend, would I have had the same reaction? Probably not, but then I also wouldn't have been so confident that she's such a nice person and was sending a false signal. What if it was a friend who isn't so exceptionally nice all the time? I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have had the same reaction. I also imagine if a mean person was mistakenly seen as a very nice person, I would have a similarly inverted reaction, so it's not that I care about the annoyance level of the audience. But there are no consequences to having a bad image among people you'll never meet again, not even feeling bad about it herself! since she didn't notice it happen. So why do I care?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

mathematical modeling

Mathematical modeling's most important purpose is to formalize logic, so that lines of reasoning can't be led astray by false intuition. Game theoretic signaling models, for example, are often so hard to think about intuitively that math is flat out necessary to understand what's going on.

Through modeling, I may have convinced myself, over the past month or so, that the costly signaling story I've been in love* with for the last year is misleading, nearly to the point of being wrong. By exploring what happens when I change one set of assumptions in various ways, correcting an early error in my original model**, and formalizing one more aspect of what's going on, it seems like costliness of signals is a minor issue in only certain circumstances.

That, however, leads to new insights, and hopefully new models of those insights. That's progress. And hopefully that will make up for the time lost pursuing something that wasn't quite right.

I love the objectivity of math. It's hard, and a brutal judge, but there's less room for error, less room for pointless pursuit of invalid arguments, less room for arguing over reasoning that people interpret differently, and it's easier to pinpoint mistakes and move on from sunk costs.

*Huh, I feel like I've blogged on that topic a lot more than once, but I can't find them.

**Doh. I really need a mathematical collaborator who can check my work, and vice versa. It's phenomenal how much time I waste over simple math mistakes, and I hear I'm definitely not alone in this. I can only hope it gets better with experience.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Berkeley in one sentence

Berkeley: where the homeless people refuse food that isn't vegan.

(I am beside myself at how perfect that is :D)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

useful math

Math I liked in college: abstract algebra, combinatorics, topology
Math I didn't like: analysis, statistics

(All of the above most broadly speaking; the exceptions being differential topology, which should go in the 2nd category, and chunks of classical analysis such as measure theory, which should go in the first.)

You could just as easily label those lists "not useful" and "useful", respectively.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

coding in economics

Well, it's a huge stretch to say that "doing research is writing software", but it is writing code, that's true. And this is a great guide any economist (or any scientist who writes code) should read.

But writing readable code is one thing and writing good, efficient code is another thing, and much more involved than an enumerable list of do's and don't's. More frequently in economics, as we estimate complicated structural models and other computationally intensive things like that, we're going to need to get better at programming, above and beyond simple Stata scripts. Naively writing Matlab code that takes weeks to estimate a model isn't the best way to go about these things in the long run. We should learn C (for example), learn what happens behind the scenes when we write a line of code so we can avoid doing stupidly inefficient things, and learn good algorithms (or at least how they work, so we can use the appropriate pre-existent library for the task.)

I'm as guilty as anyone. And probably these kinds of problems where efficient code is really necessary are still pretty rare, and it's probably hard to know going into it that it will be necessary, so it's still easy to avoid thinking about. But now is a good time to put in the investment. As a profession we seem to have dug ourselves a Stata-lined hole (of infinite despair...) when it comes to regression analysis, let's not also dig ourselves a Matlab-lined hole for structural estimation :)

Monday, July 2, 2012


Swann's Way by Marcel Proust - I only read a third of this, actually, before I couldn't take it anymore. If this guy had anything at all interesting to talk about he would be the most amazing writer I've possibly ever encountered, and for certain ten-page increments that were even vaguely relatable I did believe that. But the rest of the time he's an infuriatingly whiny spineless narcissist recounting his spoiled upper-crusty childhood experience in the kind of excruciating detail (Proustian recall became a common phrase for a very good reason) that, again, is astoundingly wonderful when applied to something of interest, but when not, causes my brain to slowly boil. If any of the later volumes of In Search of Lost Time, or even later bits of this volume, are less painful, please let me know, because I really want to read anything in which his stunning talent with words is put to good use...

Machine of Death - Collection of short stories on the theme of what the world would be like if there existed a machine that could tell you how you would die. Free at the link! Many of the stories were pointedly amateur (I didn't realize until I read this how easy it is to tell bad fiction writing from good fiction writing...) but they were weirdly addicting nonetheless and I finished them all despite my intention to just read a few for book club. Some had fantastic premises, most were just ok.

Transit of Venus: 1631 to the Present by Nick Lomb - Huh, I guess I still haven't blogged about the transit. Mental note. Anyway, I read this book before hand, which goes through all the history and explains the science behind it and the scientific importance (it was how they measured the solar system originally), all with countless stunning photographs. It made viewing the actual transit much more enjoyable; without appreciating the significance I'm sure five minutes at the eyepiece would've satiated my interest. Highly recommended except for the fact that there won't be another transit until 2117...

Sunday, July 1, 2012

social preferences towards the experimenter

Periodically I run into the objection towards interpretations/designs of social preferences experiments that the experimenter is ignored as a player. That is, taking money from the experimenter is transferring it from taxpayers to the participants, and that might be something participants care about, in addition to transfers between participants.

Frankly I don't really care about that possibility. It certainly is something that warrants careful study, but I find it very unlikely and therefore not so interesting, personally. (And, it's only a substantial criticism for certain experiments, not usually the kind I think about.)

