Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"That is a lot of milk"

Mr. Romney delved deeply into the topic, with real curiosity and a barrage of questions, after Ms. Hebert, who has shown dairy cows, explained that a prize animal produced about 100 pounds of milk a day. He began a series of rapid-fire calculations to determine how many gallons are in a pound [sic]: “Eight-point-three pounds per gallon. So 8 into 100 is going to be about 13, 14, gallons. Oh, 12 — there you go.”
He beamed with satisfaction at solving the puzzle — and Ms. Hebert said she liked what she had heard.
“That is a lot of milk,” Mr. Romney said.
More here.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Opinion Applets

From time to time a news story in the NYTimes or another paper of record comes with a nice applet that illustrates some point the story is making with fancy graphs that you can interact with.

I think opinion pieces should come with applets the editors designs to help people understand the points the opinion writers are making. Or to understand why they are wrong.

There's a saying that statistics are the worst kind of lies but the truth is the statistics are usually right, it's just that people cite them hoping people will jump to conclusions that aren't warranted. Take this claim from Robert Samuelson for example:
Liberals imply (wrongly) that taxing the rich will solve the long-term budget problem. It won't. For example, the Forbes 400 richest Americans have a collective wealth of $1.5 trillion. If the government simply confiscated everything they own, and turned them into paupers, it would barely cover the one-time 2011 deficit of $1.3 trillion. 
The catch is that it's pretty arbitrary to draw the line between rich and everyone else at something like $1 billion in wealth. So why not include an applet with the column where you can use a menu to select your cutoff point for who would count as rich and maybe what average tax rate you would apply and decide for yourself whether it's even a theoretical possibility that taxing the rich could solve our problems.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Is Ron Paul "Someone Else?"

Ron Paul supporters are up in arms today because CBS displayed this graph to illustrate the results of a recent poll:

Now as we all know, Ron Paul is leading in most polls and has a 3 point edge in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. So surely he's in the top three and yet.... they wrote "someone else" instead of Ron Paul.

I'd be outraged too if that were my candidate except, it's not. Ron Paul only got 10% in that CBS poll for some reason, making it natural to leave him out of the "top tier." Someone else literally means "someone else" as 19% of those polls were not for any candidate or undecided, they wanted someone else. Here is the CBS story titled "Poll shows GOP voters still looking for answers."

I should make a note that I think the mainstream media does suck and is and has been ignoring Paul but this time they weren't.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why I Can't Work at Home

I saw this picture on Reddit called "Why I can't work at home"

Probably one of the best pictures of all time, of all time.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The right kind of work

I'm a bit late with this recommendation but here is a good blog from Megan McArdle. The best observation:
You can argue about why this is--are the upper middle class transmitting real skills, or pull?  But does it matter? . . . [I]t's actually rather more worrying if what they're giving their children is a strong education and an absolutely ferocious work ethic.
The best teacher I ever had used to talk about "working smarter, not working harder."

I've worked with poor kids tutoring them and I've interacted with what I consider dumbasses who never deserved to get into MIT (or Harvard) but somehow did and my conclusion is that poor people don't move up because they don't work hard AND the upper middle class is transmitting pull in it's direction.

The best example of "pull" is the SAT. I hate the old example they drag out about how the test is biased toward the rich because it asked some analogy question about crew. That's not what makes the test biased. What makes the test biased in that in some schools they teach you how to solve logic problems, do combinatorics and compute probabilities and in some schools they don't. And guess what? They ask questions about that on the math section. When I taught the SAT I always started by covering the material I knew they didn't teach me in high school and probably didn't teach at a lot of high schools.

But poor people are lazy. It's just a fact. When charter schools pull teeth forcing kids to work long hours, do their homework, and focus during class with strict discipline, they learn. The results are miraculous. Most poor kids who aren't learning anything aren't for the obvious reason, they aren't trying.

That said, I think these two points are really flip sides of the same coin. The rich don't exert pull by rigging the system in any classical sense. They play by the rules and the rules seem fair a priori--everyone knows what is on the SAT, it's public information and good prep books cost $10. And poor people don't not work, they just don't work in the right ways to succeed in academics (or to get into that top income quintile). When the steps are obvious they do work hard--the poor are probably over, not under-represented in the upper quintile of athletes.

The issue, in other words, isn't about pull or hard work, it's about working smarter. The rich work smarter. They read the rules of the game and tell their kids what they need to do to win within the rules. The poor don't read the rules and don't know how to achieve the objectives. When researchers paid students to read they did and their test scores improved. When they told them they would pay them for higher scores the scores didn't budge. The kids didn't know how to work smarter.

We've known this in relation to finance for some time. Most people know nothing about compound interest so of course they do stupid things with their credit cards and under-save. (That is just one part of it but it's important.) The rich play smarter in the finance game and the poor don't.

I think a fruitful approach to dealing with poverty would be to focus more on information. If communities knew the rules of the game and got help institutionalizing the way to win it, they'd probably succeed. (Institutions here are important as its not like the rich figure out how to succeed on their own, they studying for the SAT or taking this class and go to these good public schools, etc. because everyone else they know is doing it.)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pizza with a ton of sauce is a vegetable

Is it just me or is this discussion of pizza with "just" two tablespoons of tomato paste being a vegetable a little bizarre? That is a lot of tomato paste for one slice of pizza for an elementary school kid. Does Pizza Hut even use that much sauce?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


More good stuff from Jonah Lehrer.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

David Stern sucks

I try not to write about who sucks and why on this blog because I think it's usually better to write about who is doing great things and who really knows their stuff.

But today I'm going to make an exception for David Stern.

He really sucks.

He's canceled a full season and part of another in order to placate the owner's greed. If that wasn't enough he has to go on TV and lie through his teeth about how he tried to give the players a great deal, better than what they had before the talks.

He's turned a sport where you won by chasing down loose balls, contesting shots and having the skill of shooting until a sport where you win by running into other players and praying the refs give you free throws. The "epidemic of shitty officiating" is so bad that many people question whether the games are rigged and I have to admit, Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals was probably rigged.

He turned a competitive league where teams rarely repeated as champions into a league where only a few teams can compete and franchises that win tend to win back to back championships, sucking the drama out of the playoffs to the point where March Madness is far more exciting.

