Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Happy New Year! I suppose before 2015 begins I should clear the 2014 book queue.

Here is New York, by E.B. White - Even at nearly a hundred years old, this extended essay perfectly captures the allure of New York City.

Think Like a Freak, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner - Cute.

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield - Disappointing. He needs a more aggressive editor. No one reads books by astronauts to hear grumpy lectures on the same life lessons their grandparents scoldingly ramble about. We want more awesome stories about space travel! Unfortunately, the title is accurate.

Going Solo, by Roald Dahl - Followup to Boy. Roald Dahl has even more ridiculously awesome stories, this time from working in Africa and being a fighter pilot.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace - DFW is an unmitigated genius. The way he captures the over-analyzing brain is scary.

The Armchair Economist, by Steven Landsburg - Steven Landsburg is amazing at explaining things such that they seem completely obvious. But in this book he often oversimplifies, not by presently incorrectly simplified arguments but by ignoring important side issues.

The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe - Best book I read all year; I could not put it down. If you want awesome stories about space travel, you can't do any better than this. It covers the Mercury NASA program and the selection and training of the original seven astronauts, starting with their test pilot days, and now I desperately wish he would do the same for Gemini and Apollo and Skylab and the shuttle and anything else space related. This also isn't a dry scientific topic; it's entirely character driven, wonderfully.

Digital SLR Cameras and Photography for Dummies - This was surprisingly fairly useful; I knew a lot of it already but it tied everything together for me and had lots of new useful bits and pieces. I recommend it for photography beginners who have played around with cameras a bit but want to improve.

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson - Very engrossing story about a serial killer in Chicago during the 1892 World's Fair. Not always well written but the story is good enough to compensate.

How to Fight Presidents, by Daniel O'Brien - This appears at first glance to be a silly book about how to beat any of the American presidents in a fist fight but is actually chock full of the most interesting and entertaining American history I've read in a long time. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


As you've surely heard by now, big news about Cuba!

Seems like an appropriate time to finally write about my brief visit to the island. First of all, you should definitely visit, and do it as soon as possible while it's still such an incredible, incredibly bizarre place. It's obviously beginning to change as restrictions on private property and investment are relaxed.

Havana is a beautiful colonial wealthy 1959 city, frozen in time and subjected to half a century of decay and extreme poverty. Every building is in serious disrepair, and the cars are either carefully maintained 1950's American imports or sadder looking Soviet vehicles sent over when the Cuban economy survived on aid from the USSR. It's unlike anything I've ever seen, unlike anything else I'm aware of, and is simultaneously gorgeous and heartbreaking.

Beautiful, decaying Habana Vieja

Except, there is also a smattering of new renovation and high-tech infrastructure, such as LED stoplights and new vehicles imported from Asia by the government, most of which (I infer) has shown up in just the last couple of years as some restrictions have loosened. As if things weren't surreal enough, this leads to such juxtapositions as driving down the highway in a brand new air conditioned Korean tour bus adjacent to a desperately poor tobacco farmer in a horse-drawn carriage.

Speaking of desperately poor, the communist dictatorship has not only kept its people in poverty by disallowing most legitimate enterprise, it has indirectly destroyed the country's (or at least, Havana's) social capital by forcing so many individuals to resort to dishonest means of making a few cents off of clueless tourists or just anyone who can't bear to spend every minute of every day saying "no". (At least, I really hope this is the explanation, rather than that Cuba was always full of con men. I don't think it could have gotten as wealthy as it once was, if it was.) It is a safe assumption that anyone you talk to will try to take your money before you can escape, usually by directly asking you (after being friendly for just long enough to make you feel guilty saying no) but very often through more insidious tactics, such as the common scam of striking up a friendly conversation with a tourist, suggesting continuing the conversation over lunch or drinks, and taking them to a restaurant where they will end up paying $80 for toast and coffee. This is true of 99.99% of people who initiate conversation with you, but also a large majority of the people you initiate conversation with. It didn't take long for me to be as wary of every Cuban as I am of every American cop. I anticipate that this will be a major roadblock to future development.

The motivations are easy to understand, though. Wages are paid through the government and average less than $1 per day, often much less. Prices for daily necessities are also very low (6 cents for a glass of fresh mango juice, 40 cents for a personal cheese pizza, etc.) but not low enough to make that salary truly livable. And certainly not enough to mitigate the temptation of scamming a buck off of any tourist for whom a little pocket change is worth it to get rid of the scam artist following you around (or in better circumstances, for whom it's a cheap tip for a friendly cemetery worker who acted as a tour guide before revealing his main motive.) When a foreigner's pocket change constitutes a week's wages and other legitimate options are not available, it's not surprising that seemingly every person in the central district of Havana is exclusively focused on taking it off your hands.

The constant deceit made it very difficult to find out any trustworthy information about Cubans' opinions of their own country, attitudes towards the U.S., etc. Traveling with a Spanish speaker didn't help. We started playing a game of answering a different country every time someone trying to sell us on something asked where we were from. We were pleasantly surprised the first time, at "Oh you're American? I love Americans! All the animosity between our countries is just a problem for Castro and Obama. We love the Americans." But then next came "Oh you're Canadian! That's so great, you people are so much better than the awful Americans." Et cetera et cetera...

One of the most memorable and pleasant experiences I had was, after having my reference point for personal interaction decimated for three days, somehow having one conversation with the one Cuban without an ulterior motive, just before catching the cab back to the airport. I didn't even believe it was happening until I'd actually walked away without a single request or sales pitch. A teenage boy stopped me on the street and asked where I was from. "The United States." "Oh that's great! Which part?" "Oklahoma" "Oklahoma! Kevin Durant is the best!" I tried to get away by saying I was about to get a beer in the corner bar, but he persisted and asked if I would bring it outside to talk for just a couple minutes, and I reluctantly played along. I was even more pleasantly surprised by the rest of the conversation than when he recognized my state for something other than the OKC bombing, deadly tornados, and a certain musical that I would accuse of being even worse than the first two options if that weren't wildly politically incorrect.

His beliefs about Americans consisted of the following: We are subjected to the horror of having to pay for everything, like schooling, housing, utilities, health care, etc. As a result, everyone has to work three jobs. We're all workaholics and rely on anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressants to cope with the stress. But then we come home at the end of the day and watch big screen TV from recliner chairs.

I clarified as best as could, and asked him about his own experience in Cuba. He works selling knickknacks from a cart, every day starting early in the morning. His dream in life is to visit the United States, or really anywhere else in the world, to glimpse existence outside of the Cuban island prison. His wide-eyed curiosity was admirable, and then the wistful defeat in his voice when he said he hoped that one day he would be allowed to travel was fairly heartbreaking.

Despite the fact that people seem to be quite unhappy with their government, there is definitely no shortage of up-to-date propaganda. We saw an unlimited amount of "53rd anniversary of the revolution" graffiti, Che iconography everywhere, and the ubiquitous national rallying cry for justice for "Los Cinco", the remaining three of whom were just released as part of the deal between Obama and Raul. I really wish I knew how much of this is an advertising campaign by the government, and how much comes from civilians.

The ubiquitous Che (appropriately affixed to the resulting decay of the communist dictatorship).

One of the most interesting encounters with Cuban propaganda was the Museum of the Revolution. Or I should say, most meta-interesting. The museum is in the beautiful former presidential palace, but the exhibits look like history class posters made by 5th graders 40 years ago. There wasn't a clear presentation of the history, but there was a large collection of spoons, cufflinks, hats, etc, used by various people associated in some way with the revolution. These were labeled with bits of age-yellowed typewriter paper stapled to the posterboard that the knickknacks were attached to or sitting in front of. In the midst of this surreal (sorry to abuse the word, but it's the only apt description for many things Cuban) presentation were comical bits of misinformation giving the CIA far too much credit. Americans grew up learning about US Cuban intelligence operations as the inept efforts they have been, from the Bay of Pigs failed invasion to this ridiculous and ineffective 50 year embargo. But to the Cubans, we apparently intentionally introduced dengue fever to the island, among many other evils. Castro, however, is a national hero for such wonders as ending professional baseball, the "profitable business that had enriched a few to the detriment of the athletes." My economist self obviously did a lot of cringing before we made it to the 3-story Cuban flag at the end of the exhibit.

