Thursday, December 31, 2009

best of the decade

Happy New Year!

(I'm not up on popular culture enough to pay attention to only new things so this stuff isn't strictly from 2009 or the decade, just found by me therein...)

Favorite books in 2009: The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, A Happy Marriage by Rafael Yglesias, Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

... and in the 2000s: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig, and Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter.

Favorite movies in 2009: A Serious Man, and Fast Cheap and Out of Control

... and in the 2000s: Amelie, and Waking Life

Favorite music in 2009: Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Greg Brown, Derek Trucks, the Bowmans, Lucinda Williams

... and in the 2000s: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Tegan and Sara, Simon and Garfunkel, Third Eye Blind, and Brahms

Favorite TV show in 2009: Modern Family

... and in the 2000s: Friends and West Wing

Favorite hobbies in 2009: bluegrass music and natural hot springs

... and in the 2000s: amateur astronomy, motorcycling, camping, programming, math, and taking care of cats

Favorite economic theories in 2009: prospect theory, quantal response equilibrium, and probabilistic voting

... and in the 2000s: everything and only things micro

Favorite math subjects in 2009: Um I haven't exactly learned much math lately but have to include this for the decade category...

... and in the 2000s: Galois theory, algebraic topology, and all things combinatorics

Most exhilarating experience in 2009: seeing the Punch Brothers live at Night Grass at Telluride Bluegrass Festival

... and in the 2000s: bungee jumping, and all those startling near-death motorcycle incidents that I would prefer to avoid but sure are exhilarating in the strict sense of the word

Favorite place in 2009: Telluride, CO, and Great Sand Dunes National Park

... and in the 2000s: New York City (esp. Central Park), and the inner Grand Canyon

Favorite software in 2009: TeXShop (Stata is decidedly OFF the list despite the fact I'm forced to use it more than anything else. Take your stupid one-at-a-time rectangular data spaces and give me R any day.)

... and in the 2000s: R, Excel (yes believe it folks, Excel pre-2007 is unbelievably awesome when exploited in the right ways), Picasa

Favorite innovation in 2009: NFL game rewind online, ultra-cheap external hard drives, red bull

... and in the 2000s: wireless internet, the obsolescence of the traditional audible use of telephones, motorcycles, diet coke/diet mountain dew/red bull, google scholar/search/mail/earth/picasa/books...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

John Mackey

is awesome. (Even if the author of the piece doesn't fully realize it.)

paths to reason

As a child or young adult, one of the intellectual questions that most frequently possessed me was the existence of god. By college I had exhausted of the debate and considered the question totally resolved, so that by the time I developed this compulsive blogging habit, it no longer held my interest. However, issues of religion in general were not included in my original strictly epistemological contemplations, and my views on that wide of array of issues has continued to evolve over time and is most certainly not set in stone, so this is still interesting conversational fodder to me. Additionally, recent readings (Christopher Hitchens) have put me in the mood to lay out explicitly some of the earlier abandoned conclusions. So I'll probably be putting some chunks of religious philosophy (or just criticism, to put it less politely and more accurately) up here in the near future.

But there is a pretext that needs to be written first, which is my particular religious background and the path I took away from faith, which I think is sufficiently unique to be worth clarifying. Interpretation is always colored by the background of the speaker. So here's a brief description that can serve as a footnote to future religious discussion.

I was raised Presbyterian. My young life was more consumed by church activities than by anything else (except maybe music if you include the church-based music activities). My mom is the organist, my brother is following in her footsteps, and my dad sings in the choir. I went to church every single Sunday, multiple times on special weeks and every possible special holiday service. I went to Sunday school every single week and completed the confirmation class in junior high. I was in the children's choir, the youth choir, the handbell choir, the youth group, went to vacation bible school every year, and volunteered at the Wednesday after school program. I went to church camp, did all the fundraisers and projects, and spent countless afternoons just hanging out at church while my mom practiced, stamping envelopes and such.

Despite this extreme level of involvement at church, I never really got it into my head that faith was a truly important part of life. I took it for granted until I was 9 and went through the motions, with sincerity, of everything you're supposed to do, but I think the aura of "family business" that church had due to my mom's employment prevented any real sense of reverence from developing. Talk about church was about workplace politics rather than the meaning and importance of faith, which therefore never was something I held deeply personally and was horrified to abandon. But it was also not something I resented or was mistrustful of, it was just there, a nonnegotiable part of life like breakfast and spelling tests. (The eventual resentment was a result, not a cause, of atheism - after writing off religion, the high forced level of participation obviously got aggravating quickly.)

Somewhere around age 9 I had an epiphany that god is nothing but Santa Claus for adults, an invisible threat/reward system designed to induce good behavior, and probably somewhere along the line one generation had forgotten to inform the next about the charade. I quibbled about epistemological details for a few years after that, sometimes preferring the 'agnostic' label, but that was basically it. (And I obviously modified the Santa Claus story to something closer to, as Hitchens so wonderfully puts it, "[Religion] comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge, as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs.")

The point is, I never spent much mental effort on questions of internal inconsistency of religious logic, or the reprehensibility of religious morality, etc. There was no reason to think supernatural things existed, and so the rest was a moot point. This was a convenient license to continue to ignore sunday school lessons and biblical teachings in church, so that I am to this day supremely and woefully ignorant of religious mythology, history and literature. The burden of proof is on the other side, so they can nitpick over Hebrew translations and Bible verses all they want, but I don't need to.

The other point is that it's somewhat unusual to go from extreme religious involvement to atheism in a sudden step. Society is absolutely becoming more secular, but this is a slow trend of lapsing practice reinforced over generations, rather than a slew of individual epiphanies. Either way towards society-wide skepticism is fine with me, but I (admittedly conceitedly) have a huge appreciation for the active step of breaking out of a philosophical system previously taken for granted. Most of my friends are not religious for one reason or another but it's the ones who were raised seriously religious and broke free independently that I feel I can really relate to on this subject.