David Stern is far and away the worst commissioner in any major sports league.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy Harvard

I think Harvard sucks in a lot of ways but I'm not occupying Harvard and I'm not in favor in general of what the occupiers want. But I do agree with some of their positions. Here they are according to a press release:

  • A university for the 99% would offer academic opportunities to assess responses to socioeconomic inequality outside the scope of mainstream economics.
  • A university for the 99% would implement debt relief for students who suffer from excessive loan burdens.
  • A university for the 99% would commit to increasing the diversity of Harvard’s graduate school faculty and students.
  • A university for the 99% would end the privilege enjoyed by legacies in the Harvard admissions process.
  • A university for the 99% would implement a policy requiring faculty to declare conflicts of interest.

In addition they want a living wage for all Harvard employees and divestment from certain companies.

I'm in favor of the living wage although I've heard everyone is making in excess of a fair wage ($20+  per hour for janitors). and kind of indifferent on divestment. I'd have to see the evidence against the company.

I'm in favor of eliminating preference for Harvard legacies in admissions. I'm against "increasing the diversity of Harvard's graduate school faculty and students" because, first, the subtext is that this will be done by favoring people solely on the basis of gender and skin color and second, the graduate school is not supposed to be a mechanism of social advancement like the college is.

I'm against debt relief for Harvard students because they have degrees worth millions and loans of, at most, tens of thousands. In other words the idea is to hand out free money to rich people.

I'm in favor of making faculty, esp. in the medical school, declare conflicts of interest.

I'm not in favor of "academic opportunities to assess responses to socioeconomic inequality outside the scope of mainstream economics" because, first, they already exist, and second, they suck. Wasting your time pretending to understand poverty is not going to help people in poverty, esp. when you consider research in development economics that does help understand poverty rarely helps.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Conservative foreign aid?

Sometimes I can't tell whether something is a "conservative" idea or a "liberal" one.

Last night Rick Perry proposed that all countries requesting foreign aid from the United States should have to make plans and explain how they are going to use the money. Others on stage agreed with this "new idea."

But liberal technocrats like Jeff Sachs have been advocating that countries develop poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs) for years and, of course, that donor countries read and fund them (if good). That sounds a whole hell of a lot like Rick Perry's idea.

I think the best way to look at it that both sides agree with the concept of cost-benefit analysis and analyzing trade-offs which is what analyzing the requests or PRSPs would amount too. The preference for making good choices and analyzing them scientifically isn't what makes someone liberal or conservative. Differences in values make you liberal or conservative.

The difference between the two sides is that after reading the requests many conservatives would only agree to give a pittance (or nothing) to Africa and billions for Israel's military. Liberals would give billions to Africa treat AIDS and a pittance (or nothing) to Israel.

There's another theory that says liberals and conservatives don't disagree about values but rather that they will disagree about what is likely to happen. Liberals might believe that if the PRSP is funded poverty will  decline while conservatives might believe it empower dictators and post-pone political reform (increase poverty). I think most of the time those difference in opinion about how the world works are driven by differences in values so it basically amounts to talking about different sides of the same coin.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

WSJ on Engineering

 This article is a lot like the one in the NYTimes a little while ago.

It's about why students choose and don't choose (mostly don't) to major in engineering.

I should mention that I started in engineering (computer science) and quit because it was too hard*, so I sympathize with the people interviewed in this article. Feel from to belittle my intelligence.

* - well, kind of.

Friday, November 11, 2011

MIT observation

I don't know if this is an MIT thing or an academia thing, but MIT students are very defensive.

I think it comes from low self-esteem. You have to defend yourself to prove that you're smart and you fit in and other people shouldn't criticize your idea or project or whatever it is.

Most people are probably familiar with the Lake Wobegone effect in surveys of people's aptitude. The vast majority of people claim to be better than average drivers and 87% of Stanford MBAs claimed to be above the median. So you might think the median MIT student would have a pretty good opinion of their academic ability, right?


And that's about all the work I'm willing to put into trying to falsify this hypothesis. Instead I'll speculate that the high rate of depression (this needs no evidence) contributes to weakened self-confidence (depressive realism). The link from earlier has a section on it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

OWS: Harassment Edition

 From Occupy Wall Street:
Harassing comments, groping, flashing and assault are a daily, global reality for women and LGBTQ individuals. Too often, these injustices are met with little or no response, regarded simply as “the price you pay” for being female, trans, or gay in public.
I like how all of these crimes are just lumped together. I believe women get groped but gay man? Oh they get harassed. Surely no one gropes trans people besides Eddie Murphy.

But the real story is that OWS is building or designating safe areas for women and, I guess, harassment free areas for gays. In other words they have designated "no free speech" zones. That's a joke.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Cute Story

I bombarded my mother with questions. “No husband? How could that be? She’s a grown-up! Grown-ups have husbands!” My mother explained that not all grown-ups get married. “Then who opens the pickle jar?” (I was 5.)
The rest of the article, about being single and demographic shifts but mostly just a lot of good musings, is here.

Conservatives Don't Know More Economics

The man who claimed conservatives know more about economics because he asked people if they agreed with economic research that confirmed conservative beliefs has now retracted his original conclusion.

It turns out that as many people, including myself, pointed out, the results were driven by confirmation bias.

I'm impressed that the authors published the follow-up. What most people do when they make make a mistake is they dig in their heels, and as the evidence mounts against them they dig in even more. These authors didn't and that takes guts.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Is Greg Mankiw jealous?

He writes
I am comfortably in the top 1 percent.  I believe that Paul [Krugman], with his Princeton professorship, regular Times column, speaking fees, and moderately successful textbook, is there as well.
Note the description "moderately successful" but no mention of the $1,000,000 that Paul got with his Nobel prize. Did the Nobel just slip his mind momentarily?

I'm just poking fun here. Greg is a great economist and I like his blog.

Selection Bias Alert

The New York Times reports on the issue of why we do not have more STEM graduates despite so much effort to increase in science. The article includes this paragraph:
“You’d like to think that since these institutions are getting the best students, the students who go there would have the best chances to succeed,” he says. “But if you take two students who have the same high school grade-point average and SAT scores, and you put one in a highly selective school like Berkeley and the other in a school with lower average scores like Cal State, that Berkeley student is at least 13 percent less likely than the one at Cal State to finish a STEM degree.”
My guess is that this conclusion comes from a regression where they controlled for SAT and GPA, but there are a lot of unobserved variables that could drive this correlation. I'm not a "selection bias hawk" who thinks that any non-experimental evidence is worthless, but in some cases there is good reason to think that a regression coefficient is biased in a direction that would invalidate the conclusion and I think this is one of those cases.