Mural in entryway of the Museum of the Revolution (way too new and creative and interesting to be part of the main exhibit): The Four Cretins. From left (all typos exactly copied from the signs): Batista (thank you cretin for helping us to make the revolution), Reagan (Thanks you cretin for h lped us to strengthen the revolution), Bush Sr (thanks, cretin because you've helped us to consolidate our revolution) and Bush Jr (Thank you cretin for helping us to make socialism irrevocable).

Other miscellaneous things: the food is terrible, confirming the guidebook's description of it as "easily the worst in the Caribbean." That 40 cent personal pizza I mentioned consisted of a thick piece of strange bread-like material, covered with ketchup, a few shreds of cheese, maybe some bologna if I upgraded, and in one case, a chunk of glass. Strawberry ice cream, which I was initially thrilled to get on a hot afternoon for about 9 cents, tasted like, if anything, bubblegum. The fresh fruit (including one magical mango I can't even describe, and huge red guavas) was fantastic, and the meal we had the first night on the very forceful recommendation of our guest house keeper (I can only assume because she's in cahoots with them) was quite delicious, and the mojitos are great, but the everyday food you would survive on is just godawful.

By the way, I should also mention that those low prices are mostly only available to Cubans. It's a bit tricky, although doable, to convert the tourist currency into the regular Cuban currency, which is about 25 times less valuable but accepted in equal nominal amounts for goods at most vendors.

Art: I am utterly clueless about art but there seemed to be quite a bit of it, including a couple statues I absolutely love, including this one that I would really love to have explained (the limited information I've found indicates that there is no explanation):

An inexplicable statue in La Plaza Vieja, of a naked woman in high heels with a giant fork riding a rooster.

The music, on the other hand, is as fantastic as you would expect.

Outside Havana: If you go, stop by any one of the big fancy hotels and ask about a day tour to Viñales (they're all the same). It's the epitome of an engineered tourist experience, but it was still very nice and only $59 for a full day including lunch. Viñales is a breathtaking world heritage site west of Havana in a strange landscape of luscious cliffs, and the tours also stop in a rum factory, a (fake, for show) cigar factory, some caves you take a boat through, and a (not fake, but carefully manicured for tourist consumption) small countryside town. 


Last but not least, we also stopped at the strangest tourist attraction I've ever seen, the mural of prehistory, a 180x100 painting on a cliff depicting lifeforms that have occupied that area through the ages. A couple snails, some vaguely humanoid creatures, and a dinobear, all in bright primary colors, create the effect of a child's painting projected to massive proportions.

The mural of prehistory.

In short, go visit. Now.

Monday, December 8, 2014

teaching (rantish)

Am I allowed to defend the classic talking-and-writing-at-the-blackboard-style university lecture?

I keep hearing about all these various teaching techniques to "engage students" and make learning "fun" and I can't help thinking, why should I waste time on dumbed-down content (and these techniques universally involve doing so) when, at the university level, students are there optionally taking time and money out of their lives in order to get an education? The ones who aren't, who are there because of parental pressure or because they haven't thought about what they'd rather do, shouldn't be running the show.

To be sure, I do only think this philosophy applies at the University level. As much as I hated the ridiculously slow pace of grade school education, I recognize that a major purpose of public gradeschool education is to create a generally educated population (and to educate kids who are too young to consciously choose to become educated). If that requires, in effect, bribing kids to learn and holding their hands as you spoonfeed each logical step to them, then so be it. The best teachers and best schools provide learning opportunities for more skill/motivation levels than the core of the distribution (which I was very lucky to be a part of). That's an enormous challenge and all the research on teaching methods can be valuably applied to it.

But in a university, it is a betrayal of the serious, paying adults to cater to the kids treating college like a four year vacation.

Sure, part of what they're paying for is a real dedication to making information as easily digestible as possible, with the best explanations and resources possible. And yes, that means for the struggling students along with the ones who barely need more than the textbook to grok the lessons. But there's a big difference, I think, between clearly articulating a difficult concept in various ways compatible with multiple learning styles and levels, and playing silly games that waste time and only serve to coerce lazy minds to understand a concept without having to put any effort into thinking themselves.

And that has to be one of the most important skills you learn in college! How to stare down a difficult problem or concept, ponder it deeply from every angle, without any linear idea of how to get at the answer, without any idea what angles it even has to be stared at, until you finally, sometimes almost magically, break through. It constantly astounds me how university students not only aren't capable of this, but don't even realize it's a thing you're supposed to try to do. Next time I teach game theory I might just start the class with some classic math/logic puzzles so that solving a 2-player normal form game doesn't seem too overwhelmingly nonformulaic in comparison...

So why is there so much hype about "engaging students"? A majority of lecturers share my views, I'm certain. But the teaching pedagogy types honestly don't. And they perpetuate ridiculous teaching metrics like student evaluations that everyone knows reflect the views of the mediocre students who care only about getting the easiest A possible and being told that they're great regardless of the pain this will cause when their bubbles are burst in the real world.

To be fair, higher education is a business and businesses have to cater to their customers even if a majority of their customers are being forced to consume the product and their views have nothing to do with the quality of the product offered.

I don't know what the answer is. I don't think many kids should be going to college so soon after high school before they have an idea of its value or their goals. Who knows. In the meantime, I'm going to continue focusing on providing clear lectures, useful homework and resources, fair exams, and telling kids what they want to hear when I have to to have any chance of getting good evaluations.


(Any views stated on this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer :)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

learn social preferences from Taylor Swift

Yeah so I love Taylor Swift... and not just because her lyrics are great for learning about social preferences!

Social image:
Don't look at me,
You've got a girl at home,
And everybody knows that,
Everybody knows that.
 Pure altruism:
I don't even know her,
But I feel a responsibility,
To do what's upstanding and right,
Social norms:
It's kinda like a code, yeah,
And you've been getting closer and closer,
And crossing so many lines.
And it would be a fine proposition,
If I was a stupid girl,
But honey I am no-one's exception,
This I have previously learned.
Empathy or indirect reciprocity:
And yeah I might go with it,
If I hadn't once been just like her.
And a bonus lesson on commitment devices!
Call a cab,
Lose my number,
You're about to lose your girl,
Call a cab,
Lose my number,
Let's consider this lesson learned.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

publishing in different fields

This is simultaneously hilarious and awful. My immediate reaction is "Wow, this would never ever happen in economics." But I don't know - does it really happen so much in other fields? I certainly still get submission solicitations for journals or special issues of questionable quality, but I don't know anyone who doesn't ignore them across the board. This news article implies that people in other fields don't always ignore these solicitations, but how common is it really?

Maybe I'm googling the wrong phrases, but I can't find much solid information about publication practices by field. There are a couple papers specific to economics but I don't know of any good cross-field studies.

So I have to rely on anecdote for my opinions. In economics, we're obsessed with journal quality. Everyone is dying for a top-five article, and publishing in a crap journal is as bad or worse than not publishing at all. This might be intertwined with the fact that we're very far to quality end of the quality-quantity tradeoff (or at least, even crappy papers are very long and attempt to make a substantial contribution), and the other fact that there are very few authors per paper. I imagine this makes it much easier to scrutinize each paper when it comes to, e.g., tenure review, since there are only a few to dig into. Also, publication lags are extremely long for several reasons including ridiculously long delays in getting referee reports back after each submission, having to go through several cycles of revisions before final acceptance, and having papers rejected at a couple of journals before you even get started with that cycle of revisions. I read awhile back (sorry I don't remember the source) that the average time from project onset to publication is 6 years, and the first link above says that the average time a paper spends in the revisions cycle at the journal it will ultimately be published by (so presumably this doesn't include delays from journals that previously rejected it) is 2 years. Altogether, publishing in economics is downright nuts.

In the sciences and engineering, based on what I've gleaned from conversations with many friends in all kinds of fields from biology to mechanical engineering to astronomy, papers are much shorter and come in large numbers and published in so many different journals it would be impossible to keep track of their quality. Even conference proceedings are considered real publications. Sure there are the holy grail destinations like Nature, but in the meantime it's entirely acceptable to push out 20 papers in miscellaneous venues, each with 15 authors. It's correspondingly much easier to get negative results and replications and similarly individually-minor-but-very-important-in-aggregate results published.