Another notable aspect of my religious background is that I grew up in the buckle of the Bible belt. Religion is so taken for granted that aside from some quibbles over exact denominations, I had no idea there was a nonreligious option in life. When I finally got the nerve to mention my atheism in junior high, my friends were literally terrified for my soul. The cultural tide was so powerful I never even considered taking a real stand on religion, except for some isolated tirades in the 'gifted and talented' class at school, where at least one or two other people were reluctantly open to the idea that god was an invented concept, and there was even a jewish kid (ironically this class included most of my sunday school class as well.) It is simply unacceptable in Oklahoma to abandon religion, and while I didn't so much care about social ostracism among my peers (obviously... I worked successfully towards that in many other ways) I certainly didn't want to attract negative attention from the various people who held the reins on my life.

The other factor is that I really didn't want to hurt my true church friends by either insulting their entire way of life or by putting myself on a direct train to hellfire in their eyes. So I basically kept it to myself until I was more or less on my own and would still never confront friends from my hometown with this debate. There's nothing to gain from it. I don't require their respect or understanding to be happy, and I have no problem with their pursuing happiness through delusion, so long as they don't subject me to their lifestyle. (Obviously this last condition is the problem... so obviously so and so prolifically described that I don't have much to add on that point.)

And that's about it. More on the superiority of secular morality later.

Monday, December 28, 2009


When You Are Engulfed In Flames, by David Sedaris: Hilarious. His voice (listened to this on the drive back) is off-putting and took some getting used to, and the first few stories weren't great, but from then on were some of the most hilarious short stories I've ever heard. (In particular, Solution to Saturday's Puzzle.) I'm surprised he's on the radio with such a voice. The title piece was the worst.

Create Your Own Economy, by Tyler Cowen: I adore Tyler Cowen but this book was disappointing. It's hard to pinpoint why. Maybe it's that nothing was too profoundly true and unexpected, but it's very likely that I'm the exact wrong person to be surprised or even intrigued by what he is saying, so that that would be too personal a critique to be worth passing on. Maybe it's that a few things were frustratingly wrong or presented badly, in particular the entire discussion of autism as such (which is one of the unifying themes for the whole book, unfortunately). I may rant about that separately later but don't feel like getting into it right now. Or maybe it's just that he uses words in unorthodox ways and invented phrases without being specific enough about what he means, so that I spent a lot of time distracted by trying to figure out what "creating your own economy" means (I think I finally understand, and think even in hindsight that's a horrible way to put it) and figuring out which of the many meanings of the word "story" he is currently referring to, than actually being blown away by the discussion. But again, I have stronger preferences for precision than most, so who knows. Maybe you'll love it.

A Mathematician's Apology, by G.H. Hardy - Endearingly absolutist and haughty, in the sense it's very clear a mathematician wrote it. A fireside-and-cocoa of books, for the mathematically tickled audience. And it only takes an hour or so.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Berkeley insanity

Berkeley is more politically insane, on the other end of the spectrum, than anyplace I've lived in the middle of the country.

"Berkeley High School is considering a controversial proposal to eliminate science labs and the five science teachers who teach them to free up more resources to help struggling students." Here's an idea, MAKE THEM TAKE MORE SCIENCE CLASSES.

"The proposal to put the science-lab cuts on the table was ... [part of a] plan to change the structure of the high school to address Berkeley's dismal racial achievement gap, where white students are doing far better than the state average while black and Latino students are doing worse. ... [I]nformation presented at council meetings suggests that the science labs were largely classes for white students." Hmm, maybe the achievement gap has something to do with the fact that minority students ARENT TAKING SCIENCE CLASSES.

Not to mention that, the dilemma of helping one group of students but not the other is NOT to cancel one of the programs that is actually helping the first group.

Congressional censures of Richard Dawkins and creationism in science classes and school sponsored prayer is crazy, but at least I can chalk that up to the small-minded idiots in charge in those parts of the country, who are smug about their resistance to modernity and reason. But Berkeley is home of people who are smug about their open-mindedness and intelligence and reasonableness, and this is what they come up with.

I may end up in the emergency room with an aneurysm before bedtime.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Merry Christmas! Or happy belated winter solstice. Or happy Atheist Children Get Presents Day (this year observed on January 19, which is just too far away, so I'm making the executive decision to bump it up to coincide with my holiday mood.)

I'm at home in Oklahoma in the biggest blizzard I can remember in this state since the epic incident in 2nd grade when we got 13 inches of snow during spring break. It was the best thing that could happen to a 7 year old.

But this time it's so severe that all the Christmas Eve services are cancelled and, for the first time in my life, my mom is spending a calm christmas eve evening at home rather than frenetically playing services and rehearsing and generally frazzling herself to death. Instead, we turned on the John Rutter Christmas Album, and put lights on the Christmas tree with hot cider.

(Just thought I would mention my appreciation for these externalities of religion before moving on to the things that Christopher Hitchens's audiobook has dredged up in my brain on the long drive home. =)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

moderation, and in moderation

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

a monopoly on power

For liberals, the momentum and energy of the Obama campaign led to high expectations for quick reform once he took office. Nearly a full year of the health care debate, in which liberal provision after liberal provision has been whittled down or dropped in compromise, has made progressives supremely frustrated with the perceived impotence of government, which in this administration takes the specific form of conservatives doing their very best to prevent sweeping reform. So of course the republicans, rather than the dynamic minority, takes the face of resistance to progress.

But let's keep in mind that the same forces that prevent quick-passing health care reform now are the ones that prevented Bush-Cheney from running the country into the ground on their watch. Institutions of governance that define balances and scope of powers have to be double-edged swords in order to be remotely stable or less than viciously corrupt.

Yesterday a friend of mine mentioned his frustration with the "broken" political system in the United States. His suggested improvement was that Presidents serve a single six year term, so they can actually get something done during their time in office.