It occurs to me that that's probably because I view social preferences as largely driven by norms and image. We do things because we're expected to do things. We share money in laboratory dictator games because it's implied that we're expected to and sharing norms say we should and we don't want to look bad; we don't give money to random strangers on the subway because there is no such expectation or norm. If that's the case, it's pretty safe to ignore the experimenter as a player, because almost no experiment ever even hints at the experimenter's money as something the participants should care about. And, the mere fact that they're running the experiment tells participants that they want to use that money to see how people use it within a game among themselves. The expectation is, if anything, against having social preferences towards the experimenter.

Saturday, June 30, 2012


Read this whole thing.

This also explains why more and more people are shouting that a college education is a "right". Because high school education is already a "right" but it no longer is all that helpful. College is taking the place of high school.

(So those people should be shouting for higher standard in high school education, not more free education, which will certainly follow the same path of falling standards...)

Friday, June 29, 2012

perfect price discrimination and social networking

Safeway is moving towards perfect price discrimination (well, we already knew that... we already get personalized coupons when we check out) through a personalized rewards program.

A "problem" with social networking being the foundation of everything on the web is that retailers have so much information about customers that perfect price discrimination is much more feasible.* That's not to say that price discrimination is inherently a bad thing, on net for society or for individuals, but it can be for individuals in individual instances: I like getting discounts for being me but I want to be able to hide who I am in the cases when retailers want to charge me more than other people. If everything I do online is associated with my identity, through facebook or google or amazon, it's a lot harder to switch to anonymity.**

This makes me wonder if amazon prime a long-term tactic to aggregate personal information for price discrimination purposes? Amazon toyed with individualized prices awhile ago but people were so offended that they stopped. But I'm sure they're tempted to keep trying, in less offensive ways. Individualized discounts can't be offensive, can they? But then, when everyone has their own price, what is the base price that the discount is relative to? They can declare it to be whatever they want, just as safeway posts "regular non-member prices" that are meaningless except to make people feel like they are getting a good deal (and to coerce everyone to be a member of course).

In the case of safeway, everyone is a member in order to get the good prices. In the case of amazon, everyone has/uses their amazon prime account in order to get free fast shipping. That allows amazon to charge more for prime customers who will still prefer (or are oblivious to the other option) to pay the higher individualized price than to pay for slower shipping.

Is this already happening perhaps? It tells you something that I don't even know, because I only shop on amazon within my account... If so, how are they framing it so as not to be objectionable?

*I'm trying really hard here to avoid balking at social networking-based price discrimination purely for being creepy and unfair, because what is 'unfair' depends on framing effects (see above on individualized discounts.) and 'creepiness' is an evolving, subjective thing. So, work with me; compartmentalize these things for the duration of this blog post :)

**There seems to be a trend in people using multiple web browsers for this purpose; one stays logged into things and the other doesn't. Also, non-tracking search sites like duckduckgo.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

morality is better without the supernatural

Morality is complicated and religion provides heuristic decision-making rules that help people get sort of close without having to think too hard, which also helps society in the aggregate mitigate destruction from stragglers who try to figure out their own morality and do a bad job of it.

But I maintain that a secular heuristic morality is perfectly achievable, is more credible without all that facetious supernatural nonsense, and allows society to avoid these mind-bogglingly ridiculous situations that occur when religious rules are followed to the letter instead of in spirit (or when religious rules that were invented before modern science and technology are followed despite their inapplicability.)

*smacks forehead*

[Link stolen from MR.]

Friday, June 22, 2012

game theory and logic are very useful things...

I usually love Ariel Rubinstein's writing (as intentionally provoking as it may be) but he's flat-out lost it with his game theory rant. "A good judge does not need to know logic."

...Are you kidding me?

He's got a pretty insanely strict definition of 'useful' if game theory doesn't qualify. I don't even know what it could possibly be...

Monday, June 18, 2012

Aldo Leopold

Once in awhile you come across a thinker whose writing echoes the most charitable interpretation of your own thoughts, and whose personal inclinations mirror your own so closely (or so you project), that you end up excitedly underlining every other line of a paper about him and prattling on like an infatuated schoolgirl to anyone who will listen.

I love Aldo Leopold.

I knew I loved A Sand County Almanac, but never read about him personally. It turns out that in addition to being a naturalist and a posthumous hero of the environmental movement, he was (sort of) trained as an economist and was in the Agricultural Economics department at the University of Wisconsin! That sure explains his keen understanding of human nature/institutions and his comments relating to economics.

(Although, he uses that term in a narrow-enough sense to be denigrating; I again would prefer that the 'single-minded money-grubbing' connotation be reserved for 'business(/men)' not to 'economi(cs/sts)'.)

To boot, he is amazing with words. But I wouldn't be able to choose among a thousand quotes to put here, so you'll just have to go read it yourself.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

middle-American pride

I stole this from facebook (thank you LinLin!). I have no interest in basketball but it does such a good job of capturing the strange local pride, tinged but strengthened by an edge of defiant pseudo-self-deprecating underdogness, that you find in the middle of the country. Particularly in Oklahoma, for some reason (the bombing is surely part of it, as the article describes). In the big cosmopolitan cities of the U.S., no one is more ready to defend their home state than Oklahomans, even though displaced Oklahomans are precisely those who probably didn't like living there in the first place. It's a bizarre yet consistent irony that I don't understand despite being a living example. (And the fact that introspection fails me in this department, despite the fact that introspection is so reliably able to rationalize anything, makes me all the more interested in it.)

