27 April 2012

Richness is multidimensional

Cheap Talk | Jeff | Something To Add To Your Shouting List For The Next Time You Find Yourself On A Rooftop

Airlines are using ever more sophisticated pricing strategies, sports teams and theaters are adopting dynamic pricing, even restaurants are using auctions to allocate scarce seating space. And the usual perception of this is that the consumer is being gouged. Auctions leverage competition among buyers and this drives the price up. Sellers are raising profits by eroding consumer surplus.

But as a counterpoint to this, here is a mostly unnoticed but fundamental principle of auction-like pricing schemes: they lead to unambiguously lower prices at the margin even when, indeed especially when, the seller is a coldhearted profit maximizer. [...]

The upshot of this is that the winners and losers from an auction system aren’t who you think. Auctions don’t favor the deep-pocketed compared to the small guys. Exactly the opposite. The marginal consumer is priced out of the market when a seller eschews an auction because then he must keep prices high. When a seller switches to an auction he lowers his reserve price and now the marginal consumer has a chance to buy at those low prices.
I've elided Jeff's explanation for why auctions help consumers. It is very elegant; I suggest you read it. In the meantime, I'm going to bang out some scattered thoughts about people's perceptions of auctions/markets/price-discrimination-based-allocation. I'm not sure how much sense the follwing makes, but I'm going back to my work rather than editing it. Read on at your own peril.

I agree with Jeff that most people think such allocations favor "the rich." The very concept of "the rich" is facile though. Some people are money-poor but time-rich or enthusiasm-rich or even luck-rich.

All allocation strategies will favor some type of person. For instance, imposing congestion tolls on roads tilts the balance towards the money-rich & time-poor, while eschewing tolls tilts the balance towards the time-rich. Many systems of allocating seats in special charter or magnet schools benefit the time-, enthusiasm- or luck-rich.

Many people think money-rich is bad because it is a "privilege" but do not consider the other riches. They react negatively when the status quo is changed in a way that they perceive as benefitting the money-rich. (Even though the intervention, as in the case of ticket auctions doesn't actually benefit the money-rich.)

Some people are were willing to sit in line for tickets, or reload a webpage many times every day in order to get their tickets. The ability to do those things is itself a privilege. Now some of the tickets that would have gone to the guy camping out in line will be distributed to people willing to pay more money for them. This isn't a transfer from the poor to the rich, but from the time-, enthusiasm- and luck-rich to the money-rich. Personally, I don't see a particular reason resources should be distributed to the lucky or those with time on their hands rather than those with money.

26 April 2012

"Catholic" versus "Protestant" Ethics

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | "Catholic" versus "Protestant" Ethics

I've often heard people distinguish between two distinct ethical outlooks. They usually call them the "Catholic" approach and the "Protestant" approach, but the distinction has little to do with theology. Instead:

The "Catholic" approach has extremely high moral standards (e.g. Be celibate; give everything you have to the poor; love everyone), but enforces them loosely.

The "Protestant" approach has moderate moral standards (e.g. Don't commit adultery; prudently give to the deserving poor; don't hate people who've never done you wrong), but enforces them strictly.
See also: The Behavioral Effects of "Catholic" versus "Protestant" Ethics
3. Some claim that the Catholic approach is less vulnerable to the slippery slope of moral decay. The opposite is true. The slippery slope is easiest to avoid when there is a clear standard of virtue, and anyone who falls short suffers stern rebuke. The slippery slope is hardest to avoid when no one lives up to your standards, and forgiveness is just an "I'm only human" away. [...]

Overall, we can imagine scenarios where Catholic standards give better incentives than Protestant standards. But they're pretty fanciful. In the real world, only a tiny minority surpasses the standards of bourgeois respectability, no matter how many times they hear about the lives of the saints and hermits. As a result, the payoff of high Catholic standards is small at best.
I think you could use this paradigm to make a very good critique of the way Notre Dame handles student conduct. They purport to be Catholic, but in reality have created a hybrid of the Catholic and Protestant approaches that combines the worst of both. It's not quite the "Victorian" variant that Caplan describes, but it's close.

25 April 2012

Secret Service Scandal: They Transgressed the Unwritten Law - Hit & Run : Reason Magazine

Reason: hit & Run | Jacob Sullum | Secret Service Scandal: They Transgressed the Unwritten Law
A government official who had been briefed in recent days by Secret Service officials said that agency officials could not answer the question of whether that conduct violated agency rules.