I would actually prefer that they get rid of term limits altogether for the President. As soon as those in power know they never have to answer to the electorate again, well, you know how the saying goes about power and corruption. It's indeed unfortunate that good things are forced to happen so slowly (how many years will it take for individual liberal states to make homosexuals equal under the law before that form of anti-discrimination law is incorporated at a federal level...) but I am much more worried about unreigned power than sputteringly ineffective power. A monopoly on power is never a thing you can let free from diligent oversight.

Judging by their outrage from 2000-2008, progressives know this, they've just forgotten in the heat of the moment. So take a deep breath and acknowledge that taking a few extra years to wait for the country to catch up and warm up to the agenda is a small price to pay for stability under the leadership of the chimpanzees that periodically trick their way into office.

(Not that I'm all that worried about what will happen if they do forget, since they won't be able to overhaul the whole system to their advantage anyway, but it might help with their blood pressure.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

blogging is a waste of time

(I've spent the last two weeks learning a semester's worth of political economy, hence no blogging. So rather than apologize for my absence I'll write a highly hypocritical post at an optimally unhypocritical time.)

Yes, I admit my raging hypocrisy. Not only do I waste hours on google reader every week keeping up on the latest just-deep-enough-for-two-paragraphs blogosphere conversation, I compulsively write my own trove of nonsense as well. It's a bad habit on a rampage. My cumulative blog output over six years is longer than Atlas Shrugged. I could be hundreds of hours younger if not for writing hundreds of thousands of words worth of an itch-scratching sort of pleasure.

But while I can't help subjecting the cybervoid to my thoughts every couple days (they should put that in DSM-V along with video games and shopping so I can blame an official medical condition) and wish I had a more useful addiction such as actually reading all those interesting papers on behavioral economics and political economy that might actually be useful to know about in my career, I even less understand the tendency of many potential bloggers in my generation who write in spurt(s), often about merely their intentions to write, and then agonize about not following through. From my perspective they might as well be announcing to the world "Hello world, I hereby vow to shoot up on heroine on a regular basis" and then following up repeatedly with "oh crap, it's been forever since I shot up on heroine... well this time I swear I will do it more often."

I assuage my guilty conscience with the partial justification that google reader keeps me a reasonably close approximation of an Informed Citizen of my society subset of choice, and that blogging actually does help me organize thoughts, which I find innately enjoyable even if there's no greater purpose for organizing those particular thoughts. But what enjoyment or purpose is there in forcing yourself to keep an online diary? It might make you nostalgically cringe when you're 80, that's about it. Dementia will do that too, and a lot more realistically.

So listen up young impressionables: Just Say No to livejournal, or you just might end up like me.

(Also video games, those are bad too.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold - The best authors subtly evoke experiential minutia, saying just enough for us to insert our own memories and sensations into their words, and then nudge those naked facts from mere observations into whole interpretations, building ever larger structures and hierarchies and theories and philosophies. That's Leopold's greatest strength, and the result is phenomenal.

(2 tiny caveats to my adoring recommendation: 1) It starts a bit dry, so push past the first chapter. 2) This is actually a personal failing, not anything whatsoever wrong with the book; in fact it will give me a good excuse to reread it in my future less-dumb years. But I should mention it since hardly anyone doesn't have this particular personal failing anymore. I'm just too ecologically illiterate to understand the difference between "There is an affinity between white pines and dewberries, between red pines and flowering spurge, between jackpines and sweet fern" and "There is an affinity between trees and plants, between trees and plants, between trees and plants." Call me Ginger.)

Superfreakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner - It's been years since I read Freakonomics and can no longer recall enough to compare the two, but standing on its own merits, this was certainly an enjoyable read. Sure they like to match their incendiary claims with incendiary language, which I think sometimes is a tiny bit counterproductive, but who cares (in particular, the controversy surrounding the geoengineering chapter is baffling). And the particular style of this edition, in which they interweave several different studies into a common theme per chapter, makes it read like a casual conversation with a very smart and interesting person.

Everyday Zen, by Charlotte Joko - Warning: this is going to be a rant. I got roped into reading it by a friend and skimmed the 2nd half in impatience.

First the good points. There were two things that rang true and important: 1) You are ultimately the only authority on how to live your life. 2) Aspiration and expectation are different things.

Other than that it was mostly infuriatingly nonsensical to me. Life is NOT defined by suffering and learning to accept it and detaching yourself from your emotions is NOT the path to happiness and the things in my head ARE real. The "four noble truths" are self-evidently insane. You know the serenity prayer? "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." This rings true to me. It acknowledges a balance that exists in life. Zen is focused solely on the first third.

Now, it's also true that Zen rhetoric also is obsessed with gleefully saying "no, you're wrong, you just don't understand what I'm saying" and refusing to clarify further. So to preempt that response, let me say that a lot of the specific themes I can just barely make peace with by seeing them as very horribly convoluted and misguided presentations of something that actually contains truth and value. Except for one thing. I can not reconcile or ignore the denial of my mental reality.

Just because I can't point to my unhappiness does not make it real. I really wonder what kind of desperate state these followers must be in to want so badly to buy into the argument "yes your grandfather's body died but this is not a real loss because your relationship with your grandfather is in your head." that they don't immediately strangle whoever is telling them that. Sure I have some degree of control and choice in the matter of my unhappiness that I don't have about physical reality but it is still very very REAL and relevant. Honestly, just this one theme of denying non-physical reality made reading this stuff more infuriating than reading Catholic theology for me. With Thomas Merton and company, I can ignore the belief in the supernatural and the threat of hellfire and still appreciate its practical recommendations. In fact I know of no better succinct recipe for a good life than the Desiderata, which is not at all secular (although easily read as such, as I do.) But this, which contains no objectionable irrationality and invented motivations as its base, leads to much more objectionable conclusions.

Ok I'm done ranting. How's that for dismissing two millennia of philosophy in five minutes?

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Back on the subject of seemingly irreconcilable beliefs derived from instinct and logic, and on the best way to promote an ethic of respect for the environment.

I recently reread A Sand County Almanac (arguably a top 3 most beautiful book I'm aware of*) and it reminded me that my economic rhetoric in favor of environmentalism is only a tool I hope to manipulate the rest of humankind with in order that my beloved wilderness is preserved for my own enjoyment.