Quote of the Day: Harvard Bipolar Edition

This is from the comments of a Crimson story about the small number of people taking six classes at Harvard:
Frankly, I am concerned that many of these students--especially the one who only had five hours of sleep in  a 120-hour period--may be experiencing a manic episode. What appears to a Harvard undergraduate as boundless enthusiasm for academia looks to those of us in the mental health profession as a signal that someone *might* need a consult.
The commenter's "name" is StatingTheObvious. I think the commenter is being modest. This is one of the "only obvious once someone points it out" things that takes a sharp cookie to first notice. Thank you "StatingTheObvious" for stating the obvious.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Moral issues

I hate when people try to divide issues into moral issues and non-moral issues and somehow the moral issues are the issues that really... don't have much impact on anyone so how could they be important moral issues.

Here is my bleg: I wish liberals would try to seize back the language of morality so that whether people have enough food to eat became as much of a moral issue as gay marriage.

When did life and death have less moral relevance than who you have consensual sex with?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Alert: Peyton Manning does play defense

A lot of people are saying Peyton Manning doesn't play defense and the Colts defense is to blame for the decline in their performance (0-8 after going 10-6).

But at least someone at ESPN understands why the QB does influence the defensive statistics:
Brady managed only 198 yards passing, and Roethlisberger deserved some credit in containing the two-time NFL Most Valuable Player. Roethlisberger wasn't just the best offensive player at Heinz Field. He might have been the best defense. 

Roethlisberger's efficient effort allowed the Steelers to convert eight of their first 10 third downs. That kept Brady on the sideline as Pittsburgh dominated time of possession (39:22 to 20:38). In fact, Roethlisberger threw as many passes (50) as the Patriots had plays. 
The Colts have always had a better offense and worse defense than people realize. The fact that the Colts have been able to drive the ball so well and Peyton has thrown so few interceptions has given the Colts defense time to breath and rest, good field position, and limited the number of possessions per game. That last effect is the easiest to quantify as we can compare how good the Colts defense has been since 2003 in scoring defense and scoring defense per possession.

Per Posession
Rank Gap

From the last column you can see that every single year during the Colt's run of success the defense had a higher scoring defense rank than it's per possession rank, thanks apparently to the Colts offense keeping them off the field. It's harder to quantify (or demonstrate) the benefits from fresh legs, "playing with a lead," and good field position. We can try to estimate these effects by doing some statistical estimates of how, on average, an offense not turning the ball over as much and having more success with drives (in yards) will influence a defense and then seeing how the Colts compare to other teams after these factors have been eliminated.

That would take a lot of work but I might come back and do that if I have time.

Update: Bill Barnwell notices that QBs have an impact on defense:

The only thing that's really kept them afloat in 2011 has been the long fields provided to them by the New England offense; even when Tom Brady turns the ball over, it's usually been deep inside opposition territory. The 73 possessions the Patriots have faced have started with an average of 76 yards to go for a touchdown, the deepest starting field position in football. 

Since he is a Patriots fan he seems unlikely to acknowledge that this observation applies to the Colts during their run of success. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Jeff Sachs jumps the shark

Jeff Sachs on TV. The metaphor in the title is clearly apt.

I love Jeff Sachs, he is probably the most influential academic of our time. His writing isn't bad either and he gives a great speech. You can donate to his anti-malaria NGO here.

Better late than never

I meant to blog this link a year ago. It got lost in the bookmarks toolbar and was discovered, barely breathing earlier today.

The best line is in the comments, by the original author:
What is striking is how much emphasis we put on causal identification and other statistical issues, and then how imprecise and casual we are about the process, the reasons, or the mechanism. It’s a striking contrast.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Why I try not to read op-ed columnists

This column is a good example of the kind of writing that made me, for the most part, stop reading op-ed columnists (even Paul Krugman). I still read op-eds like the ones on Project Syndicate, though.

Let me quote some things:

"Half the country isn't speaking to the other half," . . . [L]iberals . . . know little of the South and who don't wish to know of it, who write it off as apart from them, maybe beneath them. [. . .] Occupy Wall Street makes an economic critique that echoes the president's, though more bluntly: the rich are bad, down with the elites. It's all ad hoc, more poetry slam than platform.
Peggy Noonan thinks we have a problem in that some people aren't listening. But she obviously didn't listen to many people at OWS if she thinks you can talk about "the" argument OWS makes.

There is also this "zinger."
Where is the president in all this? He doesn't seem to be as worried about his country's continuance as his own.
I mean I don't know what to make of this column. It doesn't have a point beyond "Obama bad, Ryan good." It's not funny. It's a waste of my time. And that's why I stopped reading op-eds.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The 53%

Some people who think "the 99%" Occupy Wall Street protesters are spending too much time begging for government handouts and not enough time fixing their own problems are calling themselves "the 53%." CNN has the story.

The irony is that this is the example they use of someone not wanting government handouts:
A public school teacher in Vancouver, Wash., Decker and his wife lived below the poverty line until they decided to go back to school to become educators. 
I think there are plenty of people in America who are lazy, although when you're talking about policy the solutions are going to come from asking why so many people are lazy. For example, Asian kids spend a lot more time on homework than black kids do. Why? It's not because all black people just chose to be lazy. It probably has something to do with how their parents are raising them and how their teachers instruct them.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The 1%

Whenever I hear people say that they want the 1% (the richest 1% of people) to pay more and give their fair share I think wonder how many of them are .... well, in the top 1%.

I think you need an income of $40,000 per person in your household to be in the top 1% of people. Isn't that a pretty big minority of the people complaining?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

China and the Death Penalty

This is a sick world we live in. (HT: Marginal Revolution)

A few thoughts on this story. First, my girlfriend was talking to me about this yesterday and her comment is that it's appearently very common for people who try to help to get blamed. They mention some anecdotes in the piece but I think this explanation is undersold, esp. since diffusion of responsibility can't explain the Kitty Genovese episode much less what I will dub Chinese Kitty Genovese.

Second, I hate it when people comment on this story and say things like

A rational, forward-thinking individual trying to maximize his own utility…so mustn’t this be the efficient outcome that maximizes social welfare?

Extra points to those who can set up and solve this cost-minimization problem
Yes, it's true that some idiots don't believe in externalities, behavioral biases, or any kind of market failure. They are crazy. But they are few and far between. The externality from murder is so obvious you don't need to know the concept of externality to see it.

Third, I like extreme examples where price theory is the (apparent) explanation for some otherwise completely implausible behavior. This is the main reason I'm pro death penalty. The statistical evidence is, as far as I can tell, not going to answer the question, but the fact that 1 person is willing to murder someone to avoid paying a fine suggests to me that at least a couple people are willing to not murder to avoid getting executed. And I'd vote to kill at least 10 murderers and 1 innocent person to save 2 innocent person.