Is there a magical field that is somewhere between these two extremes? Where papers are consistently significant works and held to high standard and throwaway publications are held in disdain to the extent that authors don't even bother publishing them, but in which the referee process is quick and requested revisions more reasonable (i.e. solely about ensuring rigorous results, not about catering to the reviewers opinions on how to frame the paper or what extensions/new treatments they'd be personally interested in seeing or whatever)? And in which there exists outlets for minor-but-sound results?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


I seem to have reached a point where I have such a long list of things I want to blog about that all I can manage to do is keep adding things to the list. So maybe this quick link I want to share will somehow open the dam? Or something.

This article about politicization (what happens when a new subtle issue arises and somehow instantaneously views on that issue become perfectly correlated with political party, and are stuck there forever regardless of any new logic or evidence or circumstances) is fantastic. Go read it.

I have nothing to add that wasn't said, except a plea to individually stop falling for the following (from the last paragraph):
Daily Kos or someone has a little label saying “supports liberal ideas”, but actually their incentive is to make liberals want to click on their pages and ads. If the quickest way to do that is by writing story after satisfying story of how dumb Republicans are, and what wonderful taste they have for being members of the Blue Tribe instead of evil mutants, then they’ll do that even if the effect on the entire system is to make Republicans hate them and by extension everything they stand for.
Doesn't matter which side I'm on on an issue, I can't stand it when bad "science" (i.e. usually nothing that any scientist would call science, rather some anecdote that a science-illiterate journalist picked up that proves absolutely nothing), makes it to a clickbaity headline that everyone from one tribe (and no one from the other) will look at.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Jean Tirole (and Roland Bénabou)

For a good time, I read Bénabou and Tirole papers*. Even though the Nobel was given for an entirely different kind of work than what Jean does with Roland, I'm very happy to see him win it; ditto to Tyler Cowen's "A theory prize! A rigor prize!" :)

Greatest hits (by my nebulous "fun papers to read" metric, and not in any particular order):
*Well, I used to until I ran out of them. C'mon guys, when's the next sequel?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


I've never understood why I routinely get asked if my name is Italian, but I guess that would explain this result of facebook auto-translating my page when my friend posted an Italian status update...

Saturday, September 27, 2014

cooking experiments

I'll take any opportunity to turn a so-called experiment into a randomized control experiment, so last night when Matt and I made turquinoavocado stew in two pots (one isn't big enough), I left the room and he stirred bay leaves into one pot. We both assumed our moms pretty much just used them out of superstition and had no idea what flavor they're supposed to add. Then he gave me two bowls and I had to guess which was which. Turns out there's an obvious difference, and the bay leaves are a clear improvement!*

(We've also done double blind taste testing of Tcho chocolate varieties. We were all substantially better than chance at identifying them. The remaining question in both studies is, are they identifiable out of context, not in comparison? I suspect much less so.)

So this afternoon I dig out some leftover stew for lunch and see that there are two tupperwares of it, one labeled "San Francisco style" and the other labeled "Oklahoma style". I ask Matt to explain, and he looks at me with a puzzled expression. "You know, one has no bay."

*I didn't say anything about large-N RCTs...

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

That's the Mission

I scanned about 8000 pages of documents last Friday as part of the process of getting rid of as much physical crap as possible before moving around the world. And came across this (unfinished - as of yet!) song Matt spontaneously generated to the tune of That's Amore.

When the smell hits your nose
like a dead hobo's clothes
that's the Mission.
When there's piss on your stoop
and the street's full of poop
that's the Mission.

(Later verses to include the burned-tortillas-and-weed smell that greets us every morning, always a reference-dependently pleasant surprise...)

Monday, August 4, 2014

Major MTurk improvement!

Now possible to exclude workers who have a particular qualification (i.e. that you gave them previously when they completed another related study of yours.)

I almost devoted a lot of time to working around this omission previously; now I'm very glad I didn't.

Monday, July 28, 2014


Back during my short stint on Wall Street, I'm pretty sure the one factor that would have made my model of sovereign default risk immeasurably more powerful is an indicator variable IsArgentina.


Unrelatedly, I now finally have two human visas and three feline import permits for Australia. Woo!!

Friday, July 11, 2014

bike theft

This should go without saying, but unfortunately I don't think it does.

If you see suspicious activity, like the two guys I just saw walking down the street with two shopping carts full of about a dozen bikes, then for the love of god, CALL 9-11! Just about everyone who owns a bike in the bay area has been the victim of bike or bike part theft. Don't you wish someone had called about yours?

Obviously this is true for any criminal activity, but my guess is that a lot of the bike trafficking that goes on around here gets by on people not being sure that what they're seeing is criminal. Very true, but seems solidly like probable cause to me. And yet I was the first person to contact the police about those guys, despite the fact it was a busy street. "It's probably nothing" is an easy justification for not calling, but probably illegitimate.

Also: register your bike. In Oakland this just involves stopping by any fire station between 9 and 5 on weekdays. That's kind of a pain, but when your bike is stolen, you'll kick yourself for not bothering. Only 16% of recovered bicycles are returned to their owner due to lack of registration. And with tactics such as shipping stolen bikes between LA and SF to make them harder to find, or breaking them down for parts, posting on craigslist just won't cut it.

Also: if your bike is stolen (or property is vandalized, or anything else) then also, for the love of god, file a police report. No, there's basically no chance anything will come of it (especially in Oakland), but you'll show up meaningfully in statistics. For example, Karim's bike shop in Berkeley is notorious for selling stolen bicycles. But when raided by the police, only a few were able to be confirmed stolen. With more ubiquitous registration and theft reporting, trafficking operations would have a much harder time sticking around. Note that without having registered your bike, and thus being able to find the serial number, the value of your report drops precipitously.

(Also, three cheers for the bait bike program.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


Oh boy I'm behind on book reviews.

In A Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson - You definitely want to read this book. Then you'll definitely want to come visit me and Matt in Australia, which you should definitely do (Seriously - I'm confident that not enough people will ever read this for that to become a dangerous invitation :) And when you do, you'll definitely want to move there too. Bill Bryson is the funniest writer I've maybe ever read, and every three pages I had to add another destination to my Australia travel list.

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler - Fun, entertaining. I got confused halfway through and watched the movie twice to try to figure it out, but the plots aren't exactly the same so who knows. But that's an indictment of my own ability to focus on fiction, not the book.

Only Children, by Rafael Yglesias - Oof. I loved the other two books I read by Yglesias (father of Matthew Yglesias), but this one was so uncomfortably unpleasant I couldn't even look past the subject/plot enough to be able to tell whether it was literarily well done. If you're on the fence about having kids, this will definitely make you shy away.

The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida - Book written by a boy with autism who learned to communicate using an alphabet board device. Quite interesting. I have many more thoughts about it, actually, but they'd be comprised too much of ignorant speculation, so it's hardly worth the time to write them down. But, that does mean that I'd recommend it for its thought-provokingness.

Unbearable Lightness, by Portia de Rossi - Um. So I maybe perhaps have a huge enormous crush on Ellen DeGeneres, and this maybe perhaps led me to watching a bunch of old clips of her show with her wife and former girlfriends, and this maybe perhaps induced me to look up Portia's new book, which I maybe perhaps finished before I even realized what was happening. Scary story.

Boy, Tales of Childhood, by Roald Dahl - I have no idea how I didn't read this one as a kid when I read everything else by Dahl I could get my hands on. It's fantastic.

Digital Photography Just the Steps for Dummies, by Frederic Jones - I flipped through this on my flight to Berlin after getting my new DSLR with the hope it'd give me a super quick introduction to making the most of it. I don't recommend it for anyone with any preexisting technical literacy whatsoever.

Monday, June 9, 2014

notes from Scandinavia

I suppose before I head to Haiti and Cuba, I should put up my notes from Denmark and Sweden.
  1. People address me universally in the local language, more than in any other non-English speaking country I've been to (Germany is close). Probably has something to do with the fact that the plane from Amsterdam to Copenhagen looked like it was full of my relatives.
  2. I'm not sure I understand Copenhagen. It has 1/3 as many people as Berlin but 1/300 as much going on, and everything costs 3 times as much. Not an un-nice city, but how does this imbalance survive the free within-EU migration?
  3. Despite necessarily inelastic demand, it's hard to find food items that meet my reservation price. Mostly diet coke and beer, the former because I have truly inelastic demand for it and the latter because it's truly cheap.
  4. What they don't tell you when comparing obesity statistics in Europe versus the U.S. is that northern Europeans are on a diet of incessant chain-smoking. I think I actually prefer the notorious scentscape of the Mission to the clouds of tobacco smoke.
  5. I even moreso don't understand the fetishizing of Scandinavia I seem to be surrounded by. Sure, if you happen to fit like a glove into a society so homogeneous and tiny that it can basically agree on a way of life and then regulate/subsidize/nudge the population collectively to it, then by all means, move there. I'll stay here move to Australia and do my own thing.
Yep, that's all I can remember. Scandinavia isn't exactly an exotic locale or significantly different from other European places I was earlier in the year, so not much to report.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

minimum wage vs. EITC, as of 1987

Amazingly, the New York Times got the issue exactly right twenty-seven years ago, and yet it remains a point of debate now. This despite the fact that this graph I previously posted shows that those twenty-seven years of experience with an increasingly relevant EITC should make it even more of a moot point.