The thing is, I don't think the rhetoric is disingenuously manipulative. I believe every word of it. Sustainable practices pay off after an initial investment. Externalities need to be internalized. The benefit in recreation and peace of mind and natural history appreciation to humankind that comes from restricting use in certain natural areas is often greater than any more-easily-quantifiable profit from industrial activities that might be undertaken there. And even if you don't believe all that, the potential unknown impact of our actions is so high and are actions so irreversible that extreme conservationist caution is still worthwhile from a human-expected-utility perspective.

But really, I don't care about all that. It's true, but it's not why I favor conservation. I favor conservation because I love wildness. Mostly I love being in the wilderness, feeling connected to all 4.5 billion years of natural earth history, and feeling wholly human by returning to basics as much as is possible in today's world. But even if I were rarely allowed to participate in wilderness personally, I know that it is valuable. There is no logic in the world to destroy my unconditional love of nature and the belief that we as humans should protect its integrity.

Unfortunately this powerful instinct is not shared by even a majority of the population anymore, and there are many other valid and powerful reasons to respect the environment. Thus rhetoric is exclusively dominated by those cost-benefit analyses mentioned above.

Of course when motivations differ the outcomes are never quite the same. The mainstream environmentalist debate currently centers on climate change that may doom our existence. It doesn't really care about minimizing our interference in nature so as to ensure the survival of naturally occurring biodiversity and pristine wild lands untouched even by access roads and visitors centers. If we could destroy all of what nature really is and still ensure species survival, that would be fine, they indirectly say. To some extent the catch-all "we don't know what we're getting into so be careful" argument takes care of whatever else you want it to, but is limitedly convincing, and in any case all of this still misses the point.

Motivations ultimately drive the outcome even if you can manipulate them in the interim. The only way we will protect our natural heritage along with ensuring our own survival on the planet is by instilling a true ethic of conservation in the culture at large. This is what Aldo Leopold was advocating half a century ago and instead of making progress in that direction, we have scared some of the population into similar effort for very different reasons. While that may help slow global warming in the short run, it only damages the cause in the long run when we figure out how to destroy even more without destroying ourselves. The economic motivations that promote environmentalism in this century will point in a completely different direction in the next.

And so I am at a loss. I know that nature should be respected, and the best deductive train of logic I have to back that up is one that will ultimately provide license for destruction, even if I believe in its validity right now. Human behavior is hard enough to change with bulletproof logic; instincts and values are downright impossible.

*Along with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Gödel Escher Bach

Thursday, November 19, 2009

four way stops

Another chapter in the "Berkeley City Planning Is Stunningly Misguided" series: Four way stops.

Everyone knows the costs and benefits of a single isolated four way stop. In very dangerous intersections, it can reduce accidents. In an intersection where one direction is very busy and the other busy enough to have backlogs that can't get through, or in a busy intersection where pedestrians rarely have a chance to cross, it can improve traffic flow. On the downside, both of those things are better accomplished with intelligent stoplights, which don't cause backlogs of traffic waiting for each individual car to stop and then proceed. And they cause delays and waste fuel. And they are essentially impossible to remove once built, since drivers become accustomed to cross-traffic having to stop.

But there's an ignored cost of having a large percentage of four way stops in an area in general, and I'm surprised I can't find any studies that quantifies. In the few normal two-way stops in low traffic areas, the car that has to stop expects cross-traffic to stop as well and often cuts them off, resulting in many near-accidents. This is the issue in Berkeley, where almost all residential intersections are four-way stops. (I've almost been hit twice this way and now habitually slow down if there's anyone waiting at stop sign even when I don't have one.)

Of course, now that they've implemented such an insane system, it's basically impossible to undo. But since all of these four-way stops are in low-traffic residential neighborhoods where they are entirely unnecessary, and they increase danger in two-way intersections, I'm guessing they make the city more dangerous on net, on top of the time and fuel wasting. Good job, city planners.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

hurricane season

If you love geography, maps, weather patterns, interesting visual data displays, or just cool animations, you will love this:

It’s always impressive to see one person excel in two widely disparate activities: a first-rate mathematician who’s also a world class mountaineer, or a titan of industry who conducts symphony orchestras on the side. But sometimes I think Paul Krugman is out to top them all, by excelling in two activities that are not just disparate but diametrically opposed: economics (for which he was awarded a well-deserved Nobel Prize) and obliviousness to the lessons of economics (for which he’s been awarded a column at the New York Times).
(You should click the link to read the excellent support for the hilarious hot air.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

self-evident truths

Some of the questions that bother me most arise when self-evident truths conflict with logical deductions. These truths are such core values and beliefs that I can't imagine invalidating them, but on the other hand, I revere logic to the point of fetishism.

But logic when applied to the real world is a whole lot more slippery than gut knowledge. The universe is extremely complex and any time we restrict ourselves to a small set of axioms to work from, we will miss real truths or prove nonsense. Disagreement among educated interlocutors is not usually semantics, it is a result of incompatible foundations. (But often the converse is true: disagreements often aren't actual disagreements once two parties agree on a word-representation for their priors.)

Of course, in science, we pin ourselves to actual observations to sort through the infinitude of possible deductive paths. But many interesting questions are not easy to test empirically. The universe, in its mindboggling complexity, makes a poor wind-tunnel, and wind-tunnels are hard to construct to address every subtlety of interest. Hence the human race has spent the last few millennia debating the same basic philosophical questions ad nauseam with hardly any conclusive headway.

The average person is very suspicious of those who invent convoluted arguments to support views held so deeply that debate is futile. And scientists are very suspicious of those who hold beliefs so deeply they can't digest any contrary evidence. But, it is vastly easier to invent spurious logic in favor of whatever you want than to stubbornly insist on self-delusion in the face of evidence that is truly convincing (and those who do are never key players in the conversation anyway.) I think the wisdom of crowds holds here. Those who abdicate their intuition in deference to deduction are easily misguided, while those who let their gut instincts, observations, and logic interplay in a complicated and messy way to guide them towards truth, often find it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

Berlin Wall

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was a remarkable (peaceful!) triumph of freedom over oppressive government (and specifically free markets over communism; communism requires oppression) and one that has particular meaning to me, having been born in West Germany while that qualifier was still needed and lived in Berlin a decade after reunification.