"They said, ‘We teach all our agents that if they go to Amsterdam, they cannot smoke marijuana,'" the official said. “But they couldn’t tell us whether there was anything explicit in their rules and regulations that said anything about whether one of their personnel could spend the night with a woman in a foreign country. They said they would have to get back to us on that, and they haven't."
So far nine employees have been dismissed or pushed to resign or retire, but it's still not clear whether they broke any rules? The marijuana-in-Amsterdam example suggests that having sex with women in foreign countries may be OK, as long as no money changes hands afterward, even in places (like Colombia) where prostitution is legal. (Does the same rule apply in Nevada?) But it sounds like even that much is uncertain.
I can trace my life through a series of beliefs about how rules and punishments work in society:
  1. If break the rules you will be punished, and if you follow the rules you won't be punished.
  2. If break the rules you will be punished if caught, and if you follow the rules you won't be punished.
  3. If you break the rules you may be punished if caught and if the authority figures wants to, and if you follow the rules you won't be punished.
  4. If you break the rules you may be punished if caught and if the authority figures wants to, and if you follow the rules you won't be punished unless you upset the wrong people.
I'm not sure most people ever really internalize #4, because they reject it as being too cynical. (That is, I think most people about agree with #4 if asked, but are still surprised when it happens.)

The whole progression for me covered about the 3rd to 11th grades. I thank the Montgomery County School System for teaching me that the exercise of power and the distribution of punishments, even in modern, civilized Western society, is an arbitrary and capricious thing.

"can't afford it" vs "won't pay for it"

io9 | Robert Gonzalez | The wealthiest university on Earth can't afford its academic journal subscriptions

Allow me to re-write that for you:
The wealthiest university on Earth is allocating it's spending towards other priorities than academic journal subscriptions. As a result which, faculty will not get everything they desire.
That might be a good allocation, or it might not be. I don't know. I'm certainly no fan of the academic publishing industry. Perhaps subscription fees should be lower. But Harvard most certainly CAN afford $3.75M for subscriptions. They just have decided not to spend it.

24 April 2012

Academic Publishing

The Economist | Academic publishing: Open sesameWhen research is funded by the taxpayer or by charities, the results should be available to all without charge

In 2011 Elsevier, the biggest academic-journal publisher, made a profit of £768m ($1.2 billion) on revenues of £2.1 billion. Such margins (37%, up from 36% in 2010) are possible because the journals’ content is largely provided free by researchers, and the academics who peer-review their papers are usually unpaid volunteers.
(0) Good lord. I knew they turned a very healthy profit, but 37%?! On revenues of $2B+? Wow.

(1) I'm nursing a grudge right now with Elsevier because the deadline they promised on a paper I rushed to finish months ago has come and gone and I haven't heard a word from them. I really should know by now that these deadlines are never kept, but it still bothers me. I thought maybe this time, since it was a special issue, they would be close to the deadline. Plus I'll never get used to people making promises they can't or won't keep.

(2) A big part of the problem with missed deadlines is all those volunteer referees and editors. Everyone knows it's important to return their reviews of papers, but it's always low enough priority that it seems like "next week" is perpetually a viable option for getting it done.

(3) I'm coming around to the view that subjective experience as a customer is a rely reliable indication of how strong the competitive pressure facing a firm is. It should be immediately obvious that the Postal Service is a safe monopolist just from walking into a branch office. Dealing with academic publishers is only slightly easier than dealing with telecom companies. For every paper I write I need to devote about a day just to making the publisher's special .cls format file play nicely, and fiddling with the references format, and changing the file types and resolutions of my figures, and re-entering all the captions in different places, and interpreting the esoteric error messages from their online submission systems.

Daniel Lemire | Computer scientists need to learn about significant digits

Nevertheless, one thing that has become absolutely clear to me is that computer scientists do not know about significant digits.

When you write that the test took 304.03 s, you are telling me that the 0.03 s is somehow significant (otherwise, why tell me about it?). Yet it is almost certainly insignificant.

In computer science, you should almost never use more than two significant digits. So 304.03 s is indistinguishable from 300 s. And 33.14 MB is the same thing as 33 MB.
Hear, hear!