I hope the Chinese government executes the fucker that ran over that girl.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cain Pain or Cain Gain

The Tax Policy Center released this table with information on how much in federal taxes (implicit or explicit) people would pay under the current policy and under 9-9-9.

The vast majority of people, as you would expect, would pay more under the plan. I call the net increase in money you give to Uncle Sam your Cain Pain and, for the handful of people out there where its relevant, the amount you would save the Cain Gain.

My Cain Pain would be around $2500. What's yours?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Cassidy on 9-9-9

John Cassidy has a good explanation of why most people should see the Cain 9-9-9 plan as, basically, a 27% income tax. That's a bit of an exaggeration because not all of the corporate tax would be passed on to workers and the 9% sales tax is really an 8.2% tax. But even at 25%, that's a big tax hike for most people.

One thing he wrote, however, annoys me so I'm just going to point it out:
There’d be no way around [the sales tax] either, unless you choose to save some of your income, which many poor and middle-income families can’t afford to do.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Quote of the Day: Steve Jobs Edition

Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?
Thus spoke the late Steve Jobs to John Sculley, then CEO of Pepsi, in the 1980s.

Steve died at 56 but he lived had more than a few lifetimes worth of experiences in business. This isn't the most famous Jobs quote ("one more thing..." and "insanely great" come to mind) but I think it's the one that's most worth remembering.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Duncan Watts is a genius

This is one of the best things I've read on the Internet. The point is that things that seem obvious, like common sense, are usually a lot more complicated. I'll quote the crescendo:
Social problems, that is, must be viewed not as the subject of rhetorical debates, but as scientific problems, in the sense that some combination of theory, data, and experiment can provide useful insights beyond that which can be derived through intuition and experience alone.
That said, I think he left out one very, very important point. Thinking about problems using evidence and scientific methods will only get you so far. Sometimes people have differences in values. We could pinpoint (almost) exactly the impact expanding Medicare coverage will have but people will disagree whether the tradeoff between x amount of lives saved and y quality of life improvement for the poor is worth a z decrease in quality of life for whoever pays for the program.

Monday, September 26, 2011

US vs China: Internet Edition

This is the scariest statistic I've seen in the battle between the US and China. (Yes, it's a zero sum game.)

The United States musters a very pedestrian 4.93 Mbps — good for 26th in the world — while China, home to the world’s largest Internet population, manages a dismal 1.96 Mbps.

HT: Marginal Revolution

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Who is rich?

Previous studies have shown that when people are asked how much it takes to be rich, they always give a number that’s twice their current net worth or income. Those with $100,000 in incomes say $200,000, while those worth $5 million say $10 million.

From Robert Frank in the WSJ.

That helps explain why I always thought having an income of $100,000 made you rich.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Netflix is now Qwickster

Netflix is spinning off its DVD-by-mail business to make the service shittier than before. In the past, the Instant and DVD queues were separate but one tab away. Now they will be on completely separate and not-integrated-whatsoever websites. Netflix is hoping that by providing a weaker service and making it more difficult for it's DVD-by-mail business to subsidize it's streaming business, it will collapse under its own weight.

Seriously, I got the link to the story from The Onion and assumed that it was to an Onion sister-site with satirical news. But I clicked some of the links and when I read it on the official Netflix blog I realized it wasn't a joke.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The UK Sucks

Claim: The UK is like a crappy version of Canada, which is America Jr. So I guess that makes the UK kind of like a shitty, European America.

More evidence for the claim.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Harvard vs. MIT: Programming Edition

Harvard's introduction to CS class (CS50) has an enrollment of 651 students, while MIT's two introduction to CS classes (6.00 and 6.01) are taken by around 300 students each year.

It is possible that a larger share of Harvard students know how to program?

Probably not. A lot of MIT students learn to program in MATLAB, Stata or Java from programming classes in their engineering core (1.00, 10.10, etc.) Others come in knowing how to program and never take a basic programming class. The share of both of these groups at MIT is almost certainly larger than at Harvard. Also, Harvard is much larger than MIT, by about 60%, meaning 651/1600 students per years isn't much larger than 350/1000 taking introductory programming.

But it's still true that a surprisingly larger share of MIT freshmen can't program and a surprisingly large number of Harvard seniors will be able to by 2015.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bjorn Lomborg still hasn't endogenized the budget constrain

Bjorn Lomborg is at it again, asking how to best spend $1 billion in new funding to fight AIDS/HIV.

The answer, for the few first million at least, is almost certainly to lobby for more HIV/AIDS funding. The funding has gone from in the low tens of millions or so to around $5 billion in the U.S. alone thanks to lobbying efforts led by Bono, Jeff Sachs and ONE Campaign.

But the real point of that story isn't that Lomborg will answer his own question wrong,  it is that the government budget constraint on aid spending isn't fixed. We can spend more on aid if we want to.

If you've read Mountains Beyond Mountains this is the point that Paul Farmer makes (though he is opaque) at the end of the book, arguing that it is worth the cost to fly a dying child from Haiti to Boston if that is what it takes to keep her alive. I think Farmer is wrong about that but the key piece in his argument is that cost-benefit analysis is based on the premise of trade-offs with a static budget constraint. It's true that you "can't spend the same dollar" saving a child by flying to Boston and saving 10,000 children who have anthrax or measles. But you could spend different dollars on the two goals and a good cost-benefit analysis needs a theory of political economy to endogenize spending on aid. Don't hold your breath waiting for it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why fund basic research?

I agree with this editorial's point that the government should not, generally, have an active industrial policy. This is especially true in developed countries and when the government is "playing venture capitalist."

But I'm not sure what to make of this comment:
Government can fund basic research that is too expensive and too uncertain for struggling companies.
I thought basic research was important to fund because it has positive externalities. If it really were a good investment (I don't think it is) then wouldn't banks still make loans to fund it and big enough companies still invest? I can see how you can start to make the case but I think this article makes clear that there isn't exactly a consensus on what government should be involved in and why even on basic issues.

Memo to American Jews

You don't live in Israel.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fact of the Day: Manning Edition

The Colts mustered a meer 7 points without Peyton Manning on Sunday. The last time that happened? The last game of the 2009 season when Manning played one series of a meaningless game on a snowy day in Buffalo.

The last time the Colts scored 7 or less with Manning playing full-time?

The infamous 20-3 beating in the 2004 Divisional Playoff vs the Patriots.

The last time it happened in the regular season was in 2001, almost 10 years ago.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why should you work out?