I'd rather quote my dad than comment further, since he's an actual expert on the subject, as a professor of Germanic Linguistics at Oklahoma State University:

As a scholar, Te Velde was a frequent visitor to East and West Germany. While the wall was up, the differences between the two countries were considerable. “At first, the wall was built with cinder blocks and mortar. Then it was concrete blocks. There was a no man’s land with dogs and mine fields between the countries,” Te Velde said.

Russia controlled East Berlin, and West Berlin was the British, French and American zone after World War II. “East Berliners wouldn’t talk to tourists,” Te Velde said. “You felt the presence very much of the firm grip of the government.” Its higher profile citizens were the frequent target of surveillance by the East German Ministry for State Security or Stasi, he said. A good filmed representation of life under surveillance in East Germany can be seen in “The Lives of Others,” he said.

“West Berliners were a special breed. It was a place of escape for youth to be exempt from military service,” Te Velde said. It offered a western-style shopping zone, nightlife, bars and clubs, he said, adding, “West Berlin was always a great theater city.”

With the first signs across Europe that the Berlin Wall might fall, Te Velde said, “I was flabbergasted ... Within a week it was obvious the wall was coming down. There would be no jail, no reprisals.”

To Te Velde, the wall represents the unchecked strength of a government with a powerful military. After World War II, Germany was on its knees and couldn’t resist the Soviet takeover. That weakness manifested a dangerous power balance, said Te Velde. If there is collusion of political and military power ... and there is no response from the people to stand against solidification,” he said, there is a situation rife for military divide. “There are some tendencies in this country that we could develop into the same as then but the conditions are not the same. We are not helpless and on our knees. There is power of the people. The only danger is if people don’t recognize their power to stand up to restrictions of power or the military.”

Thursday, November 5, 2009

More non-sniping at Ayn Rand

2005 was before I paid attention to the internet so I was happy Alex Tabarrok reposted his thoughts on Ayn Rand originally from her 100th birthday. They very eloquently and logically state exactly what I most like about Atlas Shrugged. For example:
It used to be commonly said that “Until Robinson Crusoe is joined by Friday there is no need for ethics on a desert island.” Rand replied that it was on a desert island that ethics was most needed because on a desert island you cannot free ride on the virtues of others; if you are to survive you must yourself exercise the virtues of rationality, independence, and productiveness.
(Except I don't really buy that she was such a strong feminist. But I also don't buy that she was anti-feminist, as is often said, due to some isolated statements of what constitutes femininity. I completely disregarded those, along with all of her other nonsense about ethics of aesthetics, primarily in Fountainhead. I think she was a realist and an individualist who probably couldn't have cared less about feminism in itself.)

And his last paragraph restates much better what I recently said in objection to MYglesias's (and others') whining.

As is true of most people who are extremely forceful and black and white about their beliefs, Rand attracted a worshipful following and loatheful antifollowing. Most supporters are extreme moralistic (rather than pragmatic) libertarians, and most dissenters are the liberals who hate her advocation of capitalism or conservatives who hate her adamant atheism. Her supporters tend to adopt the same aggressive and black and white style, and her dissenters mostly object not to the content of her work but to this style of presenting her case and some distorted interpretations that arise when a black and white style is used instead of a thorough discussion of the nuance. When something like Alex's notes comes along, I have renewed hope that the middle ground may worm it's way into the mainstream debate.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Wikipedia it if you don't know, now please

"Economists" on Jeopardy. I'm not sure if this makes me laugh or cry harder. Is the Laffer curve really not common knowledge among educated adults? Let alone Adam Smith?

I take it back. It makes me laugh harder. Look at her expression during double jeopardy =)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

academic library software

Any suggestions..? I'm using Mendeley, which after the most recent beta upgrade thankfully doesn't crash every five minutes and drastically improved in other ways, but which has two critical failings: I can't tell it to "automatically import new files from this particular folder into this particular collection", and it doesn't save notes and citation data to metadata or highlighting/other edits to the pdf itself. And it doesn't support .doc or other paper formats, which I suppose is a good default but occasionally annoying not to exist.

My boyfriend uses Bookends, which he says is ok as far as the auto-importing goes, and does some kind of auto-downloading-from-bibtex-data that sounds awesome, but which also appears not to save data to the files themselves, and which I would have to go to the trouble to crack since it's trialware (and which will eventually kill it in the face of competition so stop being stingy please...) So I haven't tried it yet.

Is there other software does both of those things? I'm envisioning something like Picasa for pdf files plus bibtex exporting and citation data extraction and Mendeley/gmail style collections (same file in multiple places). I want to be able to uninstall it and move my files around however I want on my harddrive and make changes in any other software and when I start it up again it'll all be there as usual...

I still have hope for Mendeley though. The things I complain about are on their "to-do" list, it's just in the early stages of development.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

why god is unnecessary

Now I happen to agree with Professor Dawkins that God is unnecessary, but I think he’s got the reason precisely backward. God is unnecessary not because complex things require simple antecedents but because they don’t.
I happen to be in the "this is a pointless discussion because there is by definition no way to prove or disprove god's existence" camp, but if you want to replace "God" with "an unexplainable black box in the laws of science", then the argument is truly interesting (although no one would care about this question either if "god" wasn't a convenient summary of that idea that comes with all the connotative baggage that people do care about.)

It's much more reasonable to say "I don't understand this because I don't understand this" than to say "I don't understand this because it's impossible to understand." The only context in which people like to forget this is the realm that is allegedly attributable to god.