Politics makes me sad.

[Stolen from MR].

Sunday, June 1, 2014

bleeding heart libertarian auto-mechanics

There's this common problem that those who advocate for minimal* regulation of trade are accused of not having a heart, when in fact free trade is the most important ingredient in helping people. But since it happens in a disaggregated, non-anecdotal, indirect process as equilibria shift to something better, thwarting at every turn those who wish to restrict trade either out of self-interest or out of misguided concern for others, salient examples are hard to find.

This one is great. A couple guys who would otherwise be unemployed helping out some people who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford their car repairs, and the big city government can just sputter "but but we aren't getting tax revenue from them! And we need to be able to protect big businesses who want strict licensing requirements to protect their partial monopolies and make sure I get re-elected consumers from shoddy work!" I mean, sure, who would willingly forego the highly competent and integrity-filled interactions we get from certified mechanics for the sake of saving hundreds of dollars? That kind of crazy decision-making has to be snuffed out by the benevolent nanny state.

Three cheers for Autozone. Not that they would be so tolerant if they had their own repair shop that these guys would be competing with. But that's exactly the point.

On a lighter note, this is amazing.

[Links stolen from Anna and Dan]

*Minimal, not none.

Friday, May 9, 2014

statistical discrimination is convenient

in this incident, at least.

My car broke down in the middle of the road in downtown Oakland at rush hour, which while unfortunate for everyone around me, was the most convenient situation for car trouble from my perspective. Immediately two guys pulled over and jumped out to help push me to the side of the road, and then set about discussing possible diagnoses and establishing the best course of action. Jump starting didn't work, so we they decided to push me into the gas station lot across the street that luckily had a mechanic/garage that could deal with it. Going uphill is harder, so they recruited five more guys to push and a woman to stop traffic. In less than ten minutes I was calling a cab home.

For me, my gender is the least salient part of my identity, and all my interests/hobbies are male-dominated, so every time someone treats me in an obviously female-specific way it really surprises me. I've never encountered a situation in which statistical discrimination actually held me back in any way after the first impression was wiped out with more pertinent information, so I'm not offended by it*, but it's always surprising and/or amusing. In this case, as I jumped out of my car with my jumper cables and set about connecting things for the millionth jump start I've done in my life, and Guy #1 took them from me and said "you just take a seat", turning to Guy #2 for assistance instead, I did a confused double take before realizing what their first impression and statistical inference of me must be. But then I figured, you know, I really don't mind letting some guys play hero, especially if it's going to get me out of this mess in particularly short order. So sure, I'll stand here while you round up a crowd of more hero-playing men to push me across the street, no problem. The least I can do for your generous offers of help is to let you feel good and manly about it.

Life isn't fair, so might as well enjoy the times when the unfairness is a win-win.


**Don't blame Bayesian reasoning for a lack of good information!

Friday, May 2, 2014


In light of re-SMBC, I feel obligated to highlight this economics strip. Well done Mr. Wiener :)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

conservative inference

I went to see a physical therapist this week after finally figuring out that I still have a torn tendon in my elbow after a rollerblading accident last September, and our conversation makes me think that I've become too conservative about statistical inference, based on my economics training, to converse effectively with other humans. He asked me all kinds of questions about what makes it hurt, and I couldn't really commit to any answers because it mostly gets sore after doing things, so I never know exactly what causes it, although there are some clear correlations, but we all know correlation doesn't imply causation. Then he asked me a bunch of questions about whether the cortisone shot, tennis elbow band, or avoiding backhanded maneuvers is helping, and I couldn't answer that either, because all three began at the same time after seeing the orthopedist, so who knows which is making it feel better? Finally he just said "Ok, but it did feel better after you got the shot, right?" "Yes" "Alright then."

I suppose I should have known better - doctors are regularly bombarded by people who have googled their symptoms and are convinced they have crazy diseases and convinced that ridiculous homeopathic cures have had certain effects. They're used to having to scale back what they hear, not the other way around. (This also makes it incredibly frustrating when I do know what's wrong and they don't believe me. Like when I had bacterial bronchitis and went in as soon as I had symptoms and they made me wait another 10 days for antibiotics since the viral variety is much more common, even though I obviously got it from Matt who was responding to antibiotics finally prescribed after two weeks of suffering...)

This also reminds me of the time I was pulled over for speeding in Texas and he claimed I didn't signal when changing lanes, and I said of course I did, so he asked me how sure are you that you did. I said about 99% because I didn't consciously remember pulling the lever at that exact moment (it's just muscle memory, after all) but I'm sure I don't fail to signal more than 1 in 100 lane changes (not signaling a huge pet peeve of mine). Whoops. Most people claim absolute certainty when they're nowhere near 100% confident, so claiming only 99% confidence was interpreted as obvious lying. And then again when someone came around a corner and hit me when I was pulling into the lane, and I told the insurance company I realistically thought the liability split was approximately 80/20... big mistake. You'd think your own insurance company would advocate for your side a little instead of immediately acquiescing as soon as you admit to anything.

From now on I'll consider the equilibrium.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

unusual job market advice

Oops I forgot I had one more job market post.

Miscellaneous advice for the job market that I haven't seen on the many other compilations of job market advice, and is therefore surely less important, but hopefully less redundant:

  1. Among the miscellaneous possible questions you might get asked on top of the standard fare, "When and where are you planning to submit your job market paper?" was very common. (I think I had a good answer, luckily.)
  2. In hindsight, it was very dumb of me to not include a line on my CV saying I graduated from the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics. Having gone to Caltech and Berkeley, almost everyone assumed I was a California native who didn't want to leave the state, which surely hurt me. Schools care a lot about how likely they infer you are to want to move there; being American is bad enough on the international job market and being exclusively Californian is so much worse.
  3. Along the same lines, definitely definitely include any information about why you want to go to a particular school that isn't a top department or isn't in your country in the first couple sentences of your cover letter! Ok I slightly lied, because this is something I have seen in other advice lists, but I also saw the opposite advice several times, and many people said cover letters don't matter at all. Several schools specifically mentioned these things that I wrote about locational motivations. This is probably mostly important for students from top departments, because lower ranked places are really insecure about their chances of recruiting someone from Berkeley, so you have to convince them you want it.
  4. I lied again, this is another thing I read beforehand but there was a small degree of conflicting advice and I really, really don't think people take it enough to heart. Apply broadly! Apply anywhere you would accept if it were the only job you were offered. And when establishing that, you should be open-minded geographically! Even if you have to move to Podunk North Dakota at first, you have the rest of your career to move somewhere you prefer; it's much harder to re-enter academia if you leave it to stay in a nice city.
  5. Elaborating on the above point, here are some statistics that you can infer what you like from: I applied to 263 places, which led to 26 interviews, 15 flyouts, and 7 official offers. Of those four numbers, the percentages inside the U.S. were 68%, 50%, 40%, and 29% respectively. Clearly, being open to moving to other countries was very very helpful! (The last number is misleading, however, since of the offers I was likely to get if I hadn't cut them off by accepting one, a majority were in the U.S. Although a couple more flyouts I likely could have gotten if I'd still been jobless in March were outside the U.S., so who knows.)
  6. Expounding further... there is so much randomness and inefficiency in the matching process, applying broadly is the only way to get a distribution of interviews/flyouts/offers that is truly appropriate for you, and hopefully a couple in the upper tail.
  7. Schools often state a particular field they are targeting, but don't trust them. I got several interviews and even several flyouts (including the job I accepted!) from places that did not appear at first glance to be open to hiring someone like me.
  8. Don't just bring one extra pair of pantyhose, have two in your briefcase and another several in your suitcase. I went through about a dozen all told, and my all-time record is three uses for a single pair; these stupid things should be priced much more appropriately for the disposable items they are.
  9. Get a travel iron. Hotels outside of the U.S. often don't provide them.
  10. Leg warmers. These make skirt suits wearable when it's 11 degrees outside.
  11. I was utterly clueless about attire-related matters, and this article (mostly specific to women, but some stuff relevant to all) is very helpful. Over the top, but hey, I'd rather be safe than sorry.
  12. Get several small spray bottles that will pass airport security and refill them with downy wrinkle releaser. This will be useful when you have to go straight from the airport to an interview. (Several, really! I used several ounces at a time before it was truly effective.)
  13. Get over your imposter syndrome before you go on the job market.
  14. And have fun!!! This is very very important, not just for your sanity but for your job prospects. This was the main advice my adviser repeated to me several times and he was completely right.
  15. If you're dealing with a two-body problem, Do NOT accidentally watch "The 5 Year Engagement" when there are no better options on an international long haul flight...
  16. Schedule international flyouts adjacent to weekends so you can explore the area. I was dreading the job market, but not only did the actual interviews end up being more fun than I expected (which every former candidate says, but I was skeptical because I'm much more than averagely introverted), the (free!) international travel was awesome.