The File Drawer | Chris Said | It’s the incentive structure, people! Why science reform must come from the granting agencies.

The growing problems with scientific research are by now well known: Many results in the top journals are cherry picked, methodological weaknesses and other important caveats are often swept under the rug, and a large fraction of findings cannot be replicated. In some rare cases, there is even outright fraud. This waste of resources is unfair to the general public that pays for most of the research.

The Times article places the blame for this trend on the sharp competition for grant money and on the increasing pressure to publish in high impact journals. While both of these factors certainly play contributing roles…the cause is not simply that the competition is too steep. The cause is that the competition points scientists in the wrong direction.

…scientific journals favor surprising, interesting, and statistically significant experimental results. When journal editors give preferences to these types of results, it is obvious that more false positives will be published by simple selection effects, and it is obvious that unscrupulous scientists will manipulate their data to show these types of results. These manipulations include selection from multiple analyses, selection from multiple experiments (the “file drawer” problem), and the formulation of ‘a priori’ hypotheses after the results are known.

…the agencies should favor journals that devote special sections to replications, including failures to replicate. More directly, the agencies should devote more grant money to submissions that specifically propose replications….I would [also] like to see some preference given to fully “outcome-unbiased” journals that make decisions based on the quality of the experimental design and the importance of the scientific question, not the outcome of the experiment. This type of policy naturally eliminates the temptation to manipulate data towards desired outcomes.
Yes, yes yes yes YES YES YESYESYESYYES! I can not agree with this more.

As a minor side note, this would not only make the outcomes of science better, it would also make the lives of scientists better.

I have one suggestion that might help both the problem identified by Said and unseating Elsevier and others. The problem, in a nutshell, is that everyone wants to publish in the "top" journals, and we're left with a collective active situation.

I suggest that Grad students who know they don't want to go into academic careers should be encouraged to publish in other, better-behaved but less highly regarded outlets. University departments could establish awards for publishing in better-behaved journals, or be more generous with travel grants to conferences which adopt better policies, or directly reward students willing to take the time to report on negative results.

Obviously this is a problem in so far as grad students are often working with teams of other people who still are incentivized to pursue the "top" outlets, but I think it's still a marginal improvement.

It might also be possible to convince tenure and search committees to look kindly upon applicants who have published at least once in such an outlet.

Embrace Culturalism

Popehat | Clark | #ObamaDogRecipe: first take one dog, then write a DHS grant proposal for $10 million in inner-city 'locavore' cooking classes

Racist is not the same as culturalist.

Racism is bad. Culturalism is not, because culturalism is really about VALUES. Folks who want to stamp out culturalism know – at some level – that most people are not only culturalists but feel pretty darned good about being culturalists, which is why they never say things like "attacking a foreign culture for eating dogs or cutting off clitorises is bad". No, they first map a culture to a race, so that if you CLAIM you dislike people who engage in blood feuds and cut off clitorises the TRUTH is that you really dislike brown people. [...]

I don't hate Obama because of his skin color (I don't even "hate" him at all).

I loath Obama because he's a member, not of some Islamist culture, but because he's a member of the American leftist culture where "clever ideas", credentials, left wing shibboleths, good intentions and personal contacts trump actually delivering value.

As such I see that tying Obama to Indonesian culture is funny, but a bit silly. Obama gives no evidence of having internalized any Indonesian culture, so it's an attack that has no body to it.

Attacking Obama on his ACTUAL culture of American corporatist / group-rights / technocratic / top-down centralism makes much more sense to me.

(Note: feel free to replace "Obama" with "Romney" in the above rant)
Amen! "Culture" is just a set of decisions. Excusing behavior because "well that's just their culture" is a non sequitur. (Yes, yes, of course you must take context, including cultural context, into account. That doesn't make "it's a different culture" a get-out-of-jail-free card.)

As I've said before, bring on the "Culture War". We're going to be doing it anyway and politics isn't about policy so let's (1) be honest about what we're doing and (2) attempt to steer clear of the more purely aesthetic cultural decisions.
Culture is the result of a shared outlook on life and the world, and that outlook in turn is the result of something approaching a governing philosophy. That political battle lines are drawn over culture should be expected since culture is just a short hand way of arguing about the paradigms we use to interpret the world. Deism, Hobbesianism, Capitalism, Humanism, Evangelicalism and all the other -isms coalesce into our culture, and they are all worthy topics of political struggle. If that undercurrent of world view (combined with the sometimes regrettable specifics of our electoral system) happens to draw people into two discrete camps who define themselves as much by who they aren't as who they are, then so be it.

