Thursday, May 30, 2013

cultivating tastes

I highlighted one quote from David Foster Wallace's "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" essay collection, from the (highly recommended) essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction":
"Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests."
Isn't that great? It's obviously true, but how does such an equilibrium arise? I can imagine a model in which cultivating a favorable identity drives people to cultivate interests that serve their preferred identity. Any niche, plausibly highbrow interest will do. Only someone who is truly devoted to a difficult, niche interest would bother cultivating it, so fellow connoisseurs know they are sharing honest enthusiasm and onlookers know they are observing true integrity of identity.

The same isn't true for vulgar interests. No one wants to show them off or admit to themselves that their identity encompasses prurient interests. So our guilty pleasures don't get explored and diversified and refined like our noble tastes do.

And the funny thing is, the very fact that refined interests are so diversified proves that in some sense they aren't so honest as they are chosen and artificially cultivated for show (to oneself and to others). You see why I like this interpretation: it let's me rag on foodies some more :) (Yes, despite the fact I have my own cultivated interests...)

(This should perhaps be a Bénabou and Tirole model?)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


I read a bunch of stuff while camping over spring break (and audiobooks on BART, as usual) and forgot to write them down until now.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein - Matt is always telling me about sci-fi books I "have" to read, and I got him to narrow it down to this one as number one on the list, since I can rarely stand sci-fi and am not about to go through the full set :)

I'm still not sure what I think of this book overall. The first quarter or third was standard sci-fi - too much effort spent in building an alternative universe and expounding on details that don't add to the story, along with many stilted conversations with strange characters I can't relate to and don't get invested in. Along the same lines, the artificial English/Russian dialect that the book is written in is an aggravating touch that makes it less enjoyable to read and adds nothing that a few isolated Russian terms wouldn't have accomplished on their own. The same applies to the weird social constructs such as centuries-old line marriages and professional surrogate mothers - it isn't convincing and only makes you less sympathetic to the heroes of the story. (But, I would like to read a story exploring these ideas if they were more convincingly done, but Heinlein's treatment just really didn't do it for me.)

The middle 40% or so I definitely did get into, though. The story about the buildup to the revolution was thoroughly engrossing, and Mike the computer was a really funny character. (Stilted sci-fi characters work better as computers, turns out.) My only nitpick is a trivial pet peeve: throughout the build-up towards the revolution, Mike periodically announced odds of winning, and a few times they said effectively "they're worse now, but that's ok, we knew that was going to happen." You can't anticipate that odds are going to change! If you anticipate it, they've already changed.

And then the last third was pretty mind-numbing. Waaaay too much boring detail about a revolution that was utterly anti-climactic.

Overall, as a political statement, it fell flat, despite the fact I'm about as sympathetic an audience as Heinlein is going to find for his message. Even people who are extremely skeptical of government and the monopoly on force that it has and are very optimistic about the power of social norms to maintain order absent centralized authority are not going to be convinced of the feasibility of anarchy by stories of vigilante artificial selection and voluntarily hired private judges. I would have preferred 1% as much "then we bombed X, then we bombed Y, then they attacked Z" and have the spare 200 pages devoted to the settling down of the new society on the lunar colony post-independence. I admit I'm a harsh judge of political statements presented through fiction, but at least there are some examples I thought were very well done and enjoyable to read (Atlas Shrugged, 1984, etc.) and this wasn't one of them. I think part of the reason it's unconvincing is that the political system and the social constructs are presented as simply and obviously effective, with no psychological difficulty or complex emotional conflict. Maybe those systems would be feasible but love and governance are never so peaceful, especially when so violent and complicated. But this is a common problem with utopian stories - if you believe in one thing, it's easy to convincingly describe the downfall of the original system, but hard to honestly present the difficulties that might arise in the utopian alternative and how they might be resolved.

The Brooklyn Follies, by Paul Auster - I love Paul Auster. This one was better than Book of Illusions but not as good as The New York Trilogy, but the story was the best. I read it in one sitting, literally.