So anyway, strip away the religious rhetoric, and you've got an actually interesting philosophical discussion.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pedestrian equilibrium

One of the things I love about New York City and hate about the Bay area and hate for different reasons about Los Angeles is the social equilibrium governing whether cars or pedestrians have to yield to each other.

In the Bay area, pedestrians can whimsically meander at whatever rose-sniffing pace they prefer into oncoming traffic, or ride their wheelchairs in figure 8s in busy intersections, and if a car so much as thinks about continuing through their green light, they're in trouble (minimum fine $140 as posted all over town), and screamed at / flipped off / socially ostracized by every onlooker. Pedestrians rule.

In New York, it's every man for himself. If you want to jaywalk, go right ahead, but it's your own responsibility not to get killed. The taxis might honk but they won't slow down, and they're moving pretty darn quick down that narrow one-way road...

In LA, pedestrians are strictly confined to the sidewalks, and jaywalking is ticketed diligently. I'm not sure what would happen if someone dashed in front of traffic a little too close for comfort because I've never seen it happen...

It's hard to find suitable data to see what the outcome of these different equilibria are, but as far as I can tell from various independent reports, the 5 boroughs of NYC have about 250 pedestrian fatalities per year. San Francisco has about 17. When you scale that by population (NYC has 8.5 million, SF 800,000), the equivalent number would be around 180.

But, New York has VASTLY more pedestrians than San Francisco. Sure, certain areas in the Bay area, like the Mission and downtown Berkeley, are crowded with people on foot. But EVERY neighborhood in the five boroughs of NYC is like that. I couldn't find data on the percentage of people who primarily get around on foot or anything comparable, but anyone who has been both places can attest to the fact that it's not even close. I would guess NYC has several times as many miles-walked per capita.

When you take that into account, I'd feel statistically much safer as a pedestrian in NYC than in San Francisco, despite the higher real death toll.

(I'm not going to look up LA because I don't really care. I prefer to imagine that LA doesn't exist.)

This goes against the grain of the (annoyingly moralistic without regard to outcome) reasoning about traffic laws in Berkeley. "Pedestrians SHOULD always have the right of way because they're doing the environment a favor. Cars SHOULD always yield to crazy people because they don't know any better." Well frankly LA and NY have just as many crazy people and I've yet to see one there walking into the middle of a busy intersection at rush hour, causing cars to swerve and slam on their brakes, and yelling inane nonsense and flipping off anyone who almost kills them (this happened last week a few blocks from my house, nearly killing ME, because swerving and braking simultaneously is kinda dangerous on a two-wheeled vehicle...)

Even if you're batshit nuts, you'll learn pretty quickly that moseying down 5th avenue in Manhattan will get you killed. And if 95% of the time cars come to a screeching halt as soon as you head for the road, you'll stop thinking about looking both ways. That other 5% of the time brings up the accident rate drastically.

Berkeley city planning should hire a behavioral economist.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Marriage in Oklahoma

In the "maps that show Oklahoma as an outlier in funny ways" category of this blog, it doesn't get much better than this.
  • Oklahoma has the 5th highest share of divorced men, and 4th highest share of divorced women.
  • Oklahoma is number 2 for youngest median age of men getting married, and number 4 for youngest median age of women (26 and 24 respectively).
  • But I save the best for last... Oklahoma has the highest share of women who have been married 3 or more times, and 2nd highest share of men (a startling high 10 and 9 percent respectively. Now that's depressing.)
Go figure, those last two are strongly correlated. Relatedly, I find it striking that, while it is true that 10-year divorce rates have exceeded 50% in some demographic groups in the United States, the rate among those who get married after attaining a graduate degree is less than 15%. Unfortunately I can't find that reference at the moment...

It's also true that outcomes such as divorce rates and multiple-marriage rates and kids-out-of-wedlock rates are correlated with the prevalence of religious fundamentalism... Recall the highly entertaining study from a year ago crowning Utah as the state with the highest rate of internet pornography subscribers.

What surprises me (and I think should be studied further) is that this seems to be primarily a cultural phenomenon, not a result simply of higher numbers of poor or uneducated people who get married young for economic reasons or because they don't anticipate improved prospects with time or just because they don't question that it's 'the thing to do'. Anecdotally, among my high school class, a group of very smart students selected to attend a public magnet school, many of the ones who stayed in the state for college are already married, and few of those who left. Same thing with my junior high friends to an even more extreme degree - many of the ones who stayed in Oklahoma are married with kids already, and none of the ones who left. I suspect that religiosity is the component of culture that captures most of this phenomenon, along with the spillover effect in which the (very small) minority makes similar decisions as the fundamentalist majority in non-religious matters when enveloped in that culture.

Just to be clear, I certainly don't judge anyone's individual decision, but statistical generalities are true regardless of the circumstances of individuals who may or may not fit the pattern...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

football analysis

This attempt at logic, from a blog that is too bad to bother linking, pains me on so many levels...:
If A equals B and B equals C, then A must be equal C. The Transitive Theory. We've all seen it. It makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, the sports world tends to abuse the general concept behind it.

Take the 2009 Denver Broncos. As we all know, during the off-season, the Broncos left everyone feeling that new coach Josh McDaniels was in over his head. The biggest factor leading to that common conclusion was the trade that sent Jay Cutler to Chicago.
So, using the transitive theory, you would conclude that the Cutler trade was a good idea. The Broncos traded Jay Cutler. The Broncos are better than anyone expected. Therefore, the Jay Cutler trade was a good idea.
However there are some other good statistical football sites I've discovered recently. AdvancedNFLStats in particular. In just the last week they've addressed onside kicks, resilience of particular statistics to QB changes, and irrational punt vs field goal play calling. Tons of good stuff.

Fifth Down, the NYTimes NFL blog, of course is good journalism and that is enough to make it worth reading (it's amazing how much reading amateur blogs and typical shouting-really-fast sports journalism makes you appreciate the writing from places like NYT.) Less nerdy though.