Granted, debate should rarely focus on the more purely aesthetic manifestations of culture, but culture itself is foundational. Mr Hodgman wants us to "focus on the issues," but more often than not issues can not be separated from culture.

As far as the culture war goes, I don't need people claiming that they represent the "real America." And I'm not interested in hearing about the Starbucks crowd versus the Dunkin' Donuts crowd. I don't really care what my politicians tastes are in hot, caffeinated beverages because the way they like their coffee doesn't say anything about them. But I also do not think it prudent to remove people's eating and drinking habits from discussion entirely. Joining the locavore movement says a lot about the value one places on the environment and what one know about economics, as well as how rational one is and whether one is more swayed by emotional or scientific arguments. (Ditto people's consumption of cloned meat and their opinions about biotech.) That's a piece of culture that I'm perfectly willing to include in the culture war. Generally I don't care what kind of pants my politicians wear, or cars they drive, or beer they drink. But if they only buy Wrangler jeans, drive Fords, and (formerly) drank Budweiser because they wanted to buy American, then I know a lot about where they stand on nationalism and free trade and probably immigration as well.
PS "You criticized a thing which is correlated with race, and so — since I can look deep into your soul and know your own motivations better than you yourself do — I know the real reason for your criticism is actually racism." I hate it when people pull that shit.

20 April 2012

The Universe as Arbiter

The Atlantic | Derek Lowe | Do We Really Need More Scientists?

There's really nothing like the feeling of running an important experiment. You don't know what's going to happen, because nobody knows what's going to happen. The universe is about to say whether this idea you're testing is right or not, and you're going to be the first to know.

A while back*
Whoa. This was only posted a month ago. I'm losing it.
I saw this quote and thought Yes! This is it! This is what I love about what I do. This is going on the door to our lab right away. And so it did.

This week I remembered the downside to this: whether you can get your work done is up to the universe, not you.

Towards the end of last weekend my friends and I were lamenting having to go back to the real world and get to work. We were all in for a long week with late nights. The difference is that if they put in the late hours they knew they could get what needed to be done, done. It was just a matter of discipline and hard work. (Not to give short shrift to what they do: they all have difficult, intellectual jobs which I respect.)

On the other hand, I'm not sure if the thing I'm trying to do is mathematically possible. There is a distinct (and ominously growing) possibility that the Universe itself will not let me get this project done. That's scaring me right now. Way deep down in my belly, it's scaring me.

PS I don't want to get bogged down addressing Lowe's title question. He's a scientist; he makes many good points that are often over-looked in this discussion. I will make one that I've not heard anyone make: Do we really need more of any profession? There are some good reasons not to train more chemists. But there are also many good reasons not to train more artists, architects, marketers, lawyers, historians, and HR reps. Training for a job, and indeed, having a job at all, is a cost.

Further, it's really hard to sit on the sidelines of a market and recognize what there's a shortage* of, because the opportunities going unfilled are too unseen.
What is a "shortage" anyway? It's a often misused word. See: Munger on Shortages, Prices, and Competition and Munger on Price Gouging at EconTalk.
This is especially true in labor markets since they have all sorts of exogenous, hard-to-measure factors like 18-year-olds-enjoy-being-art-students and doctors-like-making-it-hard-for-others-to-do-medicine.

18 April 2012

The Opt Out

This weekend I flew down to Florida for a reunion/bachelor party.

On both trips I opted out of the backscatter scanner at the airport. If I'm going to have my dignity pillaged, I'd have it done explicitly rather than insidiously.

I noticed what might be an interesting trend. (If you'll allow me to call two data point a trend.) The officer uniformed guy who actually did my examination was polite, and bent over backwards to describe every step of the process in annoyingly repetitive detail, both by explaining the whole procedure up front and then again step-by-step as it was going on, several times. I imagine this is because many people have or are freaked out or surprised when they get to the actual laying-on-of-hands part of the procedure, and the TSA has actually modified their procedures in response to complaints.*
I'm a little uncomfortable giving them this much credit.

