Thursday, December 30, 2010

Open Letter to Kristof

Kristof wrote another horrible Op-Ed. The thesis is that everyone should learn Spanish because it'll help them converse with someone, sometime and maybe make their retirement go smoothly. (It'll also help people who need it for their jobs but they already learned it so that's irrelevant.) It's not clear whether he thinks learning it will help unemployed people find jobs or not, but you get the sense he thinks it might.

Here's my open letter in response:

These language columns drive me insane so I'm just e-mailing for the record on why they are so wrong.
1. Let's start with the premise that education is about training people for a good job as the column presumes, since it argues for Spanish on practical grounds.
Some representative anecdotes. We have three graduates of Local High School's class of 2006. One got a nursing degree and found a job in that field. The other got a useless B.A. in Classics and can't find a job. One didn't get any advanced training but he knows Spanish. (He may or may not be Hispanic.) He works at Wal-Mart part time or something. 
What's the difference between these three people? Well, one has technical skills. One has no skills. And one has Spanish, which isn't exactly a great skill. Now if you're advising a young person on how to spend their time to secure a good job do you tell them to get the nursing certificate, or maybe a minor in computer programming or do you tell them to learn Spanish?
2. Suppose there are two languages in a country, A and B. Learning the minority language has negative externalities because it makes it easier for the minority language speakers to hold on learning the majority language. In the long run that is bad for everyone because you can get a two-language equilibrium (e.g. become Quebec). Why is that bad? One, you waste time and money printing signs. Two, more importantly, its bad for social capital because you create a natural way for people to divide themselves and have civil strife.
I know it sounds harsh but here's the reality for Hispanics: the faster they assimilate the faster people will stop hating them. The faster Americans learn Spanish, the slower they assimilate (and maybe Americans become marginally more tolerant). Who benefits?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


From The New York Times (taken 12/28/10 at 11:30 PM):

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Did you know?

From the "Did you know?" report for today's Bills-Patriots game:
New England is 59-2 under Bill Belichick when scoring at least 30 points.
The two games, they don't mention, were

2006 AFC Championship Game - vs Colts (38-34)
2009 Week 10 - vs Colts (35-34)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pats fans

No one likes the Pats because they cheat, get all the calls (but no 1st on 9s), they're good (they are), and everyone knows people from Boston are the biggest assholes North of Philly.

But this takes the cake for ugliness.

No wonder the newspaper it out of print.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

WP48 Misleading?

I wondered back in April how accurate it would be to assume a player's WP48 wouldn't change when they change teams. I thought it would probably be biased heavily upward for players who take a lot of shots because each game only has so many possessions.

You can break a players value into possessions used and efficiency per possession. Some players are generating value largely from the former, so when they transition from a team where they are the star to a team where they are second (or third) fiddle their value drops.

Look at what happened to the Heat:

       TS%      Shots       WP48
James -0.031 -3.35 -0.117
Wade 0.011 -2.85 0.008
Bosh -0.028 -3.8 -0.102

In the Heat's case part of the WP48 decline is a small decrease in efficiency. The bigger part of it is a decrease in the number of shots attempted by over 10% each. For James and Bosh though, I suspect, that most of the WP48 drop is accounted for by declines in rebounded, steals, etc.

This picture tells the story about the Big Three:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pirates 4

Not impressed with the trailer.

Black Swan

Once in a while I read something that's just good.

Like this movie review. Read the 1st four paragraphs.


When you apply for financial aid at Harvard you're asked if you are:
A lineal or collateral descendant of: ... Harvard Class of 1889 [or] 1902
I guess Harvard graduates assumed their descendants wouldn't be able to pay the tuition.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Foreign Policy

When I was a kid I always thought foreign aid was the most important "policy" issue. At Church we had operation rice bowl for those starving people on T.V. I knew people are poor in America, but not like those Ethiopians. And if Americans come first, then at least as a foreign policy issue, making sure everyone can eat should come before say . . . partitioning Jerusalem.

I was probably 14 or 15 before I realize how strange my point of view was. I was reminded of it today. I'm taking a class on foreign policy. Our TA asked everyone to vote for what they consider the 2 most important foreign policy issues (there wasn't a prompt, you could write anything). There were 15 voters, and I cast the only vote for foreign aid.

Here's my rationale for why (the inspiration is John Rawls). Suppose you didn't know where you were going to be born. You're just a random person. You can implement on one policy and then you are born into that world. What policy do you implement?

The natural thing to ask is: what is likely to kill me and the answer isn't WMDs or terrorism: its diarrhea, AIDS, or indoor air pollution killing you as a child. So a rational person is going to prioritize that.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Completeness is a pretty simple concept. Rules are complete if they you can always get an answer by going to the rulebook and incomplete otherwise. It's so obvious--and so obviously--that we assume the rules of the games we play are complete.

But they rarely are. I was watching a football game today, Colts vs. Cowboys. The Colts called a timeout but they weren't granted it. The Colts committed a penalty that wasn't relevant to a play on the field and it pretty much gave the Cowboys the game when the refs called it.

Now what happens when people argue about whether the refs made a mistake. Colts fans are going to point to fact that the penalty was obscure, is never called, and didn't affect the play. So it shouldn't have been called--fouls are missed or ignored all the time. Cowboys fans are going to point to the rulebook--the rules are the rules and you call them like you see them. But Colts fans will point out that the rules say the Colts can call a timeout. If you look at the video its clear they called a time out long before the play started, but it was just missed. Cowboys fans can then say that's part of the game--not every timeout is recognized. But Colts fans argue that not every penalty is recognized and they know Cowboys fans' argument implies that if the refs missed a call that cost them the game they should accept it. Everyone knows no Cowboys fan would accept that--they get mad about "missed calls" like everyone else.

So the argument is really a mess. Who is actually right according to the rules? You could argue about the literal meaning of the rulebook and about the intent of the rule writings as if their is a right answer to the two critical questions: Do the refs have to recognize a clearly called time out and should the refs call an obscure inconsequential penalty? That is what lawyers do when they argue issues of law. I think most of them think there is a real right answer, or at least most laymen do.

But I don't think there is a right answer. I think American law and the NFL rules are incomplete. They just don't specify what is supposed to happen in all instances. In theory the rules are complete because of a clause like "in the event of something not in the rules the refs should use their best judgment." But when the refs themselves are corrupt or inept (they are often inept, no one doubts that!) then what?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What counts as interesting?

I was talking to a friend and they said they think the standardized test writing prompts tend to be interesting. I don't know how common that sentiment is. My guess is that for people with a background in philosophy or who tend to think things out, the topics are very bland and trite. (This will sound extremely condescending. It is, but I don't judge people's worth on intelligence.) For people who don't think very often or study English (or something like that), I can see why they are interesting.

Let me explain with a few examples I grabbed from the web:

"Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present?"

This is a scientific question. I don't think anyone has ever studied it so who the hell knows. Is it an important question? Not really--the question doesn't propose any programs for solving the problem if it exists. The key here, though, is that this isn't the kind of issue you can expect to make any progress on by writing down a bunch of "case studies" (e.g. anecdotes).

"Should schools help students understand moral choices and social issues?"

No one thinks schools shouldn't. Understanding moral/political issues are important and we do it in English and social science classes. The one thing that makes people feel uneasy is that schools can't avoid inculcating a certain moral perspective on issues. But teachers' views and peers' views are going to socialize students anyway, that is unavoidable. I think this one was settled a long time ago. The real question is to what extent should schools tell people what to think when discussing the issues. That is interesting but society has settled more or less on a consensus even there: schools should teach things nearly everyone believes, and if there is any controversy whatsoever, not discuss it. Maybe an interesting question that could come out of this is "What percentage of society has to disagree with a moral claim before it becomes unacceptable to teach it as accepted in schools?" (For example: what percentage of Americans have to find gay marriage acceptable for it to become acceptable to write about gay marriage in history books the same way we write about civil rights for blacks.)

"Do newspapers, magazines, television, radio, movies, the Internet, and other media determine what is important to most people?"

This is another scientific question. You can find out by running experiments to test to what extent changing the paper someone reads changes their priorities. I believe the answer is that, as anyone would expect, it changes their views a little bit. (There are two studies I can think of: one that studied the impact of Fox News on voting behavior and one that studied the impact of having a conservative or liberal paper deliver to the door.) The real question here is how much impact media has on values? That is going to be very hard to estimate and isn't even properly framed to start with. But whatever it is, writing some anecdotes about how watching CNN made you want to join the Peace Corp doesn't get us anywhere. But that's what the SAT wants . . . I think. (Comment: What do they mean by determine anyway? Do they mean if I ran a regression I'd get an R^2 of 1, as if nothing else beyond media socialized people's values. I'm just assuming they couldn't possibly mean that.)