So you can break car windows:
Defensive backs Jack Long and Shane Simpson were driving away from football practice on Aug. 23 when they saw a woman frantically beating on the window of a car. They decided to turn around and see if they could help. [...]
When they stopped, Teresa Gall told them she had accidentally locked her 17-month-old grandson, Liam, in the car -- with the keys.
Simpson broke the window with one swing and Liam was rescued from the car. He was dehydrated but otherwise fine.
I love stories like this. The whole thing is here at ESPN.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Things get old

In economic modeling, we typically assume that the first slice of pizza is the best, the next one a little less great, and by the third or forth slice we don't really want to eat any more. The concept is called diminishing marginal returns and it captures the fact that things get old.

But things don't just get old because we have too many of them now--we can't find a use for a second TV, or a use for an extra 10 GB on our iPod or don't enjoy a third piece of a cake--they get old because we get used to having them. The big screen that used to seem so great just doesn't get us excited. The iPod that plays video isn't good enough, we need the one with video capture. Boxed cake used be nice but now I crave Finale. The idea that we need more crap to stay happy isn't a standard assumption in economic modeling, where we tend to assume, rather, that I don't have much of a preference between the crap I have today and the same crap tomorrow (except that I'd rather have it now because I'm patient).

That strikes me as misguided. If you use a standard economic model to think about buying dinners for the week you get the good idea to diversity--pizza one day, hamburgers the next, maybe some chicken, and not Hamburger Helper every night (even if it is your favorite). But if you use a standard economic model to think about planning for retirement/consumption over your lifetime, you get the bad advice to smooth out consumption. Try to spend about the same amount every year so that you can maintain a set level of happiness. Except you won't. You'll need more and more every year to keep up.

Maybe we should plan to be poor while young and rich in our glory years. Maybe it makes the most sense to save a ton right now and just scrape by so I can live in the lap of luxury when I'm in my 80s. Maybe.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Diversity is for real?

The argument that colleges need diverse student bodies started out as political cover for programs that helped disadvantaged minorities. (I'm not saying the programs ever effectively targeted disadvantaged people, just that that was the goal.)

Now, it seems, people actually value diversity. A small private college in Illinois is asking students if they are gay so they can have a diverse student body.

Two thoughts:

1. The college says being gay "will have no impact on an applicants' chances of admission." Is that like how MIT has the dean of admissions personally get all legacy applications but that doesn't affect the admission rate?

2. Let's do the math. You set up a quota of say 3% for students who identify as gay. A large portion of the gays are still in the closet at 17 and don't identify as gay, say 50%, so .03*.5*.97 = 1.4% of the student body who didn't identify as gay is also gay. In other words, the policy is designed to over-represent gay people.

3. What I like about the policy is that students at the college will leave more exposed to "gay math," "gay biology" and "gay economics." If you didn't know, math, science and engineering (and everything practical) work differently for men who have sex with men. 2+2=5 for instance.

The upshot is that you should check the gay box when you're applying. How are they going to prove you lied?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Perry's Scientific Campaigns

I read something earlier about how politically savvy Rick Perry is. Maybe this helps explain it. It's a very good conversation about how Perry used experiments to fine tune his 2006 and 2010 campaigns.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Stages of knowledge

I noticed a pattern of "stages" people go through as they learn more about policy/economics.

People start out with ideology. They are for or against something because it pulls their heart strings the right way. I'll illustrate all the examples from foreign aid. For most people, the knee-jerk reaction to foreign aid is that it is obviously a good idea. Don't you feel bad for those starving Ethiopians?

Then people learn a talking point that supports their ideology. For foreign aid this might be an example of miracle growth following aid, like the Marshall Plan, or how a specific type of aid is effective. For instance, they might learn to explain how micro-finance is like teaching people how to fish and letting them pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

I think most people stop on most issues at this stage. If they go beyond it, they usually change their opinion. An aid supporter will come across arguments that aid doesn't work and jump on that bandwagon. They replace the positive talking point with a negative talking point: aid harms recipient countries because it removes the incentives for politicians to be accountable, or something like that or RCTs on microfinance don't show a mass exodus from poverty, or even big consumption gains.

Eventually people progress to the last stage. They synthesize the evidence on both sides and come to terms with a more moderate position--often one not far from their initial beliefs. They come full circle and internalize the evidence researchers have documented about the issues in full. Aid skeptics give way to tempered optimists: aid may or may not cause growth, it can have a negative impact on exports, it does save many lives when used on targeted public health interventions. Microfinance transitions from being about poverty to being about control of your finances and peace of mind.

The most common cycle I see on this front is the "economic issues" cycle where most young people start out idealistic and to the far left. They want a big welfare state, or communism, so that people don't have to live in poverty. Then they learn talking points about how perfect markets make everyone better off (not phrased like that of course) and then they come back to tempered belief in markets. They work sometimes, but asymmetric information, externalities, and culture/institutions complicate everything. Markets aren't always the answer.

What I'm describing sounds like a standard Hegelian dialectic, but what interests me is the psychology of  how and why people seek out the information they do. People start out only interested in backing up their ideology with talking points. Eventually they shift to wanting to be "knowledgable" about a subject.  Finally, they mostly are interested in the facts. A lot of people probably never get past stage two. It bothers me when people are stuck in stage three (libertarians). The best people to talk to are, needless to say, in the final stage.

I should probably add a stage zero: willful ignorance. Sometimes people don't care and don't see any reason to get informed. It sounds bad but that is most of us on most issues. I like it when people admit willful ignorance before stating their ideology.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

To each his own

A man washed his face and hands with urine on a daily basis and was surprised his boss didn't like that.

I would have said "only in Europe" a few months ago, but I just don't know anymore.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Daron Acemoglu: It's the growth, stupid

This is great commentary from Daron Acemoglu, an expert on growth, labor and political economy. While most of the debate is being focused on the business cycle and the confidence fairy, Acemoglu argues that it's better to focus on innovation.

Who would have thought innovation was key to an innovation economy?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I have no idea where this statistic comes from. I found it on Facebook posted by an incoming first-year law student:

On depression scales 17-40% of law students suffer from depression compared to 3-9 % of the general population

Now the question is how universal the high rates of depression are in demanding academic programs.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Success is relative

From's automatically generated comments on legislators:

Successful: Sen. Hatch [R-UT], 67 bills enacted since 1987
Absent: Rep. Giffords [D-AZ8], 18% votes missed since 2007
Unsuccessful: Sen. Schumer [D-NY], 89% of 748 bills died since 1987

The more interesting thing is that Sen. Schumer is unsuccessful for passing 11% of 748 bills, or in other words successfully passing about 82 bills. Sen. Hatch was successful for passing 67 bills. I guess success really is relative.