It's the same strange loyalty that creates sports fanaticism (and team-pride+local-pride is I'm sure why the case of the Thunder is so particularly powerful). And once again, I'm caught up in an inexplicable psychological phenomenon. I didn't even watch football until after college. I arbitrarily ended up choosing the Jets to root for when I lived in New York and lo and behold, no other team will ever hold the same sway in my eyes. Sure, I'm happy to root for the Giants too, or isolated players like Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, but despite the fact the Giants have won two Superbowls in the short time I've been following the game, it's not the same as if the Jets had won. (And don't even get me started on how not only did they fail to pick up Peyton Manning, they got his displaced leftovers, that infuriating flailing ineffectual holier-than-god-himself weasel.) Why?? Please explain it to me.

Now if only OKC had an NFL team too. Yeah yeah, a town that size would have a hard time supporting multiple pro teams and there is already an insane college football culture it would have to compete with, but whatever; the NFL is the best sports league, and that's that :)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

studying particular preferences

It occurred to me today that it's really sort of strange that we study preferences so much in psychological economics. This is a very foreign thing compared to classical economics, in which it's assumed that people have well-defined preferences and act on them in a basically optimal manner, but what those preferences are is immaterial. Applied studies of course have to make some assumptions about preferences, but those are usually of a very obvious sort such as "more money is better".

Even if you exclusively look at pure theory, classical theory abstracts from those particulars entirely, whereas in psychological economic theory, much effort has been put towards understanding what preferences people have (over risk, over others' outcomes, over beliefs, etc.) and breaking them down into as many pieces are necessary to explain every choice.

Why? I see three possibilities:

  1. The alternative would be to expand the domain and type of preferences that are allowed more generally, and derive general implications. Is it that doing so opens up the doors so wide that anything is possible and nothing interesting is provable?
  2. Or are the necessary generalizations of forms of preferences just too unwieldy to work with mathematically, or not sensibly representable at all, except in particular cases?
  3. Or, are we just more concerned with accurately predicting real world behavior as a profession now, and these psychological preferences are the only ones unobvious enough to warrant particular study?


It's also really funny to read economics papers from the early 20th century, because the field hadn't gotten comfortable with math yet. The following (from Tinberger, 1939, page 15) would be downright insulting to explain to a first year graduate student nowadays. I guess that's progress!
If we are to understand the mechanism as a whole, we must continue this procedure until the number of relations obtained equals the number of phenomena the course of which we want to explain. We should not be able to calculate, say, n variables if we had only n-2  or n-1 relations; we need exactly n. Such a system of as many relations as there are variables to be explained may be called a complete system. The equations composing it may be called the elementary equations. The word "complete" need not be interpreted in the sense that every detail in the complicated economic organism is described. This would be an impossible task which, moreover, no business-cycle theorist has ever considered as necessary. By increasing or decreasing the number of phenomena, a more refined or a rougher picture or "model" of reality may be obtained; in this respect, the economist is at liberty to exercise his judgment. A conclusion about the character of cyclic movements is, however, possible only if the number of relations equals the number of phenomena (variables) included. (The remark may be made here that there is no separate or special variable representing "the cycle" which has to be included in the elementary relations. It is by the mechanism itself that all variables included are compelled to perform cyclic changes.)
Teehee! N independent equations solve for N unknowns, and dependent variables can't be independent variables. I'll keep that in mind :) 

description + math

It's fun reading economics papers from a hundred years ago, prior to the full shift to mathematical methods, because they're in a great intermediate state where they still explain what they want to show with lengthy verbal descriptions, but then supplement that with a couple of equations (which also thus facilitate the verbal discussion because you can point to variables clearly). Nowadays, economists write down an equation, define the terms and any assumptions about their form, and maybe briefly describe the intuition in a couple of sentences. Sociologists, on the other hand, write down no equations (maybe a flow chart, if you're lucky), and describe all the possible interactions in page after page of text that becomes impossible to follow because each new interaction is given a new inscrutable word to remember. 

An economist might say: A/B, where A and B are each greater than 0.

A sociologist might say: "Item1 and item2 are related in such a way so that if item1 increases in magnitude, their combination, call it item3, also increases in magnitude through a process known as process1. Also, if item2 increases in magnitude, process2 causes item3 to decrease in magnitude. In more complicated situations, process1 and process2 can combine. Sometimes, this results in outcome1, in which item3 nonetheless increases. Othertimes, outcome2 occurs, when item3 is seen to decrease. In special cases, item3 remains unchanged entirely. We call this outcome3. In certain pathological scenarios, many more complicated interactions can occur if item1 and item2 are allowed to disappear entirely or to exist as countervailing, rather than positive, forces, but we ignore these situations in our analysis."

(You can see why I get frustrated by reading sociology papers :)

Nonetheless, the economist's approach is also less than ideal. There is a better middle ground. Describing the possible changes and their impacts in some amount of thoroughness is a very nice way to convey the intuition for a model. Take, for example, this wonderful presentation of the equation of exchange, by Irving Fisher. This is not a complicated equation. It'd be hard to write down a simpler model. And still, the extra description makes it so beautifully clear, as it forces you to really process what the equation says instead of skimming over it. While it's certainly not necessary to go on quite as long as he did, he does it in such a wonderfully clear, unassuming, level-headed tone, that I didn't even mind.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

institutional/psychological economics

Let me admit up front that I'm still very ignorant on the topic and that this post is more of a request for information than any sort of accurate presentation of something...

So, in the first half of the 20th century was an institutionalist movement in American economics. This school of thought was characterized by descent from the neoclassical school in favor of an empirically-based focus on human institutions. Many members were educated within the German historical school of the period, and brought those ideas about data-driven science and belief in the impossibility of generally-applicable theory back home.