GRE prompts can be even worse. My prompt was, in so many words, "can the ends justify the means?" That one was settled a long time ago. The answer is obvious.  Even more probing version of the question  are obvious (e.g. "when do the ends justify the means?" Answer: When the net outcome is better than the next best alternative.) I have a feeling that a lot of people in English departments never found out that that question was settled hundreds of years ago.

What does literature teach people?

I've probably written this introduction before, but it's necessary. When I read fiction and watch movies, I have fun. I love movies. But I rarely learn from watching films. I'd say that probably only 1 out of every 100 movies or books is really intellectually stimulating the way even bad non-fiction is.

A lot of people, however, claim that some movies (the kind that win Oscars?) are "smart." I've never understood what that means. The classic novels and plays we read in high school are also supposed to be "deep" or "smart" but I don't understand why. Let me respond to obvious counterpoints if that sounds incredibly ignorant.

First, I'm not stupid. I understand that Othello is about jealous and that Romeo and Juliet speaks to the fickle and passion nature of love. I know one of the lessons of Hamlet is that indecision can be a (tragic) flaw. But none of those ideas are new. Little kids know jealousy is bad. Teens usually feel love long before they read Shakespeare and anyone who ever spent time agonizing between chocolate and vanilla ice cream understands Hamlet. So when I say those plays aren't "smart" what I mean is that their themes are things everyone already knows--and if you already know it, you aren't learning it. (Movies have the same problem: Star Wars is about the problems of relying too much on technology; The Hurt Locker shows how war changes people; Inception shows us experience is more important than reality. I don't think any of that is ground-breaking. Also, the Neo-luddite pretensions of Star Wars are the worst thing about it.)

Now not all movies and books have trite themes. Some are kind of novel. Before I read Brave New World I'd never thought much about the relative value of truth and happiness. If you've never read "Politics and the English Language," then 1984's commentary on the government's use of language to control the populace is interesting. Avatar has the most innovative idea I've seen in a movie: the planet can think. It's trees are connected like neurons and collectively they constitute analogous to a brain. Far out. That said, I think all of these only count as borderline "smart" art. Brave New World is completely wrong: happiness is vastly more important than the truth. It's completely implausible that a government would ever try to control people through language the way it does in 1984, which is way over the top in general (and vastly inferior to Orwell's more measured essays for that reason). And of course the implication in Avatar is that we need to protect our planet--but our planet can't think, which Cameron might have been trying to imply.

So my question is this: Can anyone point out something novel they learned from fiction? What brilliant insights did I miss in Shakespeare? What did you learn from Moby Dick? To count it has to be something someone reasonably acquainted with philosophy isn't familiar with and has to be scientifically correct. (Ruminations on pseudo-psychology don't count.)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Oreo Quotes of the Day

As part of an Oreo advertising campaign in China:
Others organized Oreo-themed basketball games to reinforce the idea of dunking cookies in milk.
Chinese people got hops.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom:
Kraft [...] partnered with McDonald's to bring the Oreo McFlurry (already on sale in many countries) to a few McDonald's locations during its yearly Great Tastes of America promotions. 
Yup, traditional home cookin' like the Oreo.

Read more

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Philosophy Problem Sets?

I don't teach philosophy classes and I probably never will. But if I did I would make one big change: add problem sets.

The basic idea is that I'd lay out some arguments and ask student to reduce them to premises, or ask students, given some premises, to draw conclusions using the theories presented in class. Most of these would be trivial, but that's ok because most philosophy classes already require a trivial amount of philosophy and a non-trivial about of composition.

The rationale is that philosophy, like math or economics or computer science, could and should teach people problem-solving methods. If you have an ethical dilemma you can use the theory of utilitarianism, and your priors, to figure out the right thing to do. (Or you could use evidence rather than priors, but that takes you into the realm of science.) In some ways this paradigm only really applies to ethics, but I think problem sets could be developed for epistemology that would be esp. relevant for science majors.

Here are some examples:

1. Jeff Sachs says that donating $100 billion in aid to Africa is the right thing to do because it will lead to economic growth. Assume he's a utilitarian and diagram his argument:

Answer: Donating $100 billion to Africa will increase African incomes. Increasing African incomes raises utility. (Hard part: There is no better use of the $100 billion than donating to Africa.) Therefore, we should donate $100 billion to Africa.

2. (Mathematical problem) There is an island with 3 people. They agree to be utilitarians but can't agree on which utility function is better: U1 = x + y + z or U2 = xyz where x, y, and z are the individual utilities of the three people. Calculate the utility for each (x,y,z) below and discuss which system is more egalitarian. (Does either function help reconcile utilitarianism and Rawlsian conception of justice?)

Answer: U2 is more egalitarian. Graph them, it's interesting!

3. Prof. White decides to write a paper on the causes of war expounding democratic peace theory. He then makes a table of all the wars fought in the past 100 years and categorized them into wars between democracies and others. He says the data show (don't worry about how) democracies are less likely to fight wars. What is a major problem with his research plan?

Answer: He came to his conclusion before seeing the evidence. When he categorized the data he may have been tempted to categorize countries as "democracies" and "not" in such a way as to make his hypothesis hold.

4. Ann believes in virtue ethics. She wants to cultivate the virtue of charity. A local beggar asks for $5 to buy booze. A local businessman asks for $5 for research on a new vaccine. Who should Ann give the money to? Who would a utilitarian give the money to (assume the new vaccine will save many lives)? Does virtue ethics make any sense to any rational person? (Hint: The answer to the last question is no.)

Answer: Ann should give the money to the beggar, that is charity. Investing in a business is not charitable. A utilitarian would give the money to the businessman, who would use it to make products that satisfy needs (e.g. demand for health care) because it will make the world happier.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Offensive and Defensive Rebounds

Some statisticians treat offensive and defensive rebounds as equally valuable when evaluating NBA players. I don't see the logic. If I'm a player and I fail to get a defensive rebound, odds are (something like 70% chance) that someone else on my team will rebound the ball so the value of the rebound was 0.3 possessions. If I get an offensive rebound, then I created a possession that would have only been created about 30% of the time, so it's worth about 0.7 possessions. Theory says offensive rebounds are a lot more important. (One caveat: the kind of player who is available to get a lot of offensive rebounds may set few picks, create few of his own shots, and take few shots and thus draw fewer defenders. So offensive rebounds might be correlated with other bad, but unmeasurable attributes.)

Defense of the equivalence base it on regressions. The theory is, I guess, that the regressions are showing an implicit correlation between offensive rebounding and negative attributes (discussed above). Another theory, which is my guess (without looking closely at the data) is that defensive rebounds are overvalued because they are correlated with good defense (low opponent FG%), which is also unmeasured. If that is the case defensive rebounds are overvalued and that's why the equivalence shows up in the regressions.

Friday, November 19, 2010

One more time . . .

This is the best essay even written, hands down.

If you haven't read it five times, then you haven't read it enough.

Politics and the English Language by George Orwell

Read it once for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week. Then read it again.

This is satire

While pensively pondering recent applications of the neo-constructivist gender studies literature to Title 9, it dawned on me that the racial dynamics theorized by Post-Colonial Oppression theory explain the popularity of American football in the United States.

In American football there is one position, the quarterback, that leads and others that follow. The quarterback is prescribed, by the traditional institutional framework of the game, to be white. The other (black) players are commanded by the white who barks orders in codes, reminiscent of the supposedly by-gone era of slavery. Is there any doubt that American football evolved as it did as a replacement for the latent desires of bigotted Southern rogues to oppress the "negro species?"

Note: Someone who read this pointed out that football was developed and became popular in the New England, not the South and that in the South blacks were not allowed to play football with whites until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 70s. In other words, my theory doesn't make a lot of sense in light of the evidence. Fortunately, I'm an English professor so evidence is not in my lexicon.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dark Knight Rises Female Leads

I don't think I wrote this on the blog, but it's my strong suspicion that the studio forced Christopher Nolan and co. to name the next Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises." It's a terrible name, but the inclusion of "Dark Knight" in the title clearly identifies it as a sequel. That's what execs want. I hope one day they retcon the name to The Caped Crusader.