Monday, April 21, 2014

conformal cyclic cosmology

I forgot to post this a few weeks ago, but I saw one of the best lectures in a very long time at Matt's work's lunchtime colloquium, with Roger Penrose. Who is, as I'm sure I don't have to point out to very many people who might read this, a pretty awesome dude. (How convenient to have a boss who was a PhD advisee of one of the greatest physicists alive!)

Anyway, he's developed this alternative model of cosmology called conformal cyclic cosmology, and gave a fantastic presentation on it that even I could partially understand. The basic idea (as I understand it, ignoring the more confusing stuff about entropy and the black hole information paradox) is that in the far future of the universe, all mass will decay, resulting in universe described by special relativity, which can then be conformally mapped to an infinitely smaller universe, which then undergoes a new big bang and starts the cycle over again. And since bosons from the previous aeon/universe can be observed in the current universe, we can detect events from the previous aeon in the cosmic microwave background. He claims to have found concentric circles in the CMB that correspond to energy released during sequential collisions of supermassive black holes, and says the b-mode observations that were recently all over the news as a smoking gun for inflationary theory are also consistent with CCC (although he didn't get into explaining that more completely.)

So, go read about CCC if you wanna learn some really cool stuff.

Also, I'm totally adopting his presentation style. He actually used hand-drawn transparencies (ok, I would at least scan mine into a pdf) with bright colorful text and skillfully-drawn diagrams of spacetime. No overcrowded powerpoint slides, and lots of colors! I love.

And while we're on the topic of Penrose, Matt is currently very excited about this book by him on an overview of the laws of the universe. It's definitely on my list.

Friday, March 28, 2014

misc job market notes

  1. The sensation of probability distributions collapsing is very, very, satisfying.
  2. When you've been on a different timezone every couple days for a month, there seems to be no inappropriate time to partake of the free beer on international long haul flights...
  3. Airports that only have seats with immovable armrests are at the top of my list of pet peeves. The floors are almost always less confortable than just sleeping sitting up, or draped awkwardly over your luggage in an adjacent seat.
  4. Jetlag is a great sign: it means you're not so sleep deprived that your body is happy to sleep at absolutely any hour.
  5. The effort I put into appearances dropped quite steeply as sleep deprivation accumulated. Straightening your hair goes out the window in favor of a somewhat messy looking hairclip and half an hour of extra sleep, and touch-up ironing hardly seems worthwhile at midnight.
  6. I am always star-struck when economists I respect are enthusiastic about my paper. And I always conceitedly assume the ones who like it must be particularly smart :) (Really, it's much more correlated with acceptance that economics is more than the study of markets and monetary decisions, but I also assume that economists who accept that are particularly smart... At least, it's definitely true that persistent skepticism of the relevance of behavioral-type motivations and phenomena are irrelevant to classical economic domains, even macroeconomically, is so obtuse it almost has to be deliberate.)
  7. I have no idea whether having this blog hurt me (or helped me, less likely) on the job market. Several people said they liked it, a couple enthusiastically, but as many others said things like "I came across your blog. You write a lot." or wanted to know why I do it, which in equilibrium has to signal a negative opinion. So who knows. I don't particularly care, since I'm certainly not going to stop a fun hobby for the sake of fitting a more hireable mold, but I was curious whether it would come up and to what effect.
  8. After several flyouts, my presentation was completely rote, and there were particular slides I skipped in hour long versions, etc. I'm definitely variably good at making myself talk slowly (which I'm pretty sure almost cost me the job I ended up accepting, so thank goodness that worked out!), but other than that I'm pretty sure I presented extremely similarly at each place. And yet some seemed to go so much better than others. In fact, the more hard questions I got, the better it seemed like it went. The only place that jumped on my from the very beginning and throughout the whole presentation was definitely the most fun (and as a result, it was extremely hard to turn down their job offer, especially since it was already my 2nd choice school), and another school that came close was almost as fun (despite the fact there were many non-economists in that crowd, so I actually had to think before answering some of the questions.) My conclusion is that the audience makes all the difference, which means that both the culture of the department (engaged and aggressive, in a friendly way of course, or passive) and the specialty of the department (it's hard to present to a room of macroeconomists), make all the difference. But it seems like my likelihood of getting an offer was also correlated with how fun the presentation was, which depended on the audience, so that's a little concerning as far as the degree of control you have over your fate goes.
  9. Also when it comes to the degree of control you have over your fate, it's very frustrating how badly the matching mechanism works. And the sad thing is that the economics job market seems to be *much much* more efficient than any other academic job market. Timing issues are the worst (offers expiring before you can interview with other schools). Who wants to start a petition to Al Roth to fix some of these things? It seems like there should be room for improvement even if each candidate and each school can rank a small subset of the complementary population. Surely that's the case in the residency matching program as well? I'm not sure of the details there.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


This essay was given a Sydney award by David Brooks last December and I finally got around to reading it. Highly, highly, highly recommended; I'm thoroughly emotionally drained at its conclusion.

Did you know that up to three quarters of the sounds they make are inaudible to humans? And that they can communicate seismically through foot stamping miles away? Incredible.

Monday, March 24, 2014

dubiously rational preferences, continued

So I've established that my preferences are definitely "behavioral", but possibly still technically rational. Maybe...

After a lot of agonizing over choices, I'm in fact pretty sure that my preferences are at least transitive, but only with a lot of intentional mental effort, which doesn't bode well for less thoroughly considered preferences. But hopefully lack of consideration is directly correlated with inconsequentiality, so that it's still rationalizeable.

The difficulty with transitivity, I'm pretty sure, has to do with comparing multiple attributes simultaneously. Small differences in one dimension are easy to ignore compared to single large differences, and that leads to cycles:

Hummus crackers or broccoli and cheese? That's easy, the latter is vastly more delicious, and they're both reasonably healthy and easy. Cheesy broccoli or ramen? That's easy, ramen you just stick in the microwave for a couple minutes and cheesy broccoli requires an actual pan on an actual stove. Hummus crackers or ramen? That's easy, hummus crackers are way healthier.

Cheesy broccoli > hummus crackers > ramen > cheesy broccoli.

But with additional mental effort, I can take multiple attributes into account simultaneously. Broccoli wins with 17 points. Trust me, this is much much harder with schools with a dozen attribute dimensions with much higher stakes...

But why is it so hard? If it's hard to combine multiple attributes it must be that they're not so intuitively fungible. But if that's true, why is it easy to discern small differences from big differences? Are we only gauging differences in a single dimension compared to the possible maximum difference in that dimension, rather than according to its actual influence on total overall utility? That seems about right, maybe.

Maybe having to make decisions that necessarily involve trade-offs along many dimensions is the only thing that forces us to assess overall utility, and all those dimensions really aren't fungible, and behavioral economics boils down to the problems with treating them like they are.


So after I wrote that, Eva (thanks for the link!) posted something extremely similar, and linked to this, which goes over some of the classic examples of nontransitivity, which I always found slightly unsatisfying since they rest on indifference. My example, if you were to translate it into that language, would be exactly the same as the ornament example, but I still don't like the requirement, necessary to generate a prediction, that certain items are indistinguishable on certain dimensions. I'm completely sure that hummus crackers are better than cheesy broccoli on both the health and convenience dimensions, but I ignore those small differences and focus on the one large difference instead. Salience (or something more fundamental that produces an illusion of salience) is the issue.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

dubiously rational preferences

I suppose first I should announce, for context, that this August I will be joining the University of Queensland School of Economics as an assistant professor.* I'm very very excited!