Allegedly, there was at the time a great deal of crossover with psychologists and sociologists and the institutional economic school. There was a great deal of empirical sociology at the time, so their observation-based studies of, for example, household consumption, were compatible with institutional economic observational studies of, for example, the coal industry.

"Modern psychology" at the time emphasized habit, instinct, and that sort of evolutionary view of behavior. The institutionalists allegedly wanted their worldview to be compatible with psychology. But it's not at all clear to me how these evolutionary ideas about psychology influenced institutionalist research. What was the crossover? Who were the major psychologists who did economics research during that period? Was it all well-intentioned empirical work that didn't get around to tying results to psychological theory, or was there a real attempt along those lines?

Anyone know? I'm planning to look up a few authors that might lead in the right direction, or just ask Malcolm Rutherford again if I see him (I didn't really ask the right question the first time I tried, or I didn't follow all of his answer, or something, so I'm still confused) but maybe someone is secretly an economic historian who reads this...

Monday, June 11, 2012

anticipatory utility

I came to the Duke Summer Institute on the history of economic thought with the hope that I could learn how earlier economists thought about the behavioral phenomena that psychological economists are now studying more rigorously, before the mathematization of neoclassical economics took over the profession for the last century.* My expectations have already been rather blown out of the water.

Take, for example, Jevons writing in 1866:

A principle of the mind which any true theory must take into account is that of foresight. Every expected future pleasure or pain affects us with similar feelings in the present time, but with an intensity diminished in some proportion to its uncertainty and its remoteness in time. But the effects of foresight merely complicate without altering the other parts of the theory. 
Such are the main principles of feeling on which economy is founded.  A second part of the theory proceeds from feelings to the useful objects or utilities by which pleasurable feeling is increased or pain removed. 
An object is useful when it either affects the senses pleasurably in the present moment, or when, by foresight, it is expected that it will do so at some future time.  Thus we must carefully distinguish actual utility in present use from estimated  future utility, which yet, by allowing for the imperfect force of anticipation, and for the uncertainty of future events, gives a certain present utility.

Anticipatory utility, anyone? Apparently it took us 134 years to develop Jevons' idea of a "true theory", although we can hardly be blamed, since it was also not such a trivial extension as he suggests there.

*I definitely do not mean to imply that this was a bad thing or a thing that psychological economists now need to 'fix' neoclassical economics. More on that later, perhaps, if I decide my view hasn't already been repeated often enough by others.

the marginal revolution

I'm at the Duke Center for the History of Political Economy's Summer Institute on "The Emergence of Modern Economics". There is a very interesting group of about 30 participants, and of course excellent faculty. The topic is one that I'm interested in but know very little about (history and philosophy of economic thought), and it's a much more diverse group of scholars than I interact with on a daily basis, so altogether this adds up to an intellectually exciting two weeks.

That also adds up to many blog posts. Normally if I'm in an unusual(ly stimulating) seminar or something, I write a bunch of blog posts and schedule them to post over several days, but that won't work so well over a full two weeks, so a relative deluge is likely. Sorry!

The first is just an interesting fact. I didn't realize that the establishment of marginalist thinking / theory of value at the turn of the last century was actually referred to as the "marginal revolution". I'd therefore been missing out on the pun for who-knows-how-many-years-I've-been-reading-MR.* That is, if it's an intentional double entendre. I would assume so, unless that's not actually a common term for the movement.

Note for the non-economists: marginalist thinking is one of the most important central tenets of economic theory. It's so fundamental that I'd forgotten it was ever a point of contention (prior to the rigorous mathematization of basic economic laws). The marginalist theory of value, first proposed by the likes of Menger, Walras, and Jevons in the 1870s, basically says that the value of an item is the value of the marginal unit of that item produced/consumed. In equilibrium, the price is equal to the marginal value to the consumer, which is also equal to the marginal cost of producing the same marginal unit. This is in contrast to, say, the labor theory of value of the Marxists, which says that the value of an item is tied to the labor used to produce it. While perhaps less intuitive, marginal utility is vastly more useful for explaining economic phenomena, and with a little explaining of the law of supply and demand, it becomes quickly much more intuitive.

*It is in fact intentional. I think I like the original "think marginally" meaning better than "small steps towards a much better world", which sounds like the other meaning of marginal and suggests to me "change your showerhead to save the world" type steps :)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

3 3 7 7

Here's a fun puzzle (thank you Piotr!):

Using only multiplication, addition, subtraction, division, and parentheses, combine all of the four numbers 3, 3, 7, and 7 to get 24.

Apparently this is an example of the "24" game in which you do this with any other four numbers. (A related game I remember from middle school is to use the four digits of the current year to make as many numbers from 1 to 100 as possible, using more creative operations like !, mod, and exponentiation. This worked better in the 90s :)

This is a fun one in particular because it's really hard to figure out in your head, but when you use pencil and paper to explore more systematically, the two double numbers cuts down the number of possibilities drastically and it's very doable.


Now don't keep reading until you figure it out!


The answer is to use fractions in the intermediate values in an unobvious way. Three sevenths plus three is twenty four sevenths. And there you go. (I spelled that out in words intentionally because you can't glance at it accidentally and give away the answer to yourself.)


I've lived in a lot of iffy neighborhoods. I like cheap rent and I don't like expensive pretentiousness, so I've moved from Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn to south Berkeley to northwest Oakland and now to downtown Oakland. This one might beat them all, however.