The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster - This is actually a collection of three novellas that were originally published separately, but they explicitly go together (the last refers back to the first, and the stories are parallel in theme.) This was definitely my favorite Paul Auster so far. So engrossing, and psychologically complex, and confusing, and one of those books that you keep thinking about for awhile afterwards (although perhaps that's partly because I'm so bad at reading fiction, it takes me awhile to figure out what happened and what the point was :)

Why is Sex Fun by Jared Diamond - Short popular science book on evolutionary biology. A lot was redundant after seeing about a dozen David Attenborough series, but some was new too, and fascinating. Planning to read a more scientific version, though.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach - I don't remember who/what told me this was worth reading, but it ended up on my list. It was boring.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace - DFW is one of the best wordsmiths I've ever encountered (after Nabokov, but not sure who else.) This is a collection of essays, a few of which were amazing and worth reading the rest of them, which were on topics I don't know anything about and don't care about and were thus difficult or impossible to slog through. (He's similar to Proust in that way, stunningly fantastic when writing about something of interest and impossible to read otherwise.) Everything else by DFW is higher up on my to-read list now.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

sex/race-blind evaluation

I enthusiastically favor sex and race-blind evaluations (for admissions/jobs/etc) especially in the early stages where you're only going off of a resumé or something and stereotypes might subconsciously influence interpretation moreso than when you actually interact with them and see how they work.

Of course, that almost never actually happens, but I was amused to realize today that I succeeded in doing so purely by accident. The responses I got when soliciting for an undergraduate RA all had foreign names I can't begin to correlate with gender or pronunciation, and only roughly with nationality or race.

Berkeley is an interesting place :)

Friday, May 24, 2013

experimental results are artifacts of experiments...

A lot of economists hate dictator games. There are two main classes of reasons for this: first, people allegedly behave differently in the dictator game than they do in the real world. Second, (the more academic critique), it's not useful scientifically because too many factors go into the dictator game decision so it's not clear what the game measures.

The second critique can be rephrased positively: the dictator game is incredibly useful for measuring a wide array of effects, by comparing the results between two closely related variants of the game. It's wonderfully simple and flexible.

The same response also addresses the first complaint. Of course dictator games aren't straightforward to compare to the real world. Many factors go into the decision, and changing the setting to something like this changes a large number of them. The two settings are so different it's not even interesting to compare them anymore.

So yes, all dictator game results are artifacts of the game setting. ALL experimental results are "artifacts" of the experimental setting. That doesn't mean it isn't useful as a measurement device (which I give the author of the link above a lot of credit for bringing up), nor does it mean it isn't useful for understanding the real world, you just have to be more nuanced about your analogizing.

(In particular, in this case, expectations about behavior, framing of the question, and differing claims to the property, I suspect are the main things that differ between a standard laboratory dictator game and giving someone some casino chips and suggesting he might like to share with another guy. The defining attribute of a dictator game is not just that the money in question didn't come from the dictator's previously earned income. In the lab, both people show up expecting to earn some money, so if you find yourself in the position of allocating that money, of course you'll think it's fair to share, and of course you'll think that your partner will expect you to share and to resent you for making his trouble of showing up not worthwhile if you don't, and of course you think the experimenter is watching you, and of course you interpret the situation as a sharing game rather than a lucky random windfall that only affects you. Does anyone really think we needed an experiment to verify that people don't share randomly acquired money like they share money that they're instructed to allocate with another person who has come looking for it?? These results are not surprising nor newsworthy nor do they prove anything about the uselessness of laboratory dictator games...)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

London, part 2

1. You get what you pay for; therefore, a default expectation of free things is potentially damaging. I'd much rather pay 50p for a public restroom that is open and operational, and in fact not horrifically disgusting, than wander miles to sneak into coffee shops in San Francisco because all the public restrooms are shut down and terrifying.

2. The mathematics exhibit at the Science museum is AMAZING! I always expected math museums would be trivial and dull, but noooooo. If the new national museum of math in NYC is anything like this, I am much more excited to go see it now (and very bummed out I'm not going to make it in May after all...)

3. Specifically, the crazy mechanical contraptions people came up with to draw various types of curves, copy and scale images, integrate arbitrary surface areas, and even compute fourier transforms, before computers existed, are freaking mind-blowingly awesome. Does anyone know of a good book about these kinds of things that explain in detail how they work? I was baffled by most of them. And extremely thrilled at the ingenious simplicity when I did understand them.

4. I also unexpectedly got to see the Phillips machine! I've been wanting to ever since I heard of it. (Is there a version somewhere you can play with? Or a simulation?)