That's not the dubiously rational decision I'm referring to, of course :)

During the job market I was in the strange position of having to pick a single option from a set lacking any objective measure of overall quality and in a very high-stakes situation. That means, unlike most (ambiguous) decisions that I make out of habit or simple guiding principle or quick gut instinct or based on a simple measure like "price" or "amazon rating", I actually had to carefully figure out what my preferences were in order to maximize utility. And in doing so, I identified a couple of systematic irrationalities - or at least, behavioral-econonomicy aspects - to my decision making.

First of all, and most clearly, my preferences are definitely over choice sets in addition to outcomes. In at least two separate cases, I prefer school A from the set {A,B}, prefer school C from the set {A,B,C}, but prefer choice set {A,B} to {A,B,C}.

Now, to a non-economist, that might seem pretty straightforwardly irrational, or perhaps perfectly straightforwardly rational if my first instinct is a product of thinking like a classical economist for too long.** The technical definition of rationality is "complete and transitive preferences" (completeness being trivially satisfied in any real-world scenario I can think of). And preferences over contingent choices, i.e. over choices in combination with the choice set from which they were selected, can be transitive just as easily as preferences over outcomes alone. But that's certainly not something classical economics is concerned with.

It's reminiscent of Gul and Pesendorfers model of self-control, actually, but in a slightly twisted way. They say that self-control is demonstrated by manipulating your choice set to remove the tempting option. Seems reasonable. But in some sense, my reasons for preferring smaller choice sets are the exact opposite - I wanted my choice set to exclude options I should take, for some definition of "should", so I could choose what I wanted to choose freely. Now, this definition of "should" in the self-control model is a feeling that the individual unambiguously agrees with - the value of going to the gym, for example. For me, I knew that others would think I should unambiguously go with choice C, and I myself had very conflicting feelings about it, and preferred not to have to deal with the cognitive dissonance at all.

I guess it amounted to some combination of 1) wanting to avoid succumbing to peer pressure, 2) wanting to avoid being forced to update my preferences based on the information contained in everyone else's opinion, essentially changing my mind from thinking McDonalds is guilt-freely great to reluctantly agreeing I should go to the gym instead, or 3) avoiding the mental effort of the whole process. I'm not sure. I suspect 2 is the most correct, because I'm historically very immune (often to the extent of intentionally going the other way, so my mom would probably say) to peer pressure and certainly was already putting plenty of mental effort into the decision. But if that's the case, that's pretty unambiguously/uncomfortably irrational (in the colloquial sense of the word, again.)

Hmm, this might be the basis of a decent axiomatic economic definition of stubbornness...

Anyway, I prefer to ignore these uncomfortable inclinations and tell myself I just have abnormally high utility from weather/nature and abnormally low marginal utility of wealth :)

OK this blog post is getting too long, so I'll write about technically-irrational preferences (non-transitivity) separately...


*Actually they call it a "lecturer" position in Australia, but it's the equivalent of a tenure-track assistant professorship in American vernacular.

**You know, like when economists are surprised by things like dictator game sharing. I swear it has nothing to do with economists being greedy people, either - they just see a dictator game, immediately model it with their handy classical economics tools in order to solve the problem of what they should do, and then forget that they used to be a normal human with with behavioral complications like "fairness norms". A better example might be the economists who choose 0 in the beauty contest game, because that's the obvious "answer".

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Notes from Japan

  1. You know how "Japanese tourists" is kind of a negative stereotype? Turns out this is a fantastic thing when you're the tourist. (It doesn't bother me in general, but for those it does, here's a flip side to recognize.) Not only are they not bothered by you taking a billion pictures of everything, holding up lines to stop and take another shot and such, they jump in and pose. Maybe it's a camera-specific thing to some degree; I've never seen so many people walking around with big fancy cameras and telephoto lenses.
  2. It's really hard to get around when you can't even recognize the alphabet (and thus can't recognize placenames phonetically, recognize two words as the same, etc.) It's a good thing I have a good sense of directly, and an even better thing that Hiroshima has several rivers to follow. I did finally find one location by matching characters tediously between road signs and picture I took with some vague directions on a sign, but that was hard enough even with a 3-character word... (and then if you add multiple fonts into the mix, you're really in trouble!)
  3. I expected to feel much more out of place than I did. I felt exceedingly out of the place for the one day I was in Morocco, and suspected that Asia in general would induce the same sort of feeling (like where you're a little afraid to move because you don't know if it might be offensive, and people look at you with a bit of a hostile undertone). But that wasn't so true in Japan, less than even in Britain. There are some strange formalities, like bowing to everyone to say thank you or hello or show respect in general, taking your shoes off everywhere, etc, but those are pretty straightforward things. And for the rest, they don't seem to hold it against you.
  4. What's with the shoe thing anyway? More strangely, why are the house shoes that are provided in various places so horribly designed? I couldn't make it two steps without one falling off. Is there a substantial difference in foot shape between asians and europeans?
  5. I also felt less bad not knowing any japanese except "arigato" than I did stumbling around in extremely primitive Spanish and German. Virtually no one spoke English (except at the university, of course), and they still seemed more entertained than annoyed at having to communicate with me with hand signs. And when I left with an "arigato" they invariably smiled warmly and said "hai, arigato [some other stuff]!" Germans are more likely to sigh, hold back an eyeroll, switch to English as soon as they detect your accent, and of course smiling is out of the question.
  6. I wonder why those anti-allergenic face masks haven't caught on in Oklahoma (or other hay-fever ridden places)? They're sure popular in Japan.
  7. I think part of the "Japanese tourist" stereotype actually doesn't have anything to do with their tourist habits. It's just that those gaudy items and attire sold in tourist shops are fairly similar in style to a lot of things worn on an everyday basis in Japan. So many random things have giant technicolor cartoons on them, it's bizarre. And I definitely saw two high school girls wearing sequined mickey mouse backpacks with ears that no one would wear outside of Disneyland in the U.S.
  8. Lots of people get around by bicycle. But, somewhat comically, they don't seem to have figured out that you can ride much more comfortably and efficiently if the seat is brought up to an appropriate height. A majority of people are short enough that it works out fine, but you definitely see plenty of lankier men riding around with their knees sticking out.
  9. I also only saw one road bike; the tall hybrid style is ubiquitous. Maybe there's a common explanation for this and the seat height neglect: the bike lanes are integrated with the sidewalks instead of the main roads, so you can't go too fast anyway. I actually think that's a better way to do things, since a vast majority of people bike so slowly, but for people like Matt (or even me) it would be incredibly frustrating.
  10. When an entire city is less than 70 years old, it becomes clear how bad late-20th-century architecture was. Although I'm sure the difficult economic recovery was also a contributing factor, as you also notice by comparing East Berlin to West Berlin post-war reconstruction.
  11. Know what's more depressing than a holocaust museum? An A-bomb museum. Hooooly crap. It was a fantastic museum though, outside of the emotional toll.
  12. In visiting Germany and then Japan, I really became aware of the fact that I never really formally studied 20th century history. Every history class I took went over colonial/revolutionary/civil war history in excruciating detail, but then ran out of time as we approached world war 1. Everything I know about the 20th century comes from a play we did in 5th grade on the 30s and 50s (the other classes did the other decades, so I don't remember those), studying the Kennedy assassination in 8th grade gifted ed, my own personal obsession with the space program in middle school, living through the 90's personally, and living in Berlin for 6 months, where every other destination has to do with WW2 or the cold war. I didn't know much about the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or Japanese involvement in the war in general, and still don't know squat about WW1 (or the decade before) or the 80s.
  13. Japanese and Korean food are my least favorite varieties overall (with notable exceptions), and I'm pretty skeptical of strange pickled and/or raw seafood, so my strategy was to get the cheapest rice balls at 7-11, hoping that price was correlated with strange seafood. That mostly worked out ok, except that when I ordered a set of three rice balls at a cafe, one had some incredibly potently gross ginger-pickled-seafood-something-or-other filling that I picked out. Dinner with the folks at Hiroshima university was entirely delicious, though (including the 6 varieties of sake and Japanese beer...) And okonomiyaki, which I had twice in Hiroshima, is one of the best local specialty foods anywhere. I photographed each step of the process (they make it in front of you on a giant griddle) so I can figure it out as soon as I get home.
  14. I saw exactly one non-Japanese person in Hiroshima who looked like they might actually live there. It's even more homogeneous than I expected (although I'm sure a lot of heterogeneity is invisible to me since I can't tell the difference between different east asian groups).
  15. There are vending machines for cigarettes on street corners, but I didn't see a single person smoking one.
  16. They sure love carp. If I interpreted a poster correctly, they have a baseball team named after it.
  17. I suspect that the head bowing habit produces a high level of respect between all individuals. That'd be nice to duplicate in the U.S.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Notes from Germany