Even though the gropers were pseudo-polite, everyone else involved was incredibly rude. (No surprise there.) There was no clear procedure established. No attempts were made to explain what was being done and what was expected. It was just gruff "stand over there! now move here! go with him! no stand still! don't move, but get out of the way! why are you there? take everything metal out of your pockets! why are there non-metalic objects in your pockets? take them out! put them down! not there!"

One of the guys who rubbed me down was the same guy who had checked my boarding pass minutes earlier. He was (sort of) considerate when grabbing on me, but really rude when he had done the papiere, bitte! thing. (I moved my suitcase up to make some space for the woman behind me. My feet didn't move, I just repositioned my bag from behind me to in front of me while he was inspecting my license. His response was a shouted "Don't go anywhere! You can't go anywhere yet!")

I think it says something about the TSA and its incentives and concerns that it has trained its employees on one part of this process, but leaves them to run around like schizoaffective headless geese for the rest of it. I'm not sure what it says though. It would make sense to me if they either consistently treated opt-outs politely or consistently growled at them like cattle.*
Chattel? Yes. Both.
But I don't make much sense out of being rude and then pretending to care right before they palm your delicate pieces.

Maybe there's simply a big part of the population that is super-sensitive about being touched but doesn't give a shit about being barked at and ordered around. It could be that simple, but I don't like it. Thoughts?

13 April 2012

Witch Doctors / Masters of Management

I recenty finished Adrian Wooldridge's Masters of Management. It was quite good. Nothing really ground-breaking for someone who follows the sorts of blogs/papers/magazines I do, but a very good distillation of the recent history and current state of management thought. Even though none of the themes were terribly new to me, they were excellently organized and elucidated with plenty of novel examples. I especially liked the early chapter which discussed "corporate social responsibility" as just another business fad.*
Although to engage in a bit of armchair editing, I believe no account of CSR is complete without reference to Cypress Semiconductor CEO T.J. Rodgers' wonderfully icono-clastic epistle to Sr. Doris Gormley, OSF.

I would appreciate other survey-type books like this that take on the tedious task of extracting the few good points from the often bloated corpora of contemporary authors. I suppose I could read several hundred pages of Tom Friedman or Tom Peters columns and books, along with assorted critiques of the same, but time is short and the information gain of doing so is low.*
I might need to hand in my Official Academia Membership Card for saying this, but quite frankly most authors are not worth reading in the original. And almost no primary sources are worth consulting unless you have first read exegetic commentary on them. There. I said it.
Far better that someone with more patience for jibber-jabber extract the central theses for me.

Other than that, I don't have much of a review of Masters to offer. I will highlight a brief passage and a few quotations that stood out though.

This sentence must be explained:
"At the same time, the burden on the welfare state is growing, as medical innovations push up healthcare costs and baby boomers start drawing their pension (by 2050, one in three people across the rich world will be drawing a pension)."  — p. 228
In what other context would increasing innovation be seen as a bad, cost-escalating thing? If your theory of Life, The Universe, and Everything The Political Economy of Health Care does not explain the italicized passage, you need to revise and resubmit.

I know I'm hardly the first person to raise this objection, but the fact that a thoughtful fellow like Wooldridge can just drop this stinker into his text without explanation (or even a nod toward the unusual nature of his claim) is a sign that this objection is under-addressed. I don't need him to resolve this problem in this book. It's not the place for that. But I feel like he's pulling a fast one (and reinforcing this misconception) by pretending it's only natural for increasing innovation to lead to increasing costs.

No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under the leadership of perfectly normal human beings.
— Peter Drucker
See also: Federalist #51.

I only invest in companies that any fool can run, because some day a fool will run it.
— Warren Buffet
This rather argues against investing in Berkshire Hathaway, doesn't it?

Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness ... aiming this at something else they find happiness by the way.
— J.S. Mill
I don't tend to put much stock in Mill, but this seems like solid advice.

12 April 2012


Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Too Easy to Make War

I must say that I have come around to the point Drum derives from [Maddow's book Drift]
If you can get past that, though, there’s a deadly serious argument here that deserves way more attention than it gets. The book is, basically, a series of potted histories that explain how we drifted away from our post-Vietnam promise to make sure we never again went to war without the full backing and buy-in of the American public. Maddow’s premise is that, just as the founders intended, our aim was to make war hard. Presidents would need Congress on their side. The Abrams Doctrine ensured that reserves would have to be called up. Wars would no longer unfold almost accidentally, as Vietnam did.