And Cold Hard Football Facts is entertaining. More on the list-lots-of-cherry-picked-numbers end of the spectrum than the insightful-big-picture-analysis end, but hey that's fun too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

unnecessary bureaucracy

I've gotten two (blatantly, heinously invalid) motorcycle parking tickets here in Berkeley, despite the fact I almost always park in the free university motorcycle parking areas. The system is broken and the city exploits the grey area because it leads to lots of extra revenue when, after months of trying to fight it, the infuriated citizenry just gives up and pays.

1) The EZ Park system DOES NOT WORK for motorcycles. There is nowhere to put the parking receipt, and even when I have tape with me or stick it in some non-obvious strap somewhere, half the time it blows away, and is easily stolen in any case. That's why car drivers put them on their dashboards and not under windshield wipers. I can park hardly anywhere in downtown Berkeley as a result.

2) If a motorcycle parks between two occupied spaces, and one of those cars leaves and lets their meter expire, parking enforcement zealously decides to assign blame to the motorcycle, even if the motorcycle is parked directly in front of a DIFFERENT parking meter.

Please tell me who it is in elected office that can officially instate free parking in these situations until the city comes up with a sane, enforceable, consistent way to charge for motorcycle parking?

And these are motorcycle-specific problems. Then there's the infuriating city bureaucracy I'm sure you're all familiar with already... in particular, first-round appeals are automatically denied and the 2nd time you have to include a deposit for the full amount owed. Obviously they have no motivation to listen to you once they have your money...

Again, please tell me who is accountable?

It's insane that the biggest bureaucratic pain in my neck in life is a city system that is supposed to make everyone's lives easier by enforcing reasonable parking restrictions. And it's sick that that system has morphed, with no accountability, into a revenue maximizing program.

[It's afternoons like yesterday, involving four hours of bureaucratic hassle and running around begging for answers that will likely never get me off the hook for lots of money I don't owe, that make me suspicious of any government bureaucracy... How government has come to connote a nice harmless paternal safety net is beyond me.]

Thursday, October 15, 2009

oh dear

I thought I had developed a pretty thick skin to the horror that is popular culture and modern society (I even held my tongue about the new DSM-V standards...) but this commercial I just saw makes me want to cry and start a new secular version of Amish society pegged at approximately 1975. A prescription drug "for inadequate or not enough lashes, also known as hypotrichosis".

(Apparently anything translated into a latin compound word is a legitimate medical disorder.)

Show of hands, men: how many of you have ever met a woman you were just mad about, except that naggingly thin eye hair was just too much to get over and you kept your distance?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I'm really baffled by foodies and the popularization of cooking essentially as a sport. Why does the enjoyment of food need to be infused with snobbery an upper-class attitude?

I really love food. Really really love. An expected ~85 years of three meals a day still seems like such a terrible constraint on allowed food-based enjoyment that I figure everything consumed should be extremely delicious to make the most of the opportunity. But this most certainly does not translate into a preference for expensive or exotic foods. I LOVE broccoli-cheddar rice-a-roni. My favorite food in the world has always been baked potatoes. McDonalds french fries are my personal heroin. Canned green beans, diet mountain dew, creamy chicken ramen noodles, cauliflower, kool-aid, easy mac... these are all large components of my (maybe not always nutritionally recommended) diet. It's not because they're cheap; it's because they're delicious.

I also really enjoy cooking. After a week of intense studying or the end of a big project, the most frequent way I'll unwind for the rest of the day is to cook massive quantities of delicious foods to eat for the next couple weeks of intense work. But I like to cook the things I like; I don't go out of my way to incorporate porcine pancreas or south american fungii and I have no problem substituting lemon juice for those crazy citrusy indian spices that are impossible to find or canola oil for $22/pint olive oil. Tastes the same.

The concept of cooking or food enjoyment as a "hobby" is also strange. Maybe some people take eating seriously enough to qualify definitionally as a hobby. Maybe some people take breathing seriously enough to qualify as a hobby. But I don't think I could claim such a thing with a straight face. Not only that, but elevating the status of food to such a level is just damaging to society overall. It's an absolute myth that poor people are forced to eat unhealthy fast food because healthy food is too expensive and/or time-consuming. I can prove that a couple dozen different ways and definitely spend less on food than if I went to McDonalds twice a day, even sticking to the dollar menu... Insisting that healthy food is only the domain of those with lots of money to buy it or lots of time to cook it just reinforces those expectations (and people rise or fall to expectations.)

So, foodie snobbery is clearly an unnecessary component to true enjoyment of food and cooking. But connoisseur commentary also eerily evokes the Emperor's new clothes. It's well-established that people's wine preferences in blind taste tests are uncorrelated with price. And that adding tasteless red dye to white wine causes people to describe the flavor with red fruits. I'll admit that maybe different types of oil taste different when you eat them plain, but I dare you to distinguish them after being used to stir fry vegetables. So when I see these ridiculous food reviews that are so popular (yet so mind-numbingly dull... I am once again baffled) I just can't take them seriously. Judgments of food quality should be subject to blind tests.

I guess it just boils down to the fact that food has become a fashion statement. And fashion is purely in the domain of the irrational. So I shouldn't waste my breath.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day Math

(The Stable Marriage Problem, in other words.)

I was recently reminded of this fun problem from Combinatorics, which was my favorite math class in college. The goal is to match N men with N women in such a way that no man and woman would both prefer to be married to each than to their assigned spouse (ie, it is a stable matching). There's a simple algorithm for this, invented by Gale and Shapley:

Each round, every single man proposes to his favorite woman who has not previously rejected him. The women collect and consider all these offers, and accept their favorites. If a woman has already accepted another proposal, this engagement is broken off, and that man becomes single again. This continues until everyone is paired up (which necessarily happens, since eventually every man can propose to every woman.)