I can no longer count how many total strangers (and four different people from the building management office next door) have randomly warned me to be careful or asked if I was ok. Frankly, rather than feeling endangered, I feel strangely looked-after. My building maintenance man knows the people in the house next door and told them to watch out for me. I just went outside to cover my motorcycle and a guy in a pickup pulled up to the lot and asked if I was ok.

On the way back in, a tall transvestite wearing high heels, fishnets, and a nearly-inexistent miniskirt was standing next to the front steps, and said to me "Girl, you better get inside, they're shooting paint guns at people."

I don't even know how to parse that interaction, for better or for worse. Smile and nod, say thanks for who-knows-what-but-better-stay-on-people's-good-sides. Keep your trigger finger on the mace at all times. And then, yes, get inside.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

as-if economics

Social preferences research (behavioral economics in general, I'm sure) is so plagued by identification issues. By that I mean, there are many possibilities for what it is that motivates people to do things, and it's really hard to tell them apart. And in behavioral economics, for the first time, we really are trying to figure out how people think, rather than just how they act as though they think.

It's still as-if economics, as meant by Friedman when he used that phrase, in the sense that people don't actually maximize complicated utility functions. But whereas it was ok to assume people are perfectly rational perfectly selfish actors when studying marketplaces (because they act as if they are, in those contexts), it's of course not ok to assume that when what you're trying to figure out is what makes people act different ways in different situations.

And all the sudden there is an explosion of possibilities to explore, and my job is hard.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

destructive norms from costly signals

I think that costly signaling is an important driver of destructive norms. We want to achieve a certain social image, and the only way to do so credibly is to use costly signals, so we use them even if they are destructive. My standard example is of extravagant funerals in some African countries, in which families are driven into poverty after burying a family member.

Group identity markers work the same way. Akerlof and Kranton say:

[P]eople mutilate their own or their children’s bodies as an expression of identity. Tattooing, body-piercing (ear, nose, navel, etc.), hair conking, self-starvation, steroid abuse, plastic surgery, and male and female circumcision all yield physical markers of belonging to more or less explicit social categories and groups. In terms of our utility function, these practices transform an individual’s physical characteristics to match an ideal. The mutilation may occur because people believe it leads to pecuniary rewards and interactions such as marriage. But the tenacity and defense of these practices indicate the extent to which belonging relies on ritual, and people have internalized measures of beauty and virtue.
Nah. That's just the first part of the story. The tenacity and defense of these practices indicate the extent to which belonging relies on ritual, and that status signals attained through ritual must be costly to be credible. Costly signals in the arena of appearances translates to self-mutilation, expensive or rare clothing, and/or time consuming or difficult exercise habits.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

except perhaps on Halloween

Who says economists aren't hilarious? From Akerlof and Kranton 2000:
Gender identity, as indicated earlier, could be formalized as follows. There is a set of categories C, ‘‘man’’ and ‘‘woman,’’ where men have higher social status than women. ... P associates to each category basic physical and other characteristics that constitute the ideal man or woman as well as specifies behavior in different situations according to gender. E.g., the ideal woman is female, thin, and should always wear a dress; the ideal man is male, muscular, and should never wear a dress, except perhaps on Halloween.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

the beginning of life

It's sort of strange that abortion debates focus on defining when human life begins.

What if humans laid eggs, which could be incubated and hatched even without the mother involved? If the anatomical development of babies inside eggs progressed the same way as it does in the womb, would we still pick 6 months as the cutoff point at which destroying the eggs became murder? I seriously doubt it. Adoption would be the obvious choice for unwanted eggs.

The choice of an arbitrary dividing line is a choice of a point to switch prioritizing one living creature's desires over another's. If allowing the baby to live did not require a huge sacrifice on the part of the mother, there would not be a reason to allow for its destruction in early developmental stages.

Is it the legal definition of murder that led to the widespread preoccupation of when an egg or fetus becomes a human? If so, that really feeds my skepticism of the modern practice of law as a lot of verbal contortionist game-playing, too easily divorced from the real issues.

Monday, May 14, 2012

image motivation for organ donation

Facebook hopes to increase organ donation registration by encouraging people to list their donation status on their profiles.

I love this story (of course). Image motivations are incredibly important for prosocial behavior. That much I'm sure of. So on the surface this seems like a fantastic idea.

But this also entails establishing a new norm of making your status public. If donation statuses were simply automatically public, I'm sure registration would be high. But if first publicity itself has to be established as a norm, I'm not so sure. Norm formation is a big fat mystery.

And that's especially true in this case. Big businesses that aren't well-loved aren't in a good position to form norms. (Maybe Google would have a better chance.) And facebook is so fragmented/gadget-driven now that anyone without a listed status will be dismissed as not using the list, not not having the status. And listing your status doesn't just signal your altruism, it signals something about your use/opinion of facebook. And, lying is easy (although the article is optimistic that your listed status might carry some weight on its own, if not legally, then with family who must make a decision on your behalf.)

Or maybe the nobleness of the goal will render moot facebook's role. I certainly hope that's the case. I'm just not so optimistic as the people saying it will be a historic event in organ donation.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

education conformity

Bryan Caplan laments that online education won't be able to take off quickly because getting an education online is a strong signal of non-conformity, whereas one of the primary purposes of a traditional college education is to signal conformity.

Fortunately, he's forgetting about a large-and-growing demographic for whom this does not apply. The former college graduates. People who made the wrong major choice in college (the philosophy majors, e.g.) or who want to change careers later in life (the admirably-proactive victims of outcourcing, e.g.) are great candidates for online education. They can put non-traditional degrees on their resumés and, rather than signalling non-conformity, they signal a drive to keep learning and build real skills after the traditional conformist path has already been completed. Over time, whatever respect employers have for those credentials of those people will extend even to others who skip the initial traditional path.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

scientism or media hyperbole?