Rumors are spreading that Nolan is looking to cast two female leads, one as (presumably) Catwoman and the other as a replacement for Rachel Dawes. My picks at Anne Hatahway to replace Rachel and Naomi Watts to replace Catwoman. I think Tom Hardy is best fit as either Black Mask or Harvey Bullock. I'd like to see DiCaprio as Black Mask and Hardy as Bullock but I think there will only be one villan besides Catwoman . . .

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Peyton Maning - is the sun setting?

Peyton Manning is hands down the best player in NFL history. He is set to break every important record in the history books--career passer rating, consecutive starts, touchdowns, adjusted yards per attempt, even adjusting for the era he plays in. But Manning shines more on subjective indicators than objective. His dedication to the game--to film study, perfection in practice, and to strategy are what make Manning a legend. I love sports. I love the way players like John Elway can played with reckless abandon.* I love the way players like Cal Ripken show up, prime every day.** I love the way competitors like Tim Tebow push themselves and their teammates to play better.*** But there is nothing I love more than the Colts no-huddle offense and Manning's pre-snap routine.

That said, the sun may be setting on Manning's storied career. Younger passers with better targets and more mobility and starting to usurp his throne. No one throws the deep ball like Philip Rivers and the Chargers. Running quarterbacks (Young and Vick) are finally starting to make progress. Drew Brees is setting a new standard for accuracy that, perhaps, even Manning can't match. Manning is left to throw to a depleted receiving corps plagued by injuries and butterfingers. Manning makes them look good, but he has limits. Did we see the last MVP season from Manning last year?

I don't think so. I think he'll win the MVP this year. If the Colts beat the Patriots in a week and if the Colts win the AFC South then Manning will take home his 5th trophy. But the sun is starting to set and it's time to look back and appreciate what a great run it was. The showdown on 11/21 may be the 10th and last meaningful Brady-Manning showdown.

* - Manning is willing to lay it on the line when necessary, or at least was in his earlier days. The first touchdown he scored in the playoffs was a scramble.
** - It goes without saying that Manning is the Iron Horse of football.
*** - But no one pushes his teammates harder than Manning.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Falcons vs Ravens

Roddy White pushed the Raven's defensive back on his touchdown grab at the end of the game. It might have been an acting job but it looks pretty clear cut.

The refs need to grow a pair and throw the flag when a superstar breaks a rule. Anyone remember the hold at the end of the 2003 Colts-Patriots AFC Championship game?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rick Reilly Quote

Rick Reilly is the best sports writer on the planet--yes, even better than Bill Simmons.

Here's an instant classic:
In fact, now people are trying to take away BCS-conference wins this season [Boise State has] already earned. Robert Smith, one of ESPN's college football analysts, said recently, "I'm trying to keep an open mind about all this. But I'm not so sure if Boise State plays Virginia Tech today, they beat them."

I'd hate to see Smith on The History Channel. "I'm trying to keep an open mind about all this, but I'm not so sure the Allies win World War II if they fight today." 
I lost the link.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Legacy of Randy Moss

There used to be a debate about whether Randy Moss was--or would one day be--the greatest receiver of all time. I think this year closed the book this that debate.

Randy Moss will never be Jerry Rice.

It's actually a good story. Moss was a freak, a naturally talented wide receiver with huge hands, blazing speed, 6'5'' stature AND the ability to leap. Rice had below-average just about everything, but a legendary work ethic. What does that say about the value of directed practice?

I'm not so sure the conclusion is fair though. Rice played in the West Coast offense before defense knew how to cover it. He played for two of the best quarterbacks of all time. His numbers are that much better than Moss's. I think they are better--even when you adjust using your priors for the time period, coaching and teammates. But even if Moss had better numbers most people would point to Rice's rings and maintain that he was the best. Moss made his teammates worse--look at the debacle with the Vikings this year--while Rice made his teammates better. I don't know how true that is. It's a good story. But if the Patriots won Super Bowl XXII and Brad Childress didn't let the Vikings go down in flames, and Moss remained Moss, wouldn't that argument fall to pieces?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Double Standards and Finance

A lot of people on Main Street wonder how people on Wall Street can manipulate people the way they do and think nothing of it. The standard explanation is that it's about money: people on Wall Street are greedy so they do immoral things knowingly to get more money. That is certainly part of the story but I think it's a smallest part then people think.

The bigger thing is that institutions shape ethics. What we think is right or wrong depends in large part on the role we are playing. If we are playing the role of businessperson we apply different standards of right and wrong. We treat ourselves by the standard of that role, not by the normal standard of right and wrong. (We do account for other people's roles a little bit, but not much.) On Wall Street the role of a trade, esp. a bond trader, is to manipulate other people for financial gain. For instance, you could manufacture synthetic CDOs so you can sell CDS to hungry hedge funds and then dump the CDOs on some unwitting mutual fund manager, make a tidy profit, and who gives a fuck about all the grandmothers who had their 401ks in the fund. That isn't immoral. Finance is a zero sum game. Someone has to lose. So it's ok to do what needs to be done to win the game.

In that example it's hard to believe the person selling CDOs doesn't understand that what he is doing is wrong. He made that security specifically so that he could sell it to a dope, didn't he? I don't think so, based on anecdotal evidence.

Here is a similar example. Suppose that there is a food stamp program in New York City. It's common knowledge that you can get food stamps if you are living below the poverty line and you can use them to meet basic nutrition requirements. As it turns out, a few restaurants owned by rich businessmen donated to the mayor last campaign and food stamps actually can be used to buy any kind of food--even prepared meals or wine. It also turns out that if you go to the food stamp office, anyone is eligible to get the stamps as long as they wait in line. This is a closely guarded secret though, because if it became widely know that the mayor made these changes he'd take a beating in the polls because everyone agrees they are horrible ideas. Everyone can also probably see what the rules were setup that way: now those restaurant owners tell their best customers to go get food stamps then bring them there for expensive meals that don't cost a time since the city pays the tab.

I talked to someone about something completely isomorphic to that scenario and they couldn't understand what was wrong with a rich person taking the food stamps and using them to buy a nice dinner while the city foots the bill. I think it's a general problem, from talking to rich people, that they tend to be pretty ignorant of all the mechanisms they use to ensure the playing field isn't level in school and at work, and use that ignorant to maintain the illusion that their "success" as they define it is based on talent. A prime exhibit of this is all the rich people at Harvard who think they are actually "Harvard smart." (Maybe they are of above-avearge intelligence. But to get into Harvard on merit, e.g. be "Harvard smart," you need to be 1 in 1,000 or rarer. If you had any comparably smart peers in high school--nearly all of them did--you almost certainly aren't "Harvard smart.")

Friday, November 5, 2010

Quote of the Day: MIT Edition

The great thing about MIT is that it's driven by ideas.

But the bad thing about MIT is that not matter how awful your idea is, someone will be excited about it as long it involves technology and your elevator pitch includes buzzwords like "leadership," "entrepreneurship," or "sustainability."

(If you have a good idea that can't be summarized in an elevator pitch, doesn't involve technology, and doesn't use buzz words, it might get ignored. I wonder how J-PAL ever got approved?)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Is stupidity Dangerous? - Part II

Here is an example of a horrible argument made by someone who I think wants to be taken seriously.

Global warming is going to make the earth warmer. Let's take that as a fact. The result is that there will be less arable cropland in 100 years. This will increase the probability that poor countries reliant on farming fall into chaos. The U.S. will be less secure because these failed states harbor terrorists and commit genocide and other actions that draw U.S. involvement. 
So the U.S. needs to do something about global warming.

There is something that jumps off the page about that argument that is a real sin. But I don't think enough people are trained to see what it is. Thankfully, I've beaten it like a dead horse on this blog so I'm not even going to state it.

But beyond the main problem, the argument also fails to correctly account for benefits.

If your argument about policy is coherent you should be able to turn it into a list of costs and benefits and assign each benefit a distribution of value and a distribution of probability that seems reasonable. That is your argument and you are just using words to dress it up to make it readable. But the two forms should be equivalent and you should always be able to turn one into the other.

Here I don't think the person who made that argument really thought much about the values of the probabilities of the benefits they are talking about (i.e. the benefits from averting a terrorist attack). Why do I think that? They imply that agricultural-based economies will be common in 100 years. But no one thinks that considering the rate of global economic growth.  They never mention their assumptions about the discount rate, which is critical over a 100 year horizon. And they suggest that P(supports terrorists| failed state) is non-trivial, which I don't think is reasonable.

Is stupidity dangerous? - Part I

I was talking to a friend about why I don't like people who study serious topics but don't really care whether they get the right answer to the question they're asking.