  1. They have some strange priorities. Jaywalking is enforced, but walking around with open alcohol is totally fine.
  2. I sat down at the philharmonic and immediately fumbled around for my seatbelt. I've definitely been on too many flights lately.
  3. Speaking of the Berlin Phil, why on earth would you waste their skill on some contemporary intentional noise? A junior high orchestra would pull that off even better.
  4. English is truly the international language of Europe. I heard at least as many non-native-English speakers speaking English to each other than I saw English speakers speaking it with Germans. There are people from every part of the world in Berlin in large numbers.
  5. Buttered hot soft pretzels: best snack ever invented. Why haven't I seen that before?
  6. And speaking of pretzels, how are the Germans so good at making them?? How does that skill transfer so imperfectly to imitators in the U.S.? Most of them come from Germany in the first place! I definitely haven't eaten so many bread-products in a week since, um, probably sometime in college during a noodles-only phase.
  7. Bread and meat made up almost the entirety of my diet, actually. Döner kebap, bretzel, currywurst (mit pommes, natürlich), beer, Nordsee. Rinse and repeat. Then go back to California and eat a fridge full of salad.
  8. When I lived there in 1999, there were definitely street food carts selling bretzels and currywurst, etc. Now only permanent installments do so, except for a handful of guys who run around with a mobile sausage cart attached to their waists. How much do you want to bet there's some new ridiculous regulation about street vendors? The Germans do love their vendor regulations...
  9. Why do people keep pointing out to me "You know, no one actually eats currywurst in Berlin..." Who cares? It's delicious. If they're Germans who don't want to be associated with such a low grade of sausage, I suggest getting over it and be proud of inventing something so fantastic. If they're Americans who love jumping on the opportunity to prove that they're not ignorant American tourists, well, may I suggest learning to love life without needing a stamp of approval first?*

*Can you tell I'm just about ready to get out of the bay area..?

Friday, March 7, 2014

notes from Australia

  1. It was a little bizarre watching the superbowl in Australia at 9am. I don't really have a problem with American patriotism (to the extent that our national identity is one of respect and opportunity equally for all, I think that's something to be proud of. Other crap masquerading as patriotism is obviously more irritating, but so is the snobby anti-patriotism of the upper-middle-class left.) but it's a bit self-consciousness inducing to watch your national anthem played over a 100 yard American flag from another country.
  2. Australian people take "friendly" to a new level. Not just polite and helpful, but gratuitously smiley. Even the taxi drivers, hotel receptionists, fast food order takers, and any other menial laborers that probably hate their jobs, smile and say hello unpromptedly and joke around with you and generally seem inexplicably cheerful. It's fantastic. Kinda similar to middle-America friendliness, except I'm not worried about being found out as a dirty liberal atheist.
  3. They're so friendly and cheerful, in fact, that it felt downright oppressive to interact with anyone the one evening when I was walking around Brisbane depressed about some job market developments.
  4. They're also very welcoming to foreigners. I get the impression that they like you just for having the sense to come visit. And they apparently think American accents are funny, instead of being an immediate signal of brash loud obnoxiousness that Europeans take it as. A lot of them also apparently think American are nicer than Australians, which is pretty hilarious, but maybe those are the ones who visited the non-coasts. One definitely was, actually; I ran into an Australian girl who of all things had previously lived in Oklahoma City when her boyfriend lived there.
  5. I don't understand how, but someone the descendents of British convicts ended up vastly nicer people than the Brits themselves.
  6. How on earth did "breakfast" become "brekkie"? I crack up every time I see or hear that.
  7. I don't understand why Australian schools have trouble recruiting American faculty. The salaries aren't as high, but comparable or higher than Europe, and several departments (like UQ :) are quite highly ranked globally. And c'mon, where in the world would you rather live?
  8. I looove the accent! The vowels are mostly inimitable tripthongs.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

job market in airports

(Finally back home, so I'll post a backlog of travel notes over the next few days...)

San Francisco, Washington D.C., Hartford, Charlotte, San Francisco, Oakland, Las Vegas, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, London, Durham, London, Madrid, Santiago, Panama City, Boston, San Francisco, Oakland, Phoenix, Houston, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Newark, Oslo, Manchester, Berlin, Copenhagen, Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Tokyo, San Francisco.

(Consecutive duplicates omitted.)

That adds up to 5 continents, 6 countries (plus 4 in only the airports), 21 cities visited (plus 15 only in the airports), time zone changed 20 times (plus 7 only in the airports).

I'm done flying for a very long time. Well at least, for almost a month.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

classical perfection

I'm gonna geek out about classical music for a minute or many.

I'm in Berlin and in three days have seen two of the best classical concerts of my life (and I've seen a lot[1]). Of course, I should admit that my enjoyment of a concert (in any genre) is quite strongly correlated with how familiar I am with the music ahead of time; I'm very artistically dense and have to hear things a few dozen times before I appreciate them. And both of these concerts (or, the parts I intend to ramble about) were performances of music I was already familiar with, in extreme detail when it comes to the Appassionata. But even controlling for familiarity, they were exceptional.

The first was the Berlin Philharmonic, led by Sir Simon Rattle, performing Brahms' 3rd symphony, Debussy's La Mer, and some awful contemporary premiere that I'd prefer not to dwell on. I'm not a huge fan of Debussy, but when played live by the Berlin Philharmonic, it's definitely not bad. But the Brahms was what really blew me away. I'd have been happy shelling out the exorbitant last minute 64 Euro price just for that (and it makes me willing to overlook the Haas... though I really shouldn't have to plug my ears when I go to the symphony!)

In my limited historical understanding, Bach perfected and completed the baroque era. Beethoven perfected classical and started and defined the romantic era. Brahms perfected and completed the romantic era[3]. As you might expect from that categorization and my partiality towards romantic era music, I don't think I've ever heard anything by Brahms that I didn't like. He was maybe not quite the genius that Beethoven was, but much more consistently mindbogglingly wonderful.

Anyway, not only is Brahms' third symphony wonderful, the Berlin Philharmonic is the greatest orchestra in the world. And it's been so long since I've seen a really top notch symphony, I was re-surprised[4] by how noticeable the difference in quality is[5]. Each individual appeared to be as intensely focused and engaged with the music as you might expect from a concerto soloist.

And so accurate. The difficulty with string instruments is that it is really, really, really hard to be exactly in tune all the time. Even the greatest violinists in history, playing solo rather than trying to match a group[6], play plenty of notes that are a bit uncomfortably too high or too low, if you train your ear to notice[8]. So you can imagine the difficulty in getting 40 different string instruments to simultaneously be perfectly in tune. That's what makes orchestras sound distinctly like large groups of instruments, with a somewhat harsh edge to them. I'm convinced that a big part of the reason why violins have a bit of a bad reputation for being irritatingly harsh is because they're most commonly heard in orchestras instead of solo (or played by mediocre soloists...). But the magic of the Berlin Phil is that it sounds like one huge perfectly integrated instrument. It's absolutely stunning.

I guess my overall point here is that I find it fairly unfortunate what a high percentage of variance in quality in string music is attributable to intonation. Obviously stylistic differences are just as large as between, e.g., pianists, but those differences take a back seat: I'd rather hear a very good performance with excellent intonation than an excellent performance with very good intonation, and that is very frequently the real tradeoff between musicians in the highest echelons[9]. None are perfect. (Itzhak Perlman, and more relevantly the Berlin Philharmonic, get close :)

The second concert was a solo piano performance of three Beethoven sonatas and some variations on a theme, played by Lief Ove Andsnes. This was partly a ridiculously fantastic concert because I was seated right there on the podium, about 8 feet from the piano, with a clear view of the whole keyboard. There is literally no other seat in the entire room I would've wanted to trade with, and it was also the cheapest ticket, by some great mystery of the universe[10].