And for a while that was the case. …

Maddow’s argument is that we need to start rolling back these changes of the past two decades. When we go to war, we should raise taxes to pay for it. We should get rid of the secret military. The reserves should go back to being reserves. We should cut way back on the contractors and let troops peel their own potatoes. And above all, Congress should start throwing its weight around again. It’s fine to criticize presidents for accreting ever more power to themselves, but what do you expect when Congress just sits back and allows it happen? Our real problem is congressional cowardice: they don’t want the responsibility of declaring war, but they also don’t want the responsibility of stopping it. So they punt, and war becomes ever more a purely executive function.
I am mostly in agreement with this (though I am not sure why soldiers rather than contractors should peel potatoes). War has become way too easy — though I would argue that Drum needs to look in a mirror a bit here.
(0) Yes, Drum needs to look in the mirror. Meyer has said it a lot, as have I, but I'll say it again: don't be so quick to let the president on your team grab some extra power, because pretty soon a president on the other team is going to be doing the same thing.

(1) Other than that, I am also on board with what Drum is saying here.

(2) Except for the contractor/potato thing. Even before I got to Meyer's comment I was raising mental objections to that line.

The only way that seems like a good idea (besides the popular reflexive dislike of contractors/privatization/outsourcing/etc) is if you intentionally wanted to make the military less efficient in some sort of starve-the-beast type gambit. Or more specifically a "file down the beast's teeth and claws" move.

If that's the goal though I can think of ways that are both less expensive and (likely) less injurious to morale. For instance, rather than reducing the number of men wielding weapons by occupying their hands with vegetable peelers, you could severely increase the standards of people enlisting.

(3) We don't just need to make war harder. We need to make everything the state does harder. We need to make it harder for the government to send us to war, harder for the government to tell us who can cut our hair, harder for the government to tell us what medical services we must insure ourselves for, harder for it to tell me how to I should travel, harder for it to subsidize sports stadiums, harder for it to dictate what sort of character a neighborhood should have, harder for it to tell me what I can eat and drink and smoke, harder for it to force me to turn over private information, harder for it to tell me what sorts of companies I can invest in, harder for it to tell us how many taxis there should be in a town, harder for it to determine which companies should be building our cars or our solar panels, harder for it to tell us how much sugar we should be importing, harder for it to ignore the Fourth Amendment when we're near(ish) the border or carrying a digital device, harder for it to tell me what the acceptable uses for money I have saved are, and harder for it to tell me who I can employ or rent an apartment.

Everything the state does should be hard. That's the point of having separation of powers, of checks and balances, and the Constitution itself. Those things exist specifically to make it hard for the state to do things.

I doubt Drum would agree with that (eg). The difficulty the state should face does not stop and start at the doors of the Pentagon. I'm fascinated by the way both liberals and conservatives do 180s from their usual course when it comes to the DOD.

11 April 2012

An important distinction

If you're burned out, you feel better when you let yourself rest. If you're depressed, you feel better when you make yourself go do stuff.

Patri Friedman
I've been trying to get better at distinguishing between "I'm tired from working so hard; I need a break" and "I'm tired from not accomplishing anything; I need to get some shit done."

10 April 2012

TANSTAAFL even at libraries

I like libraries. But this post rubs me the wrong way.

Bng Bng | Cory Doctorow | Cheapskates love libraries (it's mutual)

(1) Allow me to make Doctorow's point more concisely: "It's really nice that I can have other people pay for services that I consume and would have paid for myself." No shit. That is nice. It's not exactly the strongest moral argument in favor of tax-financed libraries though.

(2) The post includes a graphic reading "Cutting Libraries in a Recession is like Cutting Hospitals in a Plague." Okay. A word of advice to all public institutions: if you don't want to be cut too much during the bust, it behooves you not to grow too much in the boom. If you don't want to have to eat less when the pie shrinks, you don't get to eat more when the pie grows.

I would take the "but it's a recession; people need us now!" pleas more seriously if I ever heard the same people saying "times are good and people are flush, so you can cut our budget this year." You can't be entitled to a monotonically increasing budget.

