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..?