This is a good sentence despite the fact that I somewhat disagree:
"The literature of scientism has three defining features, which help explain its enduring popularity as well as its recurrent failures: large and highly speculative hypotheses are advanced to explain developments that are extremely complex and highly contingent in nature; fact and value are systematically confused; and the attractively simple theories that result are invested with the power of overcoming moral and political difficulties that have so far proved intractable."
If this accurately reflected the thought processes of scientists, I would agree that it was concerning. But, while it certainly (and understatedly!!) captures science journalism (including a lot of popular science books, some written by the scientists themselves, unfortunately...), I don't think very many serious scientists fall in that trap for more than a few occasional carried-away seconds.

(This is precisely why, in fact, I find it ridiculous that academic economists are blamed for the financial crisis... simple models of enormously complex systems that are nearly impossible to test rigorously are useful for understanding the world and important steps in the slow progress of science, but simplistic application of and appeal to those models in the real world of course isn't going to lead anywhere pretty, and surely no macroeconomist ever said otherwise.)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

gay rights

This is a nice informative infographic of gay rights state by state.

- Oklahoma is at least beating out Utah, Mississippi, and Michigan. I'm surprised by the latter (maybe because Oklahoma is so terrible with women's reproductive rights and I conflate them in my mind.)

- "Hate crime legislation" shouldn't be lumped together with "gay rights" (regardless of your opinion of hate crime legislation generally; I have mixed feelings.) But it at least signals good intentions. ( all sorts of other well-intentioned but destructive government policy...)

- Living in Oakland+ sure gives you a skewed impression of the American public. Not even California as a whole is anywhere close to as liberal on the subject as the Bay Area. They've certainly succeeded in forming a bubble; I'm not sure how good of a thing that is.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


I've been sort of fond of cockroaches since I saw them in Pasadena* for the first time, one second plastered inconspicuously against the concrete, the next second scurrying shockingly quickly on their tall stilt legs. Plus, anything that indestructible is just inherently cool. Maybe not as cool as octopuses, but still really cool.

Now it seems they are also surprisingly social and suffer from 'isolation syndromes' when cut off from one another. They seem to have a kind of cooperative group intelligence along the lines of ants.

Nature is crazy.

*Someone needs to make a slow-motion video of whatever variety lives in southern California. I can't find one, and it's really cool.

[Stolen from MR.]

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Occupy humor

On the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) today I saw a guy wearing a pin that said "We are ALL the 99%". This cracked me up so much I had to text it to my best friend in order to keep from laughing too obviously at what could only have been him.

She basically just said I was a nerd with a weird sense of humor rather than sharing in my mirth, but she made me a more accurate sign I could take to Occupy when I move three blocks from the Oakland protest headquarters in a couple weeks:

I'd say that's just about par for the useful-Occupy-signs course, yes?

Update: she suggests two more, perhaps even better: "We are all the 1%! With the possible exclusion of the 99%". And, "We are all the 100%!"

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

MTurk (non-)advocacy

I'm apparently becoming (at least labeled as) one of those people who is obsessed with the possibilities of some new specific technology. In particular, MTurk, and using MTurk for social science research.

I'm uncomfortable with that label, and I think I figured out why: By choosing to do experiments on MTurk, I chose a niche to develop a comparative advantage in. That's different from choosing a cause to advocate for. I don't have a problem with part of my identity being my set of crusades, but MTurk just isn't one of them.

I don't think my niche is an absolute best niche. It has certain relative advantages and disadvantages and certainly within some contexts and compared to specific other things it has more absolute advantages and disadvantages, but it's not the end-all be-all of experimental methodology. Lab experiments are great too; field experiments are wonderful. I don't want to force every experiment to fit with the MTurk platform. MTurk is often my first thought when thinking about how to test things, but that's because I'm more and more familiar with it and have more and more of a comparative advantage in using it, so of course I explore that possibility first.

Even beyond that, I don't particularly want to convince the rest of the profession to follow me to MTurk. First of all, obviously, then my advantage will be smaller. More importantly, then I won't have all those other wonderful and diversely robust results from other domains to refer to and compare to. You can't build a house with only a hammer and the fact that I've specialized in hammers makes me hope everyone else has everything else under control.

This is very different from picking a cause to crusade for. But it's understandable that I'd be seen as doing so. I get the impression that John List and Stefano DellaVigna are on more of a field experiment crusade than niche-selection. A little of both, for sure; I don't know the balance. There are certain MTurk researchers who are definitely crusaders; yesterday I heard someone claim that if you were going to get anything at all out of a series of seminars on behavior change research, it's that MTurk is the best thing in the world. I appreciate enthusiasm, and I appreciate MTurk, but that's a bit too much of an overstated non sequitur to be taken seriously :)

With that all serving as a caveat, check out this hilariously awesome real-technology application of MTurk.

Monday, April 23, 2012


What does the B. in Benoît B. Mandelbrot stand for? Benoît B. Mandelbrot!

What's an anagram for Banach-Tarski? Banach-Tarski Banach-Tarski!

Socialism: Putting The Man in supply and demand since 1917!

