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.