When I write it, it sounds so ridiculous that it's hard to believe anyone would do it. So I'm going to write one blog on how it happens and come back to the question of whether it's dangerous in the next blog.

Here is the key fact. It's usually harder to tell if your argument is correct than to make a correct one. It's hard to think up proofs in math, but it's much harder to check whether proofs are right. It's easy to give an opinion on a philosophical topic that is logically coherent. It's harder to check an argument for consistency.

This isn't always the case. It's easier to check if a solution (x,y) to a system of equations is correct than to find a solution, and it's easier to check the dates of important historical events than to remember them.

But in general, where arguments are concerned, it's easier to make a correct argument than to verify the correctness of one.

The result is that there are a lot of people who are capable of making correct arguments (and, also, incorrect ones) but can't verify is there argument makes sense. They understand enough about logic and cost-benefit analysis and regressions to weave some evidence together, but not enough to just the evidence on the whole for themselves.

In Washington these people are tasked with writing briefs and memos and sometimes giving presentations on topics, and they give them. But since they are incapable of assessing their arguments, and often most of their audience is equally incapable (their bosses, the voters in congress are often less informed than they are!), sometimes bad arguments spread.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


I'm supposed to tutor for a introductory macroeconomics class, but I haven't had time until today to look at what they're learning. I opened the first set of slides and saw this statement:

Unemployment is bad for the individual unemployed workers, because they can't make a living.
That seems obvious. But I think it misses the real problem with unemployment.

Unemployed workers can collect unemployment, at least in the short run. But that doesn't stop unemployed people from being unhappy. The reason unemployment is so bad is because of the psychological effects:

1a. Being laid off or fired hurt your self-esteem
1b. It makes you worry about being able to do jobs in the future
2. It cuts you off from your friends

These psychological effects are what cause so many unemployed people to become depressed, which has a negative impact on their families. That is the real toll of unemployment.

On the bright side, it's probably easier to teach people to cope with being laid off and to integrate people into social circle outside their workplace than it is to eliminate the search frictions (etc.) that cause unemployment.

Don't take this seriously

They say Asian people are, on average, the most prejudiced racial group in the U.S. They tend to look down on blacks in particular and prefer to keep company almost solely with other Asians.

The question is: do Asians hate blacks more than they love other Asians?

(If you don't know, Tiger's mom is Asian and his dad is black.)

It looks like they hate blacks more. The fact that Tiger is black dominates for 58.9% of Asians. And as we might have guessed, despite the fact that Asians are far less likely to follow sports, they are more likely to have an opinion on Tiger Wood than whites or blacks.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bayesian Approach

The NFL blew a call today because they don't appreciate the Bayesian philosophy in statistics.

Here's the situation. A player for the Steelers was running to the end zone. He lost the ball before he scored a touchdown, but the referee didn't see and ruled it a touchdown. The Dolphins challenged the the officials ruled that it was indeed a fumble but that they couldn't give the ball to the Dolphins because the Steelers always get preference (see Super Bowls XL and XLIII), er . . . . because it wasn't clear who recovered the ball.

Let's suppose that the league wasn't just favoring the Steelers and that they believe that when there is a loose ball and the refs can't determine who recovered, the ball should go the offense. Under that rule the ball will go the right team approximately 50% of the time, since the offense will recover a loose ball about half the time. Under a rule that gives the ball to the team that appears to have recovered the ball--the team that is most likely to have recovered the ball--the ball will go to the team that recovered the ball > 50%.

The later rule is based on the Bayesian philosophy, which is the dominant point of view in statistics today. Other approaches have fallen in disfavored because they give an (often) arbitrary preference to some hypothesis--in this case that the Steelers recovered.

The moral of the story is that everyone should study statistics, or just use common sense. But a lot of people lack the later . . .

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Does the MLB need longer playoff series?

For most of the 20th century only two teams made the playoffs in baseball: the NL pennant winner and the AL pennant winner. There were only one playoff series--the World Series. In 1969 that changed to four teams--one from each division (East and West) of each league. In 1995 it changed again to include eight teams--three division winners and two wildcards.

The changes have made baseball more exciting. Every year there are a lot of teams in the hunt for a wild card or division spot. In the 1920s and 1930s the Yankees often wrapped up the AL pennant by early September and baseball was dull until the Fall Classic. Not anymore. I wouldn't do away with the wildcard or combine divisions.

But one thing did bother me. The first round of the MLB playoff is a short best of five series. And baseball teams have more parity than most sports clubs. For any given game even a bad team has a good chance of beating a good team. A worse team is less likely to win a best of 3 series than just a single game, and even less a best of 5. In general the longer the series the more likely the better team will win the series. My suspicion is that because the first round of the MLB playoff is so short there is an unreasonable large chance that the worst team will win in the first round.

You could make a case that's how it should be. Sports are about chance. They're about showing up and performing well on a specific day, not being the best on average. But, on the other hand, most people feel a sense that the rules should be designed so that "the best man (team) wins."

I decided to explore numerically how much of a difference it makes that the first round is a 5 game series as opposed to 7, 9, or 11. Longer series are better because give fans more games to watch and the better team is more likely to win, but they have a cost in sucking some of the drama out of the playoffs. I wanted to quantify the gain from the better team being more likely to win.

Call the probability that the better team, say the Rays, will win p. Then you can model the Rays chance of winning with a mathematical construct called the Binomial Distribution. I used that model in Excel to simulate the Rays chances of winning for p = 0.42, 0.44, ..., 0.60 for a 5, 7, 9, and 11 game series. To my surprising the length of the series doesn't make much of a difference for teams that are relatively equal (which is true for playoff teams). The graph below shows the effect of lengthening the series.**

I'd still like to see longer series. 9 for the first round and 11 for later rounds. But at the same time I can see why one can't complain too much. In football the playoff "series" are just one game rounds and we think that amount of chance is acceptable--even exciting.

But I'm still bitter than the Rays got bumped by a vastly inferior team.

* - This averages out pitcher effects. What I mean is that the Phillies might have one great pitcher that makes winning Game 1 likely, but the average of their likelihood of winning Games 1, 2 and 3 is probably < 60% against another playoff team.

** - This model leaves out the effect on pitching rotation choice. If the playoffs could potentially go 29 games a manager that might use a 3-man rotation under the current system might switch to a 4 or 5 man rotation. That effect could be large in some cases (e.g. 2001 Diamondbacks).

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Caped Crusader

To follow up on the last post. Batman 3 comes out in less than 2 years. Here's my hope and guess for some elements of the plot.

First, the title will and should be The Caped Crusader. It gels nicely with the other two and captures the third-act aspect of the film. This movie is going to have a happy ending, it should have a title that captures the good side of the batman.

Second, the villians will be the Riddler and the Black Mask. The movie will deal in part will Bruce's inner turmoil post-Rachel's death and with the city hating him. He won't have a love interest because he'll come into his own as the Caped Crusader and embrace his future fighting crime in the city. (He could also die, but I don't think so.)

The movie will start with crime getting worse because Batman is hampered by Gordon's men's hunt for him. This will leave an opening for the Black Mask to assert himself in the crime world and fill the power vaccum left by the deaths of the three bosses in The Dark Knight. Meanwhile, the police will hire Edward Nigma to help them hunt down Batman and find out his identity. The Black Mask's backstory will come out alongside his history with Bruce and he'll probably kidnap Lucious or something at some point. I don't know how they'll work in the over-the-top action or keep the thrilling pace of TDK up--and I don't expect them to quite match it.

But the end should be a little more emotional and a little more satisfying because it should be conclusive. I hope they trim this one to under 2:15 too.


The rumor mill says Batman 3 (The Caped Crusader?) will feature Killer Croc as the primary villan and part of the movie will be set outside of Gotham with shooting in New Orleans.

Doubt it. Nolan wouldn't touch a character like Killer Croc. I take this as evidence pointing toward the Black Mask. He was introduced when Millar was 15, so he fits the description too. I don't think they would set a major action sequence outside of Gotham either, so I suspect the New Orleans shoot, if it's real, is for a part like the Hong Kong part of The Dark Knight. The Black Mask makes a lot of sense because someone has to fill the void left by the deaths of Gambol, the Chechen and Maroni.

So right now I'm hoping for the Riddler and the Black Mask, and I think that combination is most likely. Not sure who I'd have play them. DiCaprio could work as the Black Mask, but I'd like to see them find a no-name who fits better.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bad Argument Technique #3

To continue my series on how to make a bad argument I'm going to introduce a third technique. This one is mainly useful in discussion about ethics, law, or politics. You can use it to lose an argument ASAP whenever what is fair or right is at issue.