(Thanks to Matt Peddie for the last one :)

Friday, April 13, 2012


How famous and pre-respected do you have to be for the following not to be immediately translated and dismissed as "I don't think before I talk and I take no responsibility for what I say":
There is no one right way to experience what I’ve written. 
I write — and talk — in order to find out what I think. 
But that doesn’t mean “I” “really” “think” that. It only means that is my-thought-when-writing (or when- talking). If I’d written another day, or in another conversation, “I” might have “thought” differently. 
This is what I meant when I said Thursday evening to that offensive twerp who came up after that panel at MoMA to complain about my attack on [the American playwright Edward] Albee: “I don’t claim my opinions are right,” or “just because I have opinions doesn’t mean I’m right.”
(Not that I don't understand and agree with what she's saying; I do. But who of lesser status than Susan Sontag can say so?) 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

spot the problem with this subject line

Sky and Telescope (an astronomy magazine!) sent out an email with the following subject line:

"Spring Solstice is here, along with new products from Sky!"


hubble deep field who?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Anti-vaccine limerick

Someone suggested the anti-vaccination movement for a limerick topic. Months later:

The anti-vacciners' convention
sadly neglected to mention
"Please do not go
if you have polio!"
Next year's will require resurrection.

[Update: slightly edited for better rhythm...]

Monday, March 19, 2012

Dear Berkeley,

Charles Murray writes [emphases mine]
The prerequisite for any eventual policy solution consists of a simple cultural change: It must once again be taken for granted that a male in the prime of life who isn't even looking for work is behaving badly. There can be exceptions for those who are genuinely unable to work or are house husbands. But reasonably healthy working-age males who aren't working or even looking for work, who live off their girlfriends, families or the state, must once again be openly regarded by their fellow citizens as lazy, irresponsible and unmanly. Whatever their social class, they are, for want of a better word, bums. 
To bring about this cultural change, we must change the language that we use whenever the topic of feckless men comes up. Don't call them "demoralized." Call them whatever derogatory word you prefer. Equally important: Start treating the men who aren't feckless with respect. Recognize that the guy who works on your lawn every week is morally superior in this regard to your neighbor's college-educated son who won't take a "demeaning" job. Be willing to say so. 
This shouldn't be such a hard thing to do. Most of us already believe that one of life's central moral obligations is to be a productive adult. The cultural shift that I advocate doesn't demand that we change our minds about anything; we just need to drop our nonjudgmentalism
It is condescending to treat people who have less education or money as less morally accountable than we are. We should stop making excuses for them that we wouldn't make for ourselves. Respect those who deserve respect, and look down on those who deserve looking down on.
Social pressure/social image/reputation concerns are very important (I would say the most important, but as a social image researcher I'm slightly biased) means for enforcing social norms. I'm 100% in favor of a 100% nonjudgmental mind-your-own-business approach to anything that doesn't impact those around you, but it's entirely justified to express disdain towards those who are taking advantage of other people in some manner. If it became acceptable, too many people would do it.

[link stolen from MR]

Saturday, March 17, 2012


Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman - All the rave reviews are true.

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino - Mildly entertaining as a story. I didn't think the philosophical themes came across very well in the context; too contrived.

Launching the Innovation Renaissance by Alex Tabarrok - Excellent all the way through, and not overwrought, as the topic might tempt. You should read this (yes you.) I like the kindle mini-book thing.

How Much Government Is Good Government - (another kindle mini-book, because two of them are about equal to one real book, and I like lists of three :) a debate between Paul Ryan and David Brooks on the scope and purpose of government. They aren't too far apart from each other or from me so of course I enjoyed it, although I wouldn't call it a "debate".

Thursday, March 15, 2012

defining property rights

I've been wanting to blog this for a long time but luckily someone who is much smarter than me did it first so I can just link to it.

Paul Graham nails it in so many ways... Read the whole thing; it's not long.
It sounds ridiculous to us to treat smells as property. But I can imagine scenarios in which one could charge for smells. Imagine we were living on a moon base where we had to buy air by the liter. I could imagine air suppliers adding scents at an extra charge. The reason it seems ridiculous to us to treat smells as property is that it wouldn't work to. It would work on a moon base, though. What counts as property depends on what works to treat as property. And that not only can change, but has changed.
Exactly. Property rights, on the relevant legal margins, are arbitrary. This was obvious at the beginning of the era of piracy, when no one knew what the rules were, because we'd always made copies of tapes for our friends, and then hard copies of our CDs, and then digital copies of our CDs. Where were the defining lines? We didn't know because they didn't yet exist.

Then somewhere along the line, it became "just wrong"to make digital copies, and doing so was "stealing". What..? Shouting so doesn't make it so.
This is where it's helpful to have working democracies and multiple sovereign countries. If the world had a single, autocratic government, the labels and studios could buy laws making the definition of property be whatever they wanted. But fortunately there are still some countries that are not copyright colonies of the US.
Thank goodness for diversity, again. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

happy pi day!

So I got to say on the radio for pi day that pi is the circumference divided by the diameter of a circle. And  short story shorter, this got me thinking about why people like pi so much in the first place. I think it comes down to a combination of three things:

First, pi shows up everywhere in science. From the time you learn basic geometry in elementary school, pi is popping up in your school notebooks. Then you move on to trigonometry, calculus, Fourier analysis, and on up as complicated as you want to get, and that pi is carried along for the whole ride. Anything oscillatory turns out to be described with sine and cosine functions, which boil down to geometry of circles, so waves, pendulums, light, sound, planets, optics, electrical currents, et cetera et cetera, all involve pi. Then it turns out that that other famous constant, e, is also related to pi, so population growth, electric charge, compound interest, probability distributions, and anything else exponential in nature, also all contain pis lurking quietly in the background. And somehow, even when you get into the domains of pure mathematics that seem superficially disconnected from all of that other real-world stuff, pi keeps showing up. The sum of the reciprocal of each natural number squared? There's a pi in that. Is it any wonder that pi begins to feel like a familiar friend?