(Also note that Rep. Giffords leads the pack of absentee congresspeople, missing 18% of the votes. Of course, the fact that 89% of her missed votes occurred this year after she was shot point blank by a lunatic, might be a mitigating factor.)

Noam Chomsky is wrong about everything

I hate Noam Chomsky. People at MIT love him because he represents everything they want to be: an irritable, insufferable know-it-all.

The guy thinks he knows everything. He is a more radical Ralph Nader but without the countervailing virtues of courage and grit. Or maybe a more apt description is "left-wing Richard Posner?"

Today I've found the best evidence yet to support that position.

How the hell does Chomsky know any details of the Hauser case?

China is a dump: Patent edition

China produces about 1% of all real patents on new technology despite having 20% of the world's population.

More at Marginal Revolution.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Quote of the Week: Election Edition

The quote of the week for the 2012 election comes from day 1 of the '12 election day, the day after Obama was elected:

[With Obama elected] I won't have to worry about putting gas in my car. I won't have to worry about paying my mortgage. You know? If I help [Obama], he'll help me.
The whole statement is here.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

PwC estimates US will be more than twice as rich as China in 2050

That's the headline you should see. But this is what the Guardian reports:
GDP projections from consultancy PwC show how the US, UK and the west will fall far behind the new economic powers like China in GDP by 2050. See what the data says
It's true that China, because of its vastly larger population (more than 4x the size of the U.S. in 2011) will have a larger economy and military than the U.S. But if you ask people what they want in life they don't say ensuring that people with the same passport have lots of money and guns, they usually say happiness (and the assumption here is that money = happiness).

So the statistic everyone cares about is income per capita and PwC estimates the U.S. will have an income of about $85k per head while China will be poorer than the U.S. currently is with about $41k per person. (I'm taking their GDP estimates and dividing by population estimates.)

Gallup World Poll data also suggests that Chinese people will still be significantly less happy than the U.S. is today as Asian's tend to be far less happy than you would expect given their incomes. This may be due to weak religious institutions (religion and purpose lead to life satisfaction), long hours to acquire that income (people hate working), and in the future the negative impact of commuting (the worst part of people's days, and in crowded China commutes will be terrible).

Or was I wrong and most people care about having a big military and A-Rod's income?

Note: I'm not endorsing these estimates. I think they are an exercise in futility and my intuition strongly disagrees with the final numbers. India is projected to be vastly poorer than China, with about half the income per capita, implying China will grow just as fast as China over the next 50 years. I could see China continuing faster growth for a decade but eventually the transition to a modern economy will harmper China's growth while India's infrastructure (ports, roads, electrical grids) will enable it to increase its manufacturing sector. It's education and large English-speaking populace, along with its vastly superior political institutions, suggest it might be ahead of China by 2050. I'd bet on that.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Patent Wars

I didn't like NPR until today, when I read this story about patents.

That's great journalism. That's the best investigative journalism I can remember reading.

Subjective data and health

Freakonomics posts some great statistics from a high-quality study of the impact of Medicaid on people's health and finances.

I'm a big fan of using measure of happiness to evaluate programs. Freakonomics reports the data:

  • 10% increase in the probability of screening negative for depression.
  • 25% increase in the probability of reporting one’s health as good, very good, or excellent.
  • 32% increase in self-reported overall happiness.
I don't know who did the screening for depression, but I take that as solid evidence that Medicaid is doing something very, very valuable. (I don't know what the cost was so I won't weight on of if it was worth it.)

The health and happiness data, though, seem suspect. The study was blind and indeed, Freakonomics reports, most of the impact on health happened immediately after enrollment, before people get any care. It sounds like the effect might not be real. Alas, subjective data has its limits.

MIT invents glasses that read people's emotion

The glasses were commissioned by the MIT president to improve undergrad's woeful social lives.

I'm only half joking. I went to MIT for four years. A lot of people there do have low emotional intelligence and this is coming from the reference point of an autistic person.

Friday, July 22, 2011


The BBC with a list of "Americanisms" British people hate.

I think Brits are fags. "Fag" of course is my favorite Americanism.

(Note: some of those are British, some an American wouldn't even recognize, and some they have a point, namely "deplane." Every time I deplane I hurl.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Illegal to threaten and verbally abuse in LA

From the LA Times:

New law makes it a crime for drivers to threaten cyclists verbally or physically.

I guess it wasn't already a crime.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Michael Wilbon's latest terrible column

Wilbon is basically in favor of paying players their market value. That sounds fair. That's how it works in the rest of our economy. As he says, it's "capitalism" and "supply and demand."

He doesn't seem to care about the negative cultural or institutional impact the money will have. Professional sports have already, arguably, have an immense negative impact on black culture. Lots of people invest their time and energy in basketball and football and never development marketable skills. They end up without a job, without the prospect of one, and often illiterate. That doesn't sound so bad when you consider that if their dreams of playing pro ball had come true they'd be just as broke by 35 and be well on their way to dying at 50 (I'm exaggerating a bit here. But I think this is a fair picture.)

Paying college players only increases the incentive to work on playing hard and ignore developing real, marketable skills. The supply and demand lesson that kids need is that demand for football players is small and the supply is large while demand for programmers and nurses is high and supply is low.

Divorce Parties

I like the idea but I don't know if Japan is getting it quite right. Life is about enjoying yourself while people shit on you. Smashing rings and animosity over dinner sounds heavy on the shit and light on the enjoyment.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Harry Potter 7.2

It made $92 million on its first day. That sounds like a big jump from the previous record of $72 million for New Moon but here's a few reasons not to care:

1. Teenagers really have nothing better to do in the summer than see midnight and Friday showings. The trend toward increasing frontloading showed no signs of abatement coming into this year so its not shocking to see another new record.

2. This is the first teen movie available in 3D, giving about a 25% price premium to tickets. A lot of people realized 3D movies suck, but at least half the midnight audience and probably more bought 3D or IMAX tickets. Factoring that in and Deathly Hallows 2 might have sold fewer tickets than New Moon.

3. Harry Potter films always make about $300 million. It doesn't matter when they are released, how the economy is doing, whether the movie is any good--the same people go, plus or minus a small rounding error. This time the same people will show up and it will make < $400 mil (Update: I've changed my projection to over $400 million after a strong second weekend) but a lot more than $300 mil because of the expensive 3D tickets.