The basic strategy is this. You presume that you or something about you is special and deserves special consideration, but that doesn't apply to anyone else. For instance, suppose you're talking about some cultural practice. You think that it's fine other people have their traditions or practices--maybe they only pass things with their left hand, or they always go to church on Sunday's, or they only eat Kosher food. You're fine with that, but you don't think they should impose those rules on others, like you. You feel its ok to use your right hand, not go to church, or eat non-Kosher food.

But you also have some cultural quirks. Say you don't think salt should be handed to people, just placed beside them. Or you think certain words are "bad" and shouldn't be said. Or you think it's gross if people chew tobacco (important caveat: chewing tobacco doesn't harm other people, just the chewer). You don't like those quirks and tell people and expect that that is a good enough reason for them to stop: you expect them to stop. Why? Because you asked. But when others asked you, you didn't think you were obliged to stop.

The normal rules (whether that others' cultural traditions should or should not be followed) don't apply to you because YOU are special. Everyone you're talking to, though, will rightly think you're a hypocrite.

Here is another example I stumbled on. My school (MIT) has a program to send people to countries for vacation during the summer and winter break and pairs that vacation with an internship. You can't get any money to go on a vacation unless you do an internship in the country. I pointed out that that's kind of dumb--why don't they just lottery $3,000 gift cards students could use to go on vacation or travel that weren't conditioned on where you did an internship. Instead of getting $3,000 to work for Google in China you could work for Google in California and use the $3,000 to travel to China in your break. I point out though, that because people tend to be risk averse, taking money from everyone to give them a lottery ticket for a bigger sum makes them worse off. Instead of paying $300 for a 1/10th chance at a $3,000 gift certificate you'd rather just have the $300. But someone responded that they liked both systems because they know in both cases they'd get a ticket (in other words, knowing ex post that they get a bunch of free money, they like it). Of course, no one else found that to be a compelling argument--why would what's fair depend so crucially on YOU unless you're special?

Thursday, September 30, 2010


This story takes the cake for most bizarre mixed with most tragic story of the month.

A college freshmen jumped off a bridge after his roommate taped him having sex with a guy in their room and put the video online.

Some thoughts: From what I know about psychology our intuitions might lead us astray thinking about this problem. Our first assumption is that he died because people hate fags. That is true--sort of. But a lot of gay people are treated poorly every day and don't jump off a bridge. Instead of talking about anti-gay prejudice it's worth talking about bullying in general and about teaching kids healthy ways to respond to bullying (and adversity).

It's probably easier to teach gay people to cope with discrimination, esp. when kids, than it is to eliminate anti-gay bigotry, which will take decades to stamp down into the low single-digits.

I'd still give those two fags 5 years each for hiding the webcam and voyeurism.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Patriot Defense

From commentary on ESPN:
but as we get deeper into October, it'll lighten up, including a Week 6 game at New England
How did New England's defense fall so far so fast?

A few years ago the Patriots had the most feared, punishing defense in the league. Defense (and spying)  won the Patriots their three Super Bowls,. Their pass defense--led by Ty Law and Rodney Harrison--was stifling in the mid-2000s. The game that defined that dynasty was the 20-3 victory over the high-powered passing Colts in the 2004 playoffs.

And this post wouldn't be complete without some numbers so here they are: Rank of points allowed over the past decade (lower is better): 6th, 17th, 1st, 2nd, 17th, 2nd, 4th, 8th, 5th.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


I haven't read anything by Gladwell in a few months. He's my favorite author, along with Jonah Lehrer, and I stumbled on four new articles he's posted in his archive since the last time I check. All of them are good as always but I liked "Drinking Games" in particular.

Jonah Lehrer also wrote a good article on stress last month. I'm not sure if I linked to it.

Complexity in Games

Yesterday I was talking with some friends and I mentioned in passing that video games like Age of Mythology (and RTS games in general) are more complicated than old games like chess. That seems pretty obvious on inspection but a lot of people resist it. Chess is a game for smart people while little kids play video games, right?

But consider how in chess you never have more than a couple hundred (or less?) moves to consider. You have 16 pieces. Some of them can't move. The pawns only have (at most) 2 options, the rooks only have 16 each, same for the bishops, and the king only has 4 options--all maximums unlikely to be achieved. The entire "space" of the board in chess can be represented with an 8x8 grits.

In contrast, even a very basic model of an RTS would require choosing several functions from an infinite dimensional vector space. Consider a simple model that says the winner is whoever the person who achieves a certain ratio of "active military score" where "active military score" is a function of your "aggressiveness" (a function you choose) and your "military score" which is a function of what units you have. The unit you have, of course, is a function of your economy and your economy (with say, three resources) is modeled as being a function of three "investment functions" you choose, one for each resource. Each of these functions you choose--the three investment ones, the military spending one, and the aggressiveness one are chosen from the space of all functions. Look at how much longer it takes to write even a very basic description of the game! And to teach someone chess might take 30 minutes, but to learn all the basics in Age of Mythology would take at least an hour.

Still, there is some truth to the fact that chess seems just as strategic. Even though the choices are much simpler in chess and the perfect strategy (one where you can't lose or would always win), if it exists, would be much easier to compute--chess has crossed a threshold where that perfect strategy still is impossible to compute. And thousands of books and billions of books haven't gotten the world particularly close to one. This, I think, illustrates a principle Stephen Wolfram talks about in his book A New Kind of Science. What he found was that even very simple computer simulations can exhibit very, very complex outputs. In fact, in technical terms, even very, very basic models can emulate ANY output of even the most advanced computer. (It's hard to put into words without using technical terms. Read more here.)

Chess is very simple. But it's complicated enough where it has crossed that threshold of complexity where its hard to tell complex systems apart.

The other factor is how both games are strategic. And in any strategic game, where its hard to predict what the other person is going to do, things get chaotic fast. This is the one sense RTSs might be simpler than chess. Chess, as far as I know, doesn't have that strictly defined of a meta-game. People can approach it with a lot of different strategies that can be hard to tell apart after just a few moves. In contrast, Age of Mythology has converged over the years toward one major meta-game, as far as I know, of rushing early and fighting it out by the end of the third age.

But even very, very simple games can become "complicated" because of their lack of a meta-game. Consider Texas hold 'em. If you don't bet on poker and just play the hands the game is completely deterministic--no one makes any choices. The strategic element comes from the choice that comes up a few times a game where you have four options: raise, check, fold, see. The sample space of choices is tiny. But because its so difficult to predict what others are going to do the game is "complicated."

Still, I don't think anyone who plays both games would argue that RTSs in general are harder to play. People make a lot more mistakes in RTSs. One mistake in chess can cost you the game--it's a big deal. In contrast, if you don't make a bad decision a minute in an RTS you need to get out more. It's more mentally exhausting to play Age of Mythology at any level than chess.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Are "tolerant" people bigger bigots?

I grew up in middle America, but I've lived in Cambridge, MA for the past 3 years.

And I'd venture a guess that the typical person in Cambridge is more prejudiced than the typical American. But I hadn't seen an experiment demonstrating an overt prejudice in "tolerant" people until today.

Read about the study here.

Now here's the rub. Suppose you live in Cambridge with the kind of people they found in the study. Do you point this out to them and hope that being conscious of their prejudice will make them a little more tolerant or is the truth not good enough? I'm not sure. I'm inclined to think the later. (Edited: 3/9/12)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Parity in the NFL

One thing everyone likes about NFL football is the parity in the league and the fact that the playoffs are one-and-done (one loss and you can't win the championship).

Look at how things have played out recently in the AFC. In week 1 the Ravens beat the Jets and the Patriots beat the Bengals. Then the Bengals beat the Ravens and the Jets beat the Patriots. In other words, you'd we have Ravens > Jets and Patriots > Bengals, and Jets > Patriots and Bengals > Ravens thus Jets > Patriots > Bengals > Ravens = Jets > Ravens and so on. The fact that a team won in week 1 doesn't say much about who will win in week 2.

A lot is at stake on any given Sunday.

Habit 2 of Bad Thinking

I have to give a presentation on the "Seven Sins of Bad Thinking" and I mostly just talking about one on this blog: ignoring either costs or benefits. I'm going to add a second to the list today and it starts with a story.

Say you have 10 employees and you're adding an 11th. You have a couple different products that you produce and you need to put the 11th employee on one of those product teams. One of your VPs say to put them on product A because you'll get the biggest increase in production (in units) if you put the new guy on team A--and it's all about productivity. Another VP says to put the new guy on product B because product B brings in the biggest profit per unit--that's where the big money is. What do you do?