But that's not all, of course. Lots of numbers appear all over the place. 10. 2. Physicists have the speed of light. Chemists have Avogadro's number. Why don't these constants have the same appeal as pi? Unlike these other boring old numbers, pi is shrouded in mystery as a result of being irrational and transcendental. Its irrationality means that you can't write it down as a fraction, and that if you try to write down its digits, the sequence will continue forever without repeating. Transcendence is like turbo-charged irrationality. Not only can you not write it down as a fraction, you can't calculate it with any combination of whole numbers and algebraic operations like division and exponents and roots. You can get closer and closer the longer you try, but you can never quite get there. There's nothing to do but symbolize it with a Greek letter and forget about the fact that you can never be exactly sure what it represents.

But that's still not the whole story. e is also transcendental. The square root of 2 is irrational. i is certainly mysterious in its own way. There are plenty of other loved constants, but still none approach the popularity of pi. And that comes down to pure nostalgia. For many of us, learning about pi is the first time we catch a glimpse of the immense mystery of the universe and realize we can't hold on to it, put it in a box, and study it in all thoroughness. We have to content ourselves with squinting at it from many angles and then try our hardest to put together a coherent abstract picture in our minds. The mystery never ends, and for us mystery-junkies, the scientists, that first glimpse into the infinite abyss is an unforgettable moment that continues to drive us throughout our lives. And even after we come to terms with all our numerical friend implies, each time we casually say hello, a tiny part of our subconscious mind is reminded of that deliciousness of discovery.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

bottom-up and top-down thinking

I majored in math in college, which meant I spent a lot of time reading carefully through textbooks that started with very simple definitions and carefully built enormous beautiful structures out of those basic puzzle pieces, one step at a time. Then my task was to put some pieces together myself, by proving results on homework sets.

To prove something, you have to have a strong and thorough understanding of all of that foundational fodder that it's built on. Otherwise, there will always be black boxes in your understanding and in your proof.

If you're trying to understand something intuitively, though, black boxes are fine. If one black box seems to make sense, you can happily say you 'understand' that a higher level truth is true because the black box leads to it.

But if you've spent four years focusing on the agonizing details, it's really hard to switch to top-down thinking. For the longest time, every time I tried to look something math-related up on wikipedia, I would immediately get frustrated and discouraged, because nothing is ever presented in a bottom-up form. You get some discussion at the highest level, and have to click back on a dozen links to understand where it's coming from, and inevitably in those links you have to click on a dozen more each, and it never ends and it never meshes cleanly back together.

But as I've come to enjoy math as a tool and a hobby rather than as an end in itself, I've slowly gotten better at accepting black boxes. And slowly grown to love wikipedia.

And on that note, if you feel like learning something fun, go read about irrationality measures!

Monday, March 12, 2012

the many virtues of free trade

Dani Rodrik is arguing against a straw man.

Everyone cares about procedural justice, free trade advocates included. There are very good reasons that have solely to do with procedural justice, rather than efficiency, to favor free trade. (Bryan Caplan posted on this last week.)

It's much more deplorable to allow policies that keep millions of people in extreme poverty than to insist on free trade policies that may, in the short run, hurt some poor Americans, who will still be better off than those millions. The burden of proof is on those who wish to restrict freedom, and they would have to argue otherwise to meet that burden.

If you care about expanding the worldwide pie, you should probably favor free immigration and trade. If you only care about expanding the American-wide pie, you should probably still favor free immigration and trade. If you only care about procedural justice, you should favor free immigration and trade. If you only care about reducing worldwide inequality, you should favor free immigration and trade.

If you only care about reducing American inequality, then fine, you may be able to argue against free immigration and trade. But I don't see how wanting that, in particular, is much more morally defensible than wanting any other arbitrary thing.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

collaboration is inefficient

I hate that TED talks exist as videos but not transcripts, so I miss out on almost all of them, but the title of this one was enough to get me to watch, and it's very good: Susan Cane on the power of introverts.

This got me thinking again about the "madness for constant group work." Why is everyone so crazy about collaboration all of the sudden? When did the extroverts decide that their preferences are the objective best way to do things and start shouting it from the mountaintops, while the introverts quietly mind their own business as their way of life is bulldozed out of existence?

I don't know the answer to the second question, but I think I understand the former. Collaboration is just a more general version of the group brainstorming phenomenon. In a group, the new ideas are flying and interacting and reinforcing into groupthink tunnelvision, and it's exciting and things move quickly and directly of course this seems like an efficient way to get things done. But it's an illusion. If we could be simultaneously aware of all the progress that was being made by those same individuals working intently in solitude, that would seem clearly vastly more efficient.

(Ideas come up with by groups can only be as complex as can be communicated and understood by all on such a short timespan. Even if individuals work on their own and meet regularly to regather, which is an approach I generally support so long as the group meetings don't turn into agonizing marathons that are used as excuses not to do anything real on your own the rest of the time, two competing possibilities will be distinguished by simplicity, which leads to quicker understanding by the group, which leads to quicker adoption by the group. Not exactly the ideal choice mechanism.)

Extroverts thrive on the group madness. They love the constant stimulation and interaction. So they embrace the illusion and advocate like crazy for collaboration.

Introverts are exhausted by it. They shut down, hide in their offices, and quietly change the world one solitude-requiring deep idea at a time. Give them some room to breathe; stop the madness! (Fast forward to 16:30 in the video above :)