Look at this Box Office Mojo chart to see how no matter when the movies are release--Wednesday, Friday, summer, winter, booming economy, slugging, "recovering" all the differences in openings wash out by the 2nd week.

The overseas numbers, which aren't in yet, could be more interesting. People overseas love franchises and love 3D movies. Pirates 4 flopped in the U.S. but was the most popular one overseas, and there is an upward trend is in Potter ticket sales abroad--Deathly Hallows was the most popular one.


So many people claim to be staying home for Carmaggedon that I wonder if traffic will actually lighten up in Los Angeles.

Update: This report from CNN suggests that there is indeed less traffic during Carmaggedon.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Economists favor aid

Australian economists were polled on a variety of economic issues.

When asked if "Australia should reduce the proportion of its GDP spent on overseas aid," 65.1% disagreed or strongly disagreed.  15.7% agreed or strongly agreed. The rest were unsure.

In other words economists are four times as likely to favor aid as to disfavor it. That says something about the smartass view that long-run political economy effects make aid harm receipt countries. But that view was always clearly based on ideology, not evidence.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Should everyone learn Spanish?

Does learning Spanish really have negative externalities?
The Federal Court of Canada on Wednesday ordered Air Canada to pay $12,000 to Ottawa French-language rights crusader Michel Thibodeau in part because when he asked an English-speaking flight attendant for 7Up in May 12 of 2009, he got Sprite.
More here. HT: Marginal Revolution

The silver lining is that for a few years (maybe decades) legal requirements to have Spanish translators everywhere will generate demand for otherwise uneducated workers who would be unemployed. The drag it causes on the economy (acting like a tax on services) might cancel out that effect on the unemployment rate and eventually of course computers will do all the translation. But for a little while it could be good news for Hispanics and people who choose to become proficient in Spanish instead of getting some useful skills, like proficiently in engineering, programming, screen-writing or anything else that might benefit humanity instead of annoy the hell out of it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sick language in politics

I never understood what they mean, but these terms are standard in foreign policy discussions:
SPIEGEL: Is it a choice you chose because your foreign policy considerations trumped moral ones?
from this interview with Kissenger.

If a foreign policy consideration isn't about morality then what is it about? When we don't practice moral foreign policy isn't it immoral foreign policy? People talk about that like it's reasonable, normal and there's nothing wrong with it, yet by definition it's immoral.

I hope the confusion comes from the fact that most people think morally is about the short term--take a stand now--and not the long term--set a policy and stick to it, even if it harms in short run, to save more lives in the long run. In other words, the moral thing sometimes isn't referred to as moral for some reason.

But I think that's just the origin of how people started talking this way. Nowadays its perfectly fine to want to be a scumbag and draft foreign policy proposals that are abominable outright--in the long and short run.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

More on the psychology of libertarianism

Tyler Cown is "dissappointed" that the guys at EconLog aren't "engaging the academic literature" on yet another issue (consumer surplus from the Internet).

I think Tyler is coming to the realization that guys like Caplan, Kling and Henderson fit the classic libertarian archetype: smart guys who are smart enough to understand the arguments of Hayek, Nozick, Mises, etc. whose insights are more or less summed up by the perfect competition model, but not smart enough (or willing) to understand when perfect competition fails and why.

All the libertarians I've met in person fit roughly this story. The start out as teens interested in understanding politics. They often go through a radical leftist phase and then realize why communism failed. They understand the rudiments of market economics and then the story ends. They stop learning. They start and end every debate by shouting "MARKETS WORK!" echoing Walter Lewin, the famed MIT/OpenCourseWare Physics professor who used to to shout "Physics works!" after seemingly dangerous physical demonstrations.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

You've never been to...

I was reading on Reuters and stumbled on this comment:
Technically, the US population is illiterate compared to the Chinese. Americans teens can play the Xbox, Chinese teens can build the Xbox.
and this response:
 You have never been to China have you? China is full of illiterate people, and most young people spend their entire young lives playing video games. The US is still more educated than the [C]hinese ever have been.
The second commenter is almost certainly right, but for all the wrong reasons. First, it seems unlikely he has been to China, so what makes him think he is right? Second, even if he had been to China, how would he know much about the education system? Would his knowledge be representative and how would he figure out if it were?

He'd have to consult statistics (and consider if the statistics were any good). If he went to Shanghai he'd probably be under the impression that Chinese students were smarter than American students, on average. If he went to a rural pocket of poverty he might think most of China is still stuck in the stone ages. It sounds obvious that going to China would teach you a lot about China, but the truth is that most of what matters for economic policy can't be learned by observation. You have to get to know a country through the data and supplement that with tempered observations. I say tempered because by trusting your eyes you might be inclined to lump to all kinds of amateur sociology or anthropology in your theories. And you'll most likely be wrong.

(The book I linked to is about the people who make these mistakes not an example.)

Ethics for Pussies

The key question in ethics today isn't even an ethical question, its psychological. Utilitarianism is obviously right in every case, so why does virtue ethics appeal to us so much?

Here's my theory: people are naturally pussies and virtue ethics makes us feel better about it.

This article from some British newspaper sums it up, while discussing the trolly problem:
If you refuse to flip the switch five people who would otherwise be alive are dead. You are responsible for their deaths. And, arguably, you are blameworthy because it would not have been any skin off your nose to flip that switch. You didn't because you wanted to keep your own hands clean, to evade responsibility through non-action. [emphasis mine]
Everyone "gets" utilitarianism when someone else is doing the killing. People "get" valor. The greatest generation went to Europe to kill a lot of people--they came with guns, tanks, and bombs, what else did they plan to do with them?--and people call that valor. They understand that killing 1,000,000 people is a lot better than watching 3,000,000 people get killed.

But valor is hard.

We respect courage because few people have much of it.

So we take the easy[1] road and pretend that virtue doesn't exist. Interestingly enough, the theory that it doesn't exist goes by "virtue ethics." I prefer "ethics for pussies."

[1] - and self-justifying, I should add. Taking the easy road is easy, but that's ok because in virtue ethics, the suffering you will cause isn't a bad thing.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

National Treasure 3?

CNN reports that $11 billion in treasure was discovered under an old Indian temple.

I think National Treasure 3 should be about a treasure like that overseas, maybe in China.

Does MIT make people crazy?

I just graduated from MIT as an undergraduate and just based on the people I knew, I always felt at least half of MIT undergrads had a serious psychiatric disorder. I mean, to put it bluntly, a lot of people at MIT are completely insane.