You say they both are only telling half the story. Your goal is to maximize profit and to do that you need to think about both how many units you make and how much you profit from each. The value of the employee is (marginal units)*(profit per unit) and you can't just think about one aspect or the other.

That might seem obvious but how often do we focus solely on what is possible or solely on what is certain when we should probably be thinking about what is more likely?

(There was an example to go with this from a discussion I had with a friend. But when I wrote it down it was a mess so I'll just post the short version.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Why economics is hard

This post is motivated as a response to a comment Justin Kraus left on my post titled "Trade" from a few days ago. He's not an economist so I think his confusion is a product of thinking economics is a simpler (and more scientific) subject than it is.

Economics is hard because, while we like to think of it as a science, it's very difficult to get good experimental data. And without experiments you can't falsify bad hypotheses. So in economics, more than in other sciences, stories or theories that make a lot of sense but, as it turns out, are wrong can hang around for a long time.

Experiments, however, are not the only way to know something fishy is going on. Sometimes economists tell multiple stories, each specific to explaining one aspect of the economy. When you put them together, though, there is something inconsistent about them. For instance an economist might have a theory that international trade (1) benefits the United States and (2) doesn't create net unemployment because (1) if people choose to trade and are rational they're benefiting and (2) if people lose their jobs because their products are now imported, the economy will find a new use for their labor.

But then that same economist might say that when, say, Kenya imports t-shirts it puts the local producers out business. This is a net negative for the local economy because, presumably, the local t-shirt manufacturers can't find anything else to do with their labor and go idle. Trade causes unemployment and a long-term decline in GDP.

The problem with these stories is that you're left to wonder why Kenya can't reallocate resources but the United States can. What are the frictions in the Kenyan economy that don't exist in the United States? And while in the U.S. trade necessarily lowers some prices and thus benefits Americans, in Kenya the economist glosses over the fact that those imported shirts have lowered the cost of t-shirts which should increase utility.

That is more or less what happened when Bill Easterly, who usually touts the efficiency free markets and the general rationality of consumers, praised importing cars from Japan on those grounds but, in the past, has seemed to agree with arguments condemning cheap (free) imports to Africa on the ground that they harm local industry. At the same time he's also attacked Dani Rodrik for making pro-industrial policy arguments that rely on the assumption he (as far as I can see) will need to explain the frictions that exist in Kenya and make imports bad but don't exist in the United States.

How bad is it to drink milk and eat eggs?

How many dairy cows are forced to live a miserable existence if you drink milk?

We can estimate that using a simple formula that uses a few numbers we can research on line:

Cows/Year = (Cups of Milk per day * 365 days) / Cups of Milk produced by one Cow in a Year

The average dairy cow produces 2,320 gallons per year according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service or about 37,120 cups. The average person drinks probably no more than 5 cups of milk per day. So plugging in those numbers we have:

Cows / Year = (5*365) / 37,120 = 0.049 cows

So going from being a vegetarian who drinks milk to a vegan who doesn't will save about 0.049 cows.

But that estimate is too high because it's not obvious that farmers are going to see a demand shock of 5 cups of milk and attribute it to a decrease in demand. They might understand the decline as an unexplained shock and not let it influence their production decision. In that case not drinking milk has no impact on the cows.

A similar calculation on eating eggs yields:

Hens / Year = (5 eggs/week * 52 weeks/year) / 300 eggs per chicken/year = 0.86 chickens

Note: that is probably a high estimate on egg consumption.

Now here is an interesting twist. Let's say we think cows are worth 1/100th of a human. How many people would we have to save to cancel out the damage we've done by drinking milk?

It'd be the 0.049 cows divided by 100, or 0.00049 people. We can save people by donating anti-malarial bed nets which have been shown to reduce the mortality from malaria by about 44% in children under 5. We could donate them to children under 5 in Sierra Leone where the under-5 mortality rate is 193.6 per 1000 and where about 33% is attributed to malaria. When we multiply that out we have 193.6/1000*.33*.44 = 0.028 people saved per net. So we have to donate 0.00049/0.028 = 0.0175 nets to cancel out the impact on cows. Since nets cost $10 we have to donate 18 cents.

That doesn't sound too bad.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Do critics or viewers better predict how good a movie is?

One of my friends said he likes to look up the Rotten Tomatoes rating for a movie to decide whether to see it. I suggested he look at the Flixster ratings instead because they'll tend to better predict whether he'll like the movie.

This is something we can test empirically, as long as there is a standard for what "like the movie" means. A sensible definition is that people like a movie in proportion of the average rating of the movie on Netflix.*

So I gathered data on the ten or eleven most popular movies over the past three years and regressed the Netflix ratings on both the Rottan Tomatoes ratings and the Flixster ratings. The results (in technical terms):

(1) Netflix = 0.006*RT + 3.47
R^2 = 0.3436

(2) Netflix = 0.0191*Flixster + 2.39
R^2 = 0.6893

Both predict the Netflix ratings decently, but the Flixster rating is easily the better predictor. It can explain about 69% of the spread (variance) in the Netflix scores compared with less than 35% for the RT ratings.

Here's a nice graph:

The conclusion is that you should never use RT when deciding whether to watch an old movie. You can just use Flixster or Netflix. On the other hand, when new movies are released the Flixster ratings are probably biased because only the bigger fans see movies on opening weekend. You'll have to wait a few weeks before you can get an accurate judgment from Flixster. So maybe Rotten Tomatoes has a use for very new releases.

* - Technical appendix: There are some biases to the Netflix ratings--Netflix customers aren't the "typical American" because they're more likely to be younger and more educated. But it's the only good available data, and with millions of ratings shouldn't be too biased. The other problem is that movies with a small number of ratings have a selection bias: only people who expect to like the movie will watch it so all the ratings are probably slightly inflated compared to what they would be if a random sample of people were forced to watch and rate the movies. But that isn't such a big problem since, if you're considering watching the movie, you're implicitly in the set (or close to being in the set) of people who would watch the given movie.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Affirmative Action at CUNY

Italians are making CUNY an offer they can't refuse.

They claim the university discriminates against them. The evidence: A judge ruled that there was discrimination in the past and the lack of progress has been "unconscionable." The university acknowledged a "need" to recruit more Italian-Americans. And the Equal Opportunity Employment Comission of New York ruled their case has merit and yet . . .

the New York Times thinks it's a farce because Italians are white.

My thoughts: I don't know what definition of white they are using but those wops and guineas are pretty much half-way to being "the blackest specimen of the wilds."

I'd know. I'm pretty much a full-blooded Italian.

And don't Italian's comprise more than 8% of the city population? So why are "Italian-Americans represented [by] about 7 percent of the full-time instructional staff[?]"

Probably the same reason white people make up about 65% of the U.S. population and no more than 50% of the MIT undergraduate study body.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Best Patriots Team

I don't know think I posted this picture. It's been on my desktop since 7/5.

You have to win the Super Bowl to be the best--except when you don't.

The 2007 Patriots were one of the best teams of all-time, no doubt about it, and easily the best of the Pats teams. I watched every game hoping they'd lose and they just kept winning, until it all paid off with 35 seconds left in the 4th.

One last thought: I think part of the reason the Pats decimated teams at the start of the season, but that they are mere mortals in the later part of the season (Expected Win-Loss in first 8 games: 6.97, Expected Win-Loss in last 8 games: 6.03) was that coaches caught on to their spread offense. So maybe they weren't that great, they just benefited from change in strategy that it took time to adjust to. When you regress the Pats points-scored on the number of the game, there is a significant downward trend of about 1 pt per game (t = -2.600.


Bill Easterly writes about trade. The story is one of my favorites in economics.

But it's incomplete. Some people think that if a country uses trade, e.g. grows food and ships it to Japan, then (some of) the people who make the goods that are now imported will be unemployed. In other words, the economy loses some of it's capacity because resources go unused. Most economists don't believe that story, or if they do think that it's just a temporary phenomenon and doesn't affect that many people (see Paul Krugman's old Slate columns).

Still, people have used this argument about idle resources to berate those who donate goods in-kind. I made a comment on Bill's blog saying this (in a snarky way with fewer words), wondering if he buys it since in the past he seemed to accept it.


Abstract: Inception is not a smart movie because as far as I can tell the director intended it to "blow people's minds" with a focus on the metaphysical themes. But that debate is old hat. Fortunately, with art you get out what you put in--in garbled form. For me, it is a movie about ideas and purpose. It's a morality play about not living in the past and about choosing what to make of your future.