Universities: really successful messes?

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | A sobering thought

The United States circa 2012 is one of the most productive economies of all time, arguably the most productive if you take into account size and diversification (rules out Norway, etc.). Internationally speaking, in the richest and most productive global economy of all time, which is our most competitive sector?

Hollywood? Maybe, but it could well be higher education. Students from all over the world want to go to U.S. higher education. If we had nicer immigration authorities, this advantage would be all the more pronounced.

In other words, I work in what is perhaps the most competitive and successful sector in the most competitive and successful economy of all time.

And yet what I see around me is a total, total mess. And I believe my school to be considerably above average in terms of how well it is run.
I agree: total mess. And it's not just universities. Conferences are a mess, journals are a mess, funding agencies are ridiculous, the process of applying to schools is screwed up, the job market in most fields is a train wreck.

04 April 2012

Save Our Google Scholar!

The Atlantic | Alexis Madrigal | 20 Services Google Thinks Are More Important Than Google Scholar

[Google Scholar] doesn't appear across the main Google navigation bar, which features nine other services: Search, Image Search, Maps, Play, YouTube, News, Gmail, Documents, and Calendar. But OK, it is more niche than any of those applications and it used to reside in the More menu at the top right of the nav bar. No longer. Google has now moved Scholar to the 'Even More' section. That ranks its importance in the Googlesphere behind Translate, Mobile, Books, Offers, Wallet, Shopping, Blogger, Reader, Finance, Photos, and Videos.

Google, of course, has the right to play with its user interface, even to the detriment of my predilections. But I worry that this is a signal that the company is turning away from Google Scholar like it has some other recent projects. After all, it is the sort of revenue-less service that seems endangered under Larry Page.

So, let me just say this: Don't do it, Larry! This is an invaluable tool for content creators that will not be easily replicated. If you kill Google Scholar, our web won't be the same.
Amen. Please, please, please don't take Scholar away. I also noticed it had been demoted recently and got worried. I legitimately don't know how I would finish my dissertation without it.

One of my lab-mates*
Who will actually be a Googler in six months
is confident that Google won't shut it down since it's such a useful tool to all the people within Google Research. I hope he's right.

Bring on the Shapers

philosophy bites | Julian Savulescu on Designer Babies

Should we select advantageous genes and deselect disadvantageous ones when having children? Julian Savulescu believes that we should.
Savulescu's position is actually stronger than that. Not only should people be free to select advantageous genes, they have a moral obligation to do so, in the same way they have a moral obligation to take prenatal vitamins or stop smoking or make sure their children eat a healthy diet.

My rule-of-thumb for this and related issues is that if you're willing to let an education regime try and influence a trait there's no reason to prohibit bioscience from influencing the same trait. If it's okay to send your child to a school which tries to make students more creative, or empathetic, or disciplined, or artistic, or athletic then it's okay to seek the same goals through technology. That is, if it's okay to change their state through nurture then it's okay to change their state through genetics. I think that rule covers all the concerns I've heard raised about designed babies.

(Presuming, of course, that we maintain epistemic humility about our biotech skills. Although, frankly, we're rather short on humility when it comes to our opinion of education as well, so I think the parallel between the two is maintained.)

I predict the opposition to this position will come from two camps: religiously-oriented luddites and those who put far more emphasis on relative income distributions than absolute income levels.

(Selecting for a smarter child makes no one else less smart, but could push other people further down the intelligence rankings. Even though everyone wants to live in a society with smarter rather than stupider people (otherwise why spend money on education?) the Pareto improvement to intelligence will be disregarded by people who are more concerned with their relative standing.)

The only complaint I have with Savulescu is that his language is a bit collectivist. He says a couple of times that "we" will need to have a better conception of what it means to have a good life. But "we" don't need to do that. Future parents need to figure out the answer to that question for themselves. A plurality of answers to that issue is fine. I think Savulescu would agree with me about that, but his word choice betrays a frame in which this is something society must sort out, rather than individuals.

ETA 4 April 2012: Via Bryan Caplan, I have just learned a word that I think describes well the moral standing of parents taking agency over their children's genetics: "supererogatory."

03 April 2012


Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | The real competitor to driverless cars

Enter the Tacocopter. It does not seem to be a hoax:
The Internet is going wild for Tacocopter, perhaps the next great startup out of Silicon Valley, which boasts a business plan that combines four of the most prominent touchstones of modern America: tacos, helicopters, robots and laziness.