The key part of the concert for me was, of course the Appassionata, which I've probably listened to 200 times in the last six months or so, to a whole bunch of different recordings before settling on one of Sviatoslav Richter's as the best. I like to think I know this piece about as well as a non-musician can.

Listening to this recording, in mental comparison to Richter's, was another illustration of the tradeoff between technical prowess and artistic styling. Not to say that Andsnes isn't technically outstanding (I'll get back to that in a minute) but his interpretation of the third movement might make you think he isn't at Richter's level. For the first movement, I thought the two performances were on equal footing. Andsnes perhaps pulled a little ahead due to his more dramatic rendition. But Richter is a little ahead in that dimension that I don't have a name for but which I'll try to describe: You know how when music seems to depart from the underlying rhythmic structure, but then circles back to it, kind of like a generalized version of syncopation? Sort of like in a lot of African music in which you can never tell where the measures are because the different instruments and different parts of the song weave in and out of different patterns of emphases so smoothly? Some musicians do that so well that you immediately mentally switch to the alternative rhythm and then have to readjust to the underlying framework when it circles back around. And other musicians get there a little more forcefully, so that you can always hear the underlying structure but with some forced off-beat accents. That's the other dimension in which Richter and Andsnes differed a bit. Richter is able to more perfectly fluently switch between metrics. For some reason that mental state of being not quite sure where the true rhythmic framework lays is a really satisfying attribute of any music that uses it well (i.e., again, a lot of African music).

In the second movement, Andsnes was unambiguously preferable to Richter, due to his artistry. And that's all I have to say about that.

In the third movement though (the really famous one), Richter is clearly ahead. This movement is brutal: the faster the better, unlike almost anything else.  It ideally needs to wash over you like a 12 foot wave of indistinguishable notes, so that the melody that occurs at the full-measure frequency scale comes through as the dominant thread, even though four or eight times as many notes as that are happening. I can't even think it as fast as it should be played (as Richter plays it).

I personally don't think Richter sacrifices any artistry in his rendition, although maybe a robot with arbitrarily fast fingers could be programmed to add a bit more of that and I just can't imagine what it would sound like. So when I hear anyone play it slower, I assume they just can't play it faster. For example, compare the above link to this one. The overarching melody drags unbearably and I have to stop it after a few seconds.

So, when Andsnes started the third movement about 30% slower than Richter does, I chalked it up to a (very excusable!) lack of Richter's superhuman skills. It was still very very good, of course, but Richter really spoils you[11]. But then, to my surprise, in the last break before the final wave (at 6:12 in the first link), he picked up the pace to match Richters. And he's right to do so! There should be a jump in speed there, but when you're going as fast as you possibly can to start with, that jump isn't achievable. But nonetheless, I much prefer that tiny oversight/sacrifice of Richter's to a wave of notes that's more gelatinous than fluid, even on top of the slight noticeable sloppiness of some tiny bits in Richter's[12] that is probably as inevitable as imperfect intonation is for violinists. If Andsnes can keep up the pace he had at the end for the rest of the movement, he can do it.

And now it's 3:40am and I'm going to end this ridiculously long blog post and go to bed.


[1] In junior high orchestra, we got extra credit for going to concerts if we brought back a program signed by our parents. I brought these back almost every week[2], and one Monday brought in three at once, from the previous Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. My orchestra teacher, with an expression of sudden realization, said to me "you have to actually go to them!" I was quite indignant at the suggestion I might be lying about it or silly enough to think that bringing in random programs was sufficient, but luckily he believed me.

[2] People really underestimate small college towns, for this reason. There were so many concerts or other cultural offerings through the university and not enough of a population to drive the price above nearly zero. And I could bike to them all.

[3] Well, there's Rachmaninoff et al... but that kind of romantic music has a distinct later flavor. And Rachmaninoff died in 1943, well into the contemporary period.

[4] I also saw the Berlin Philharmonic play Beethoven's 7th symphony in 1999, which also makes my list of best concerts ever, although the conductor's interpretation wasn't my favorite.

[5] To be fair, part of the greatness of the experience was due to the audience, which was informed enough to clap at the right times instead of stutteringly shattering the intentional silent transitions between movements, and was also very polite: hardly anyone even coughed, the ones that did almost all saved it for the gaps, and you can bet your life no one's phone even vibrated. Makes an enormous difference! Especially compared to free concerts in the park, which have been most of my symphony experiences for many years.

[6] That is, it's much easier to notice when two simultaneous notes are 1 hz off from each other than when the gap between two consecutive notes is 1 hz larger than it should be. Soloists really have a lot of leeway for that reason[7], and really fantastic string quartets are the ones who have been playing together for so long that they've learned to tune to each other nearly perfectly.

[7] And even better, play a fretted instrument... a BIG part of the reason why Chris Thile's mandolin renditions of Bach's solo violin partitas are so wonderful is that every single note is exactly on. Plus the ability to do 3 or 4 part harmony. Plus... it's Chris Thile. This is also why I love classical guitar and piano music; I can listen to it without my subconscious being slightly on edge about the possibility or remembered reality that the next note might not be exactly what I want it to be. Speaking of which, why is there no such thing as a fretted violin? Sure it would limit a lot of things, but in many cases I think that would be a great tradeoff. It would certainly make grade school orchestra concerts a lot more bearable...

[8] And so the danger in my habit of listening to the same piece on repeat for a hundred times in a row until it's essentially in my ears' muscle memory is that those uncomfortable notes become ingrained in my brain in association with the piece. I'd suggest iterating between several recordings, but that's often not possible: no one plays the Beethoven violin concerto like Perlman, and there's only one recording (to my knowledge) of him doing so.

[9] Then again, once again, I'm artistically anti-gifted, so maybe that's just me.

[10] As a stereotypical economist, I was elated before the performance even started by this outrageously good deal. 8 euro! And to think I was about to pay 35 euro for a seat up in the rafters when the website cut off pre-sales and claimed it was sold out! And what a stroke of luck that I showed up to see about last minute tickets at exactly the right time to get to the front of the line, and then left for dinner and came back once again at exactly the right time to get to the front of the open-podium-seating line.

[11] For this reason, I have no desire to ever hear the Beethoven violin concerto played live unless it's performed by Perlman. It's impossible that I wouldn't be disappointed with such a high reference point.

[12] There's one wrong note in the recording I've listened to a hundred times, and it's ingrained in my memory (see [8]) and drives me crazy. I need to go back and find another of his great recordings (there are several, but some definitely better than others) without it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


Ridiculous things I've said, or come close enough to saying that I ended up stuttering around for long enough that my interlocutor just interrupted me in English (which isn't saying much - this usually takes about two seconds. Everyone speaks English and rarely lets me get through a complete sentence in German, so consistently that I often forget I'm in a foreign country and say 'hi' or 'sorry'):
  1. Currywurst con pommes.
  2. Dos stücke, bitte.
  3. Un brezl.
  4. Die sekretariat de schule...
  5. Gracias, tschüss.
  6. Wo sind los toilettes?
  7. Si. Er, oui. Er... *nods*. (At least a dozen times, it's crazy. There is no easier German word than 'ja'.)
This is why I like ASL (well one of the many reasons). When I'm trying to come up with the word 'hilfen', I never inadvertently stick my right fist out on my left palm.

I'm so bad at languages; it's a wonder I'm the offspring of a linguist. (Although, still not as weird as being descended from a long line of church organists...)

Friday, February 21, 2014

half an hour in Oslo

I'll come back to Australia later and Germany...

Two fantastic things heard during my stop in Norway:
  1. "It's a beautiful day here in Oslo, at negative 3 degrees."
  2. "May the odds forever be in your favor."
Also, I don't think I can honestly consider myself blonde anymore.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Sudoku gets boring very quickly, but there are two other new types of puzzles that use very similar reasoning processes, the satisfying sort of mostly-algorithmic thinking that brains love, that seem much more fun. But they're hard to find. So someone please write a good generator for them :)

The first are regular expression crosswords. Beyond that introductory site, this is the only really good one I've found. So. much. fun.

The second comes from the wonderful NYT Numberplay column. It's called Combonoku, and like Sudoku involves putting numbers in certain allowable combinations. Maybe I liked it so much because there was only one hard one to work through so it didn't have a chance to get boring, but I guess I'll have to wait until one of you writes a generator for them to find out.