Inception ends on an intentionally puzzling note. Is Cobb in the real world or not? If it's a dream (almost) anything can happen, so the hypothesis (effectively) can't be falsified. The one piece of evidence that could possibly lead us to reject the theory is the top falling down, but we don't know if it does. If he's not dreaming it is strange that the kids are close to the same age and wearing very similar clothes, that he wakes up without cords attached, that he somehow woke up at all, and that everyone nods at him but no one talks to him, etc. All of this seems left intentionally to draw into question the reality of what we see.

Nolan is drawing our attention to the reality, but he should be hoping that we're mindful enough to draw our attention away, to acknowledge we'll never know if it was real of not--we can't--and that we shouldn't care. We shouldn't care because we don't want to live a life that's "real," we want to experience a certain kind of life: one filled with love, compassion, family, sacrifice, and pleasure. That is the life Cobb finds (we believe) at the end of the movie and the life we should leave the theater intent on creating (not having).

The reality, no pun intended, is that the entire movie is an inception on us. It's a "dream" that helps us to discover the importance of living as opposed to obsessing over trivialities. Much of the movie doesn't make sense (why is Cobb being chased by corporations? where did it start? why do the rules change all the time? and why is the ending ambiguous aside from one hard-to-spot clue?) and we're meant to learn that doesn't matter. We learn movies don't have to be realistic to be thrilling. (They just need copious amounts of violence and explosives. Inception would be a bad movie without them.) We learn that your life might be a computer simulation or a dream, but that doesn't imply it can't be meaningful.

Things matter because we make them matter. The movie is a movie--it isn't real. But we argue about how it "really" ended because we choose to make that important, to make it "real." Inception isn't about metaphysics, it's about ethics. It should be about seeing the world is new ways. It's should be about the power of ideas (our mind) to shape our reality, about how our choices determine what is important and what feels real. We understand on a visceral level that the ending is a happy ending whether it's "real" or not.

Despite the comparisons to The Matrix, Inception is really a counterpoint. The Matrix, like Nozick's experience machine, is about how we live for more than just pleasure (or happiness), and about making the right choices to become the kind of person you want (are meant?) to be. In contrast, Inception shows how what is "real" isn't important. We don't want to be in the "real" world so we can see our "real" kids and have "real" accomplishments. We want to live in the "real" world because the people we care about are there. The real Mal is dead because her projection lacks her vitality, Cobb learns. Limbo (like the experience machine) becomes hell for Mal and Cobb because we need social connections--friends and family--to be happy. We don't need them because they are "real" but because that is how we want to experience life. That's why Cobb needs to be with his kids and why, though the camera draws us to the totem and our frontal lobe draws us to hackneyed metaphysics, we are really being guided toward the inception of a novel idea of why and how to live.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Paths to Development

I'll write more about this in the future. Below is my taxonomy for approaches to development. Each includes an example of an effective practitioner who takes (primarily) that approach. There are plenty of hybrids, so I'll list some of my favorite examples of those.

All the names are a little mocking and irreverent because I think setting a tone of being both unserious and critical is important. Too many people are critical (which is important), but dead serious and rigidly ideological, when talking about different approaches to doing a project.

1. The Beggar (Lobbyist)

The beggar lobbies governments for money and legislation. For example, the Live8 concerts, organized by Bob Geldof, lobbied the G8 countries to commit to doubling funding for foreign aid. The NGO ONE in the United States, and its celebrity spokesman Bono, lobby for legislation on debt relief (Jubilee Act), cutting farm subsidies (FRESH amendment), trade reform (GROWTH Act), and providing funding for the treatment of AIDS (PEPFAR).

Examples: Bono and Bob Geldof, ONE Campaign

The appeal of the beggar is plain enough: governments have a lot of money and can use it to solve social problems. We spend a lot of time campaigning for our political parties in the US because we believe their approach to health care or education will improve our systems here. Since many problems in the developing world are likewise problems of education and health care, doesn't the same approach makes sense?

The main criticism of the beggar is that he or she usually doesn't understand the complexity of the issues. Lobbying for bad policy can hurt on a massive scale the same way lobbying for good policy can help on on a huge scale. Also, many intellectuals in the countries receiving the aid the beggar lobbies for think that the aid is paternalistic and encouraging laziness and outright corruption in the receiving country.

2. The Policy Entrepreneur (Academic)

The policy entrepreneur is usually a professor or other academic working for a think tank. They argue for policy reforms based on their research. Esther Duflo, co-founder of the Poverty Action Lab at MIT, is a prime example of an effective policy entrepreneur. Her and her colleague's research has shown which interventions in education, water infrastructure, health and microfinance have the biggest impact. Based on that evidence they have worked to reform policy in both the developed world (foreign aid policy) and the developing world (domestic policy).

Examples: Esther Duflo and co., Santiago Levy and Jose Gomez de Leon, Michael Clemens

The appeal of the policy entrepreneur is straight forward: policy decisions have a much bigger impact than small projects, so making good policy decisions should do more good than doing good small projects. The problem is this can work in reverse. Some policy entrepreneurs turn out to be wrong about issues in the long run and thus each runs the risk of making policy worse, not better. Also, many policy entrepreneurs never have much impact on policy.

Hybrid: Jeff Sachs is both a grade A beggar and policy entrepeneur

3. The Mad Scientist (Inventor)

The mad scientist is focused on technology. There are a lot of mad scientists at engineering colleges such as MIT and in universities with Engineers without Borders chapters. The mad scientist thinks primarily on a small scale, hoping to invent neat new technologies that solve basic problems at low cost. Many of these technologies are directed at income generation, but some are also useful for improving health (e.g. delivering vaccines more effectively).

Examples: Amy Smith

The biggest problem for the mad scientist is that their technologies rarely reach the field after endless prototyping. Economists also often question the utility of this approach by noting that all the technology needed for development already exists and arguing that the problem is how the resources are utilized and distributed.

4. The Dentist (Behavior Change)

The dentist focuses on behavior change. In many cases people in the developing world have poor health or education outcomes because they don't make much effort in school or practice basic sanitation practices. The work of the dentist is difficult--like pulling teeth--hence the name. Particular examples of dentistry are total community-led sanitation, which encourages villagers in rural Asia, to take responsibility for their community's sanitation; hand-washing programs world-wide which encourage people to wash their hands; similar problems encourage the use of condoms and boiling water before drinking it.

Examples: TCLS, Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap

The main complaints about dentistry are that the dentists are trying to tell people what to do with their lives and that their projects tend to be very slow moving, with only incremental successes. The later tends to be valid while the former is not necessarily a fair representation of dentistry, see TCLS.

Hybrid: Paul Polack of IDE is a Dentist mixed with a Mad Scientist. His organization develops technologies for use by rural farmers, but spends at least as much time convincing farmers to take a risk and buy them.

5. The Santa Claus (Charity)

The Santa Claus has the most basic approach: hand out gifts. This approach is almost too simple to comment on, so I'll just throw in that it's my favorite. The Measles Initiative, which vaccinated millions of kids against measles (and other diseases); Partners in Health, which provides free medical care; and Nothing But Nets, which hands out bed-nets, are three of my favorite development projects.

Examples: Paul Farmer

The Santa Claus, while often the most effective development practitioner, and in rare cases the most celebrated (Paul Farmer), is far and away the most criticized. The Santa Claus is accused to eliminating intrinsic motivation, creating learned helplessness and a culture of dependency, and in general being ineffective as resources are (according to one theory) better allocated using the price system. For people who see development as capacity-building the Santa Claus is repulsive for ideological reasons, whereas pragmatists focused on improving health and quality of life, tend to appreciate some aspects of the Santa Claus approach.

Hybrid: Nearly every development practitioner plays the Santa Claus from time to time, often without noticing it.

6. The Petty Bourgeois (Small Business)

The petty bourgeois are businesspeople who espouse the virtues of microfinance and other private sector (but small scale) interventions. They tend to like projects that start restaurants, small service businesses or cottage industry manufacturing.

Examples: Jacqueline Novogratz, Iqbal Quadir

The main criticisms leveled at the petty bourgeois is that they aim too low. If you help someone making $500 a year to make $550 how much good does that do? What does that person spend the money on? Booze, parties or education? Economists have pointed out that because the poor tend to have little human capital and can only acquire small amounts of physical capital with small loans, they will never be able to earn large profits. Economists have also noted that many people who extend microcredit to the poor have enabled the poor to get deep into debt without necessarily raising their income, which might be a bad thing.

