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.