Indeed, the concept behind Tacocopter is very simple, and very American: You order tacos on your smartphone and also beam in your GPS location information. Your order — and your location — are transmitted to an unmanned drone helicopter (grounded, near the kitchen where the tacos are made), and the tacocopter is then sent out with your food to find you and deliver your tacos to wherever you’re standing.

You pay online, so the tacos are simply dropped off at your feet by the drone helicopter, which then flies back to the restaurant to pick up its next order.
The article is here. And yet there is bad news afoot, and it is no surprise:
The U.S. government is single-handedly preventing you from ordering a taco and having it delivered to you by a totally sweet pilot-less helicopter.
(0) Damn you, FAA. I don't need any more barriers between me and the future. Or between me and burritos.

(1) Whenever I tell people I do AI research someone will always, without fail, make a joke about me hastening an uprising of killer robots. (For the record, I have not touched a robot since undergrad, and those were less threatening than Roombas.)

Tacocopter is my new standard rejoinder. Yes, maybe robots will revolt and kill us all. But between now and then we will be able to feast on fresh, airlifted tacos.

(2) My advisor just put a bunch of effort into a grant proposal for quadrotors to help emergency response teams. This seems like a good idea, since there's always money for anything terrorism-related. But my response to that project was "yeah, that seems useful" and my response to TacoCopter is "holy shit, let's get some top men on this immediately."

02 April 2012

In which I nefariously "influence elections"

In addition to primary voting tomorrow, citizens of my county also get to vote for school board members. (More on that later). I mention this by way of providing context for the following email which Mrs SB7, who teaches in our county school system, got last weekend.
MCEA Statement on the Washington Post

MCEA is deeply offended by the allegations made today in an unsigned editorial in the Washington Post. Like clockwork, the Post has once again attacked the Montgomery County teachers union days before a school board election in a last ditch effort to influence voters. The Post’s anti-union animus is longstanding and widely recognized. [...]
The actual accusations made by the Post seem like small beer to me. The school employee unions run our county politics (As Arnold Kling and others can tell you.) I think all you need to know is that "donations" — i.e. patronage — flows from candidates to the unions, rather than vice-versa like most places.

That's old news though. What struck me about the opening to this letter was the lengths they went to make a newspaper publishing an editorial seem sinister. OH NOES!!! They're attempting to "influence voters"! How dare they undermine democracy like that!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(And if they think the editorial board of the Washington Post of all places has an "anti-union animus" they are in serious need of re-calibration. They're welcome to swing by Villa d'SB7 any day to see what real anti-trade-unionism looks like.)

Treating an attempt to "influence voters" is especially amusing since the MCEA proudly publishes lists of their preferred candidates. I'm actually really glad they do, because it makes my job of determining who to vote for easier: I know anyone with their endorsement can be crossed off my list immediately.

I actually used candidates responses to the MCEA questionnaire*
Which they publish, presumably in a dastardly attempt to "influence voters."
to choose who will get my vote. I chose the two candidates who were most willing to tell the MCEA what they did not want to hear. Things like suggesting that maybe blind adherence to first-in-first-out may not be a wise way to retain good teachers, or mentioning that the quality of a student's education will not strictly increase as class size is decreased for all values of class size.

Having done this research, I am now happy to recommend the following candidates for Montgomery County Board of Education.

For the at-large seat, I endorse Aryeh Shudofsky. Shudofsky has a background in finance, supports more practical & vocational skills courses, expressed a willingness to renegotiate unions contracts to reflect fiscal reality, and had the stones to suggest that charter schools and vouchers are worth looking into for Montgomery County.

I'm not crazy about any of the 2nd District candidates. If I had to pick one though, it would be Saqib Ali. That's mostly on the basis of him having a masters in CS and having some intelligent things to say about refocusing the curriculum on technology. Any actual technology education would be welcome. My county spends millions on "technology in the classroom" but that always means whizbang gewgaws and not actually teaching students how to use and create technology itself. OTOH Mr Ali, like the rest of the candidates, did seem eager to answer every question he could with "spend more money on everything!" Honestly though, he's not one of the two people recommended by the MCEA/NEA and that wins him a lot in my book.