Opportunity Costs

I've reluctant to write this because I think the way of thinking I'm going to argue for here is depressing. It will make you think that you're having less impact on people's lives--which gets distorted into feeling that you are less important. That is most people's visceral reaction. But the upside is that when you use this method to count costs and benefits you (should) be able to better limit costs and create benefits.

Let me start with a story. Angela held a fundraiser at her high school. She and her friends sold 500 cookies for $1 each after school and then sent the money to an NGO that used it to buy 50 children anti-malaria bed nets. Bill wanted to do more. Fundraisers at his school were never going to generate more than a few hundred dollars. But he noticed that there was a competition for high school students to propose a way to "Do Good" and the winner would get $5,000. Bill wrote a proposal to use the $5,000 to buy 300 nets and use the rest to pay to fly to Ghana and distribute them. He won the grant in a close vote over a proposal to spend the money deworming children in Ghana.

Who did more good?

Bill got 300 people nets. Angela only got 50 people nets. Isn't it obvious? No.

If it seems like the statement about the number of nets is the end of the story then you've fallen for one of the most pervasive problems in debate. That statement just listed the benefits--and completely ignored the costs.

And in this case that makes all the difference. The real cost of something is the value of what would have happened otherwise. If Angela didn't organize the bake sale she might have spent the extra time playing volleyball. She also might have prevented the Girl Scouts from selling cookies that today. Compared with the value of saving a (many?) lives, those costs are negligible so maybe it's safe to ignore them.

Bill, though, caused the proposal for deworming not to get funded. The deworming plan was probably of comparable value (perhaps more, perhaps less) meaning that while Bill "saved" perhaps 2 lives he also caused 2 lives not to be saved. The benefit was 2 lives, the cost was 2 lives, and the net benefit (benefit - cost) was nothing. Bill's plan may have done nothing make the world a better place, while Angela's almost certainly did.

Angela, by construction, did more good.

That story is just meant to be an example. Of course it's fictional. And of course the assumptions matter. But it's illustrative. Whenever you apply for a grant you're causing someone else not to get it. The net benefit is only the good from your proposal minus the good of the one that would have been funded. If you open a Fair Trade store right next to another store, and you decrease the business of your neighbor by $5,000 a month while only doing $7,000 yourself, then you've only netted $2,000 in Fair Trade sales for the world. (Of course the distribution of the money could be important too--maybe your suppliers are more desperate and benefit more.)

Too much of the time we don't think at the margin.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Do we really believe all people have the same rights?

Jay Mathews posted two good essays from teenage illegal immigrants on why they have a right to federal financial aid money for college.

The first thing that jumps out at me is that the first essay uses "undocumented people" and "Latinos" interchangeably. I'm glad she is Latino or that would be racist. (I also wonder if she thinks illegal immigrants from Haiti deserve the same rights.)

My intuition is that I'd vote to give these kids financial aid. I have serious reservations endorsing financial aid in general and I think there is a small risk Latino students may well be crowding out other students (either for spots in college or for aid money). But on the whole that is probably tax money better spent than the marginal dollar would be, esp. because there might be positive externalities to education.

But what I think is more interesting here is how Patricia structures her argument. The basic idea is that education is a right that Americans have--Americans have a right to a Pell grant if they qualify and to enroll in community college, etc. And since Patricia lives in the United States she deserves a Pell grant and a chance to enroll too. But, interestingly, if Patricia grew up in Mexico, we wouldn't have a problem with the fact that she might not have money to go to high school, much less college. We might not even have a problem if she were malnourished as a kid. Or maybe we'd have a problem, but we wouldn't think it's the U.S. governments' responsibility to pay for it.

Why is that? Why do we implicitly allow where people are born determine what we think they have a right to?

Local Eating

I liked this op-ed in the New York Times on "locovores."

Stephen Landsburg comments on his blog. (I highly recommend both the blog as two of his books: The Big Questions and The Armchair Economist.)

Landsburg's point is very valid and to often ignored. The Soivet Union collapsed because planners can't get enough information to decide who should get what, where and when. Prices, miraculously, do the work of the planner fantastically. They are signals that tell let everyone make individuals choices and when those choices get added up in the market, everyone gets what they want--with a few exceptions.

Exception one is that if people don't make smart choices then they aren't going to get what they want. That sounds stupid to say but its the basis for a ton of experiments in behavioral economics exploring why and when people make bad choices.

Exception two is when the prices don't reflect the real cost of something. For example, the price of gasoline doesn't reflect the cost (externality) of pollution to everyone who likes clean air.

So I disagree with Landsburg that prices are good signals in this case. The price of food doesn't capture the externalities from energy use because there is no carbon tax, so in a way it makes sense to try to "correct" the prices for energy use. That said, my guess is that Landsburg and I would agree locovores (and the op-ed author) don't approach that calculation properly because they don't even attempt to weight the costs of global warming against the happiness from consumption.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dangers of Obscuring the Point

Sometimes people make arguments in what I call "shotgun" fashion. Instead of listing the key benefits of some policy or project they list all possible benefits in the hope that they'll appeal to a host of different interest and make the project sound like it makes a big difference--by killing two--or five--birds with one stone. I did this when I had to make a presentation about a project I did teaching West Africans to build cheap peanut shellers and I regret it.

I'll use a different example though because it's more illustrative. Take this pitch: "this new energy project lowers costs for individuals, creates jobs, and cuts down on deforestation. Oh, and kids benefit from the fact that the fuel is cleaning burning too!"

When I hear presentations like that is that it makes me wonder if any of those benefits are large. Are they listing many benefits because none of them alone is impressive? And doesn't having a long list obscure the original point of the project?

In the case of the energy project, limiting deforestation probably isn't important in the long run. The impact will be minimal and the environmental consequences are (to my knowledge) paltry compared to the consequences of poverty. The "lower cost" could be (probably is) as little as $10 a year for people, not exactly a kick out of poverty. And it might "create" jobs, but how many? And how many people are displaced in the competing industry? In some ways this is just another argument for trying to be quantitative when talking about benefits and for remembering to be honest about costs.

What I think is particularly interesting in this case is, though, that the added side-benefit, the one that was thrown in at the end, may well be the most important. Indoor air pollution kills millions of kids each year. If they don't die from air pollution they might live to be, say, 50. That's 45 years-of-life added, which we value at $25,000 a piece in the U.S. (roughly). So saving one kid from reducing air pollution is worth (something like) the savings from lowering costs for 11,250 people.

The example that motivated this post was Cash for Clunkers. The program was a total disaster, but many people liked it because of it's laundry list of beneficiaries. It would be progressive (help people driving older cars), environmentally friendly (get dirty cars off the roads), provide a needed stimulus and help the ail car industry. But in reality none of those objectives were achieved efficiently. If we were honest about which were important from the start we could have just designed specific policies for each--at less cost.

Post-code lotteries: should you play?

Tim Harford writes two great columns and I can't recommend them enough. I also recommend his book, The Undercover Economist, because (I think) it's one of the best introductions to be big ideas in neoclassical economics.

But in this advice column I think he skips over an important point. Normal lottery tickets are a waste of money because (1) they tend not to make winners happy and (2) you expect to lose money on them. Post-code lotteries are different, though. They work by giving everyone in a given ZIP code a prize (tens of thousands of dollars). This point is important because research suggests not buying a lottery ticket could make you sad becuase you'll feel poor compared to your neighbors if you don't win. Ben Bernanke summarized the research:
If I live in a country in which most people have only one cow, and I have three cows, then I will have lots of social status and self-esteem and will thus feel happy. But if everyone around me has a luxury car, and I am hung up on status, I won't feel very special unless I have both a luxury car and an SUV. This relative-wealth hypothesis can explain why rich people are happier than poor people in the same country, but also why people in richer countries are not on average much happier than people in poorer countries. It's the big fish in a little pond phenomenon.
So you can think of the ticket as insurance again feeling worse if your ZIP code wins. I still don't know if it's worth it, but postal-code lotteries might be a worthwhile form of insurance.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Does money suck the fun out of life?

Maybe. The research is discussed on Jonah Leher's highly recommended blog.

Related musing: I suggested to friend that likes to penny pinch that it makes her unhappy. By spending cognitive resources and time trying to spend more effectively she has money on the brain more--which just means more worry and less time for fun things. This research also suggests that it makes it harder for her to savor things because of the priming effects. And what for gain? Having a little extra money to spend on . . .  I think living simply can help people enjoy the pleasure of life more, but being thrifty (ironically) makes it more difficult.