But I never saw any objective data until recently. The data is from 2001 but I doubt very much has changed other than better treatment efforts (substantially better):

In a student survey at MIT last spring, 74 percent of respondents reported having had a mental problem that interfered with their daily lives, though only 28 percent reported having used the mental health resources the institute provided. Overall, 11 percent of students use the mental health resources at MIT, an increase from 7 percent a few years ago.
The report quoted one student who wrote that “asking for help is not easy for the typical MIT student.”

Three out of four.

If I were a parent I would be scared to send my child there.

But I don't think it's all MIT's fault. In fact, selection bias and interaction effect might explain quite a bit: MIT attracts people who have mental illnesses. Maybe overbearing parents, especially Asians, put extreme pressure on their (own only) child who develops low self-esteem as a result. MIT exacerbates the low self-esteem and forces people to go it alone because it has a culture that shuns getting help. Where does everyone think the children of Tiger Mom's go to school?

So if you're a parent who let their child flourish instead of imposing success on them, and you didn't coddle them their entire life and make it impossible for them to believe they could ever be wrong, I don't think you should worry about your kid going to MIT.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Niall Ferguson jumps the shark

The title of this post might be misleading. Maybe Niall Ferguson was always a hack, but I was under the impression he was a serious thinker.

If he ever were, this article proves that he isn't any more.

It should be mandatory reading in every journalism class. It's a template for how to be a lazy writer that still gets read: write with a strong voice, quote some primary sources, come tantalizingly close to begging the question, and most importantly coin a catchy phrase ("IOU-isolationism").

Do taxes on (non-diet) soda decrease investment in diet soda?

Hank Cardello, a former executive at Coca-cola, writes in the Atlantic that we should:

Keep taxes low to promote product R&D. Proposals such as soda or "fat" taxes only serve to raise revenues for government treasuries and have not been proven to lower obesity rates. Higher taxes reduce revenues and steal dollars earmarked for developing lower-calorie, better-for-you products that meet emerging consumer demands.
He worked at Coca-cola so maybe we should take his word that Coke will invest less in alternatives to sugary sodas when the taxes kick-in, but it sounds counter-intuitive. If soda becomes more expensive people will substitute other goods, increasing demand for alternatives. That increases the incentive to development tasty low- and zero-calorie beverages.

The fact that he links to study that found the taxes are effective--if you click the link it quotes the author saying "[a]ny strategy that shows even modest weight loss should be considered"--also makes me wonder if he has any idea what he's talking about.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bad but Recommended

This article is bad but I recommend it anyway.

The subject is interesting, important, under-covered, and timely. He discussed the two sides of the NBA Players Union and NBA Owners collective bargaining talks and explains why there is a lockout starting tomorrow. He also explains the key argument the players have leveraged in the talks: that the owner's claim to be losing $370 million is a bunch of bullshit due to cooked books.

The problem with the article is that he doesn't explain why the owners see their accounting as legitimate, simply stating that its a standard accounting technique.* The rest of the story makes the players look like the good guys, making it puzzling when he ends by saying that the truth is that both sides are a little right and a little wrong.

* - The issue that owners are putting down amortized costs of buying the teams and interest on their debt down as expenses, while the players don't think these should count. The rationale is that the amortized cost of buying the team isn't a real expense--no money leaves the franchise--and the debt isn't their fault. I think they are wrong on both points. The owners did spend a lot of money to buy the teams and the right way to add up profits is with net present value over the whole stream of payments. Furthermore, the players might as well argue that they aren't responsible for bad marketing, poor pricing strategies, or any other fiscal folly, but they don't.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Quote of the Day: Romance Edition

To set the stage, Altfest and Ross are two guys who wrote the first (commercial) computer program to match couples. It was called TACT and a woman went out to interview them about it:
She had planned to interview Altfest, but he was out of the office, and she ended up talking to Ross. The batteries died on her tape recorder, so they made a date to finish the interview later that week, which turned into dinner for two. They started seeing each other, and two years afterward they were married. Ross had hoped that TACT would help him meet someone, and, in a way, it had.
The rest is here.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Super 8 Review

I try to review one new movie a year on this blog. Usually its the summer's big non-sequel blockbuster, and yes there is usually only one. Last year, that was Inception. This year it's Super 8.

The verdict: Super 8 more than lives up to the hype. The writer/director J. J. Abrams has a great eye for how to capture moments in a story with memorable images. He's also written the most emotionally powerful script in years. But the movie isn't perfect. With a budget of $50 million the computer effects often look second-rate and the first two acts are superior to the third, though I think the let down was inevitable.

So what makes Super 8 great? In a word: theme. Super 8 is one of the few movies that gets a coherent theme across, finding a way to convey a meaningful (if trite, as all themes are) message into the movie in a natural way. The message is that, to be crass, "shit happens" and we see evidence of it from the first shot, which shows a worker changing a sign for the local employee-owned steel mill--where safety is the number one priority, as evinced by the sign--that used to say 700-some odd days since an accident but now reads one. The "shit happens" message is central to the main character's story but also to the alien's and unfortunately that needs the conclusion, which in retrospect seems obvious and inevitable, to feel like a bit of a let down. You'll know what I mean.

Other aspects range from ok to stellar. The cinematography is outstanding. The acting is first rate, esp. on the part of the children and the main character's father. The music is above-average but not James Horner's best work. The dialogue is mediocre (I can remember a lone quote) but passable. The story requires a little more suspension of disbelief than I'd like to see, which throws off the feel for a bit, and some technical plot points relating to alien seem unresolved, but that doesn't  detract much from the experience. I didn't even think much about the editing and pacing while watching, which is a good thing, although the pace does grind to a halt, just for a moment or two, toward the end.

I highly recommend Super 8. It's a movie that stands out in a year of disappoints.

Quote of the Day: Mass Murder Edition

Ross Douthat on sex-selective abortion:

The tragedy of the world’s 160 million missing girls isn’t that they’re “missing.” The tragedy is that they’re dead.

Here is the link. It's good, but I skimmed it and accidentally misread the last line as "The tragedy is that ... Paul Krugman is off today." Fair enough.

Is there a market solution to the problem? Chinese women are in high demand on the American marriage market. Chinese parents want their daughters to be able to work and be educated in the U.S. Enter F-1F visa, for female Asian students only.

It sounds stupid. Won't letting women leave China worsen the gender imbalance? But here's the catch: the increased demand for girls would vastly outpace the number of girls who actually leave. You can see the effect with health workers, where countries that make it easy to leave to work as nurses or doctors in the First World have more doctors and nurses. (Michael Clemens has done the most research on that topic and gathered the data and made the graph I saw showing the relationship.)