5. Dear London: there does not exist a beer that improves with temperature, above a little over freezing. Sincerely, the rest of the world.

6. Who knew I knew so many people in London? Great time with Iva and Pavel, Henry, Matt[3], James and Susanna, Simon, Ed, and Alyssa and Dan. And of course all the other people I met from LBS and TADC.

7. The upside to perpetual cold dreary drizzle and 90% humidity is that Oxford (presumably non-Urban Britain in general but that was as far as I went) is beautifully lusciously green and blooming.

8. Matt and I spent literally half an hour doing nothing but giggling at place names on the tube map (actually a lot more cumulatively...)

9. The GPS prime meridian is a couple hundred feet off from the actual prime meridian, as settled by international agreement to coincide with the meridian of William Hershel's telescope at the Royal observatory at Greenwich, which itself is a dozen yards from various other meridians used by former astronomers with different telescopes. For some reason I was amused by this pragmatism. Almost every other standard is fundamentally tied to some astronomical phenomenon, but longitude is so arbitrary each astronomer just picked their own.

10. It's also amazing to think that only a century or so ago, people were dying by the thousands due to our inability to measure universal time or longitude accurately.

11. Jetlag this direction is awesome. Never have I gotten so much done before 6:30am. (I anticipate a change of heart around 8pm.)

12. Oh right, the real reason I went to Britain... The doctoral conference was pretty fantastic actually. Nice not to be at the bottom of the totem pole and to talk to lots of very smart new people.

13. Ok, no more having fun until I get a job. (Although it's surprising how much work you can get done en route and while waiting and when your boyfriend is asleep, etc, when you bring your laptop with you everywhere you go and are in a constant motivational panic about how much you need to be doing...)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

London, so far

1. Urban youth acting like punks with British accents are hilarious.

2. London is amazingly global. A tiny fraction of the people/languages/accents I've encountered have been British. Slight selection bias admitted.

3. Nonetheless, some foreign students I was talking to last night confirm my suspicion that foreigners in London feel more permanently like foreigners than in, say, New York. The American identity is based on diversity and everyone being an immigrant. Anyone can be American, but not anyone can be British.

4. If I pay 10 pounds per night to stay in a dormitory hostel room, do you really think I'm going to pay a pound per hour to connect to wifi? Price discrimination fail. (Phone tethering setup complete.)

5. Upon visiting Westerminster Abbey, I'm reminded (since living in Germany in middle school) how strangely integrated religion is in official business in Europe. Then I realize that by global standards, I'm actually the weird one for taking separation of church and state for granted. Then I experience a wave of patriotism.

6. We say that celebrities are American royalty. That's not true. Royalty exist on a higher plane who are supposed to deserve their status due to some endowed intrinsic quality, perhaps literally by God, whereas we fundamentally realize that celebrities are normal people who earned or stumbled into their position. We ultimately recognize the perverse fetishism that perpetuates celebrity, but no such undercurrent applies to royalty.

7. Again, it's strange to think that I'm globally the weird one for so thoroughly internalizing the mantra that all men are created equal.

8. Norms and expectations matter far more than legality. (Well ok, duh, but all the subtle differences remind me, and it's a point worth remaking indefinitely.) How on earth else could this modern, peaceful, inclusive society have evolved from such a weird mix of government, the royal family, and state religion? While meanwhile elsewhere, all the proper legalese and institutional setup in the world can't end long-brewing religious wars?

9. The best and worst thing about being a social scientist is that it's so hard to focus on the experience rather than the meta-experience.

10. The best thing about going to church (I went to Westminster Abbey's Evensong, for the sake of the nice choir music, despite feeling approximately like how I imagine a sheltered religious boy must feel in the Castro for the first time: very out of place and a little dirty, and afraid to attract attention) is the funny outdated words. "Holpen" = "helped". "Abode" is in fact the past tense of "abide". "Endue" is another form of "endow". If I'd had a smartphone to look this stuff up on on the fly as a kid I probably would've been much more interested in the Bible.

11. The Indian food here really does taste different. I don't know whether I like it better or worse; it was excellent, but distinctly different. (Further experimentation necessary :)

12. The world is small. Had dinner with a friend who randomly saw my facebook post about going to London, where she lives. Turns out she goes to the school that is hosting my conference. Went to a party with a bunch of people who will be there next week.

13. Why haven't döner kebabs caught on in the U.S.?