Notice three properties of the resulting matching:
  1. It is stable. If there existed a man and woman in the final matching who wanted to have an affair, then that man would have proposed to that woman before his actual spouse, and that woman would have accepted.
  2. The men are paired with their favorite women that they could possibly be paired with in a stable matching. If this were not true, then there is some man M1 who is the first man to be rejected by his favorite feasible wife, W1. Say she rejected M1 in favor of another man, M2. Since men propose in order of preference, and M1 is the first man to be rejected by his favorite feasible wife, M2 must prefer W1 to any of his feasible wives. But in that case, in the stable matching (existent by hypothesis) in which M1 marries W1, W1 prefers M2 and M2 prefers W1 to W2. This contradicts the definition of stable.
  3. The women are paired with their least favorite man that they could possibly be paired with in a stable matching. This is true since if M1 is married to W1 in the algorithm, and in some other stable matching, M1 is married to W2 and W1 is married to M2, then by fact 2, we know M1 prefers W1 to W2, and therefore W1 must prefer M2 to M1 or otherwise that other matching wouldn't be stable.
The moral of the story is obvious.

But, now let's abandon traditional gender roles and sexual orientation and consider the PC version of the puzzle, say the Stable Life Partnering Problem. Now we have N people, all of whom might like to marry any of the other people, and each person chooses at the beginning whether s/he wants to be an asker or an askee. The trick is, asker's can now also be asked. I'm not sure what an easy fix for this would be. The problem is, in any round, an asker of course prefers to get a "yes" from their askee than to say yes to any other offer made to him. But then you can have a cycle of askers proposing to each other, and everyone is waiting for the person downstream to respond before accepting or rejecting other offers. There needs to be different rules for timing to make the problem tractable. Any ideas? (If asker's can't ask other askers, of course this boringly devolves into the other problem.)

(By the way, Happy V-day to all others whose revealed preferences rank writing about math over going out for the holiday =)

Friday, February 6, 2009

football meets economics

Slate had an interesting article recently about proposed changes to an overtime rule in the NFL, specifically, how it is decided which team gets the first possession. This paper on the subject makes the point more formally, for those who, like me, prefer their stories with a side of math. The analysis leaves out some considerations, however, that I think should change the conclusion.

Currently, a coin flip determines who gets the first possession, and a kick-off by the other team determines the initial field position. As overtime is decided by sudden death, the team with first possession has an advantage: they win in overtime in the last ten years more than 60% of the time. (Interesting, the historical average is lower. But better offensive drives have pushed up the advantage.) This coin-flip determination is thus nonideal, although there is no ex ante advantage for either team, because the probability of winning is randomly decided.

Two solutions to this unfairness are proposed. One is the simple fair-division mechanism familiar to any rival siblings: one chooses a split, and the other chooses which side to take. That is, one team would choose an initial field position, and the other team would choose whether to play or defend from that position. The "fair" position would depend on the teams involved of course, and it would take a couple seasons for teams to work out the best strategy, but the average fair position is estimated to be 15-20 yards. Also, note that any improvement in offense will never push the fair position as far back as the 0 yard line, since the probability of giving up a safety enforces this lower bound. (The paper makes this assumption explicitly, but for some reason does not point out this reason for its realism.)

The imperfection in this mechanism arises from imperfect information: The choosing team knows its strengths better than the dividing team, so the dividing team is at a disadvantage. A different mechanism, based on auctions, does better in this respect. In this rule, each team "bids" on field position, and the one willing to take possession closer to their own goal gets the ball at some compromise between the bids of the two teams. This is a perfectly symmetric rule, and thus favored by the economists and by the guys who wrote to the NFL to try to get the rule changed.

My first objection to this conclusion is that a little bit of unfairness in the divide-and-choose scheme is ok. It's true that if a coin toss determines which team divides and which chooses, this introduces an arbitrary element into the game. But, instead of introducing additional arbitraryness, the asymmetry could be used to counteract an arbitrary advantage that already occurred: the coin flip at the beginning of the game to assign first possession. The winner of that coin flip had a small advantage, and thus if the game ends up tied, they played slightly worse. They should thus be forced to divide the field and allow the other team to choose possession in overtime. Both advantages are small, so cancelling them out in this way should be a nearly perfect resolution.

My second objection is to the pragmatic details of the implementation of an auction rule. There are several ways it could be done, as listed by the guy, Quanbeck, who tried to get the rules changed. First is a live dutch auction, then an ascending live auction, and last a sealed bid auction. The last way is just boring. The first two ways would of course cause the coaches to plan ahead what yard they would seize or concede possession at, but in a live auction format, they would also try to read each other's body language for subtle clues and adjust their strategy on the fly. This puts too much visible responsibility on the coach, when it's better for the game if the players are the ones responsible for their fate and the coaches stay on the sidelines. Additionally, can you picture a non-trivial pause in a super-tense hard-fought violent game for a geeky field-position auction exercise? Quanbeck can, but he's an electrical engineer =) A divide-and-choose rule would take no longer than the coin toss, and make a lot more sense to the masses.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

biased coin flipping

Probability riddle!

Easy version: There are two players, A and B. They have one fair coin. What game can they play such that player A wins with probability exactly 1/3?

Harder version: Now players A and B have a single coin that lands heads with probability p in [0,1]. What game can they play, which halts with probability 1, such that player A wins with exactly probability q in [0,1]? (Hint: First pretend they have a fair coin. Then simulate a fair coin with an unfair one.)

Try it first, this riddle is quite within reach with a little pondering, and there are lots of correct answers at least for the first part.

Answer after spoiler space...
Ok, for the first version here is the answer I came up with but there are others for sure, maybe much simpler. Write 3 as 11 in binary. Now flip the coin in sets of two flips, with heads as "1" and tails as "0", so that each pair of flips spells an integer between 0 and 3. If you ever spell 11, ignore it. If the first integer between 0 and 2 that you spell is 0, player A wins. Another answer: Flip the coin repeatedly until you get tails. If tails occurs on an even numbered flip, player A wins.

Note that in general, you can use this method to simulate any rational number a/b. If 0 is one of the first a unique n-bit (where n is the number of bits needed to write b in binary) numbers spelled with the coin in {0,1,...,b-1}, then player A wins. The logic is that in an arrangement of the integers from 0 to b-1, there is an a/b chance that 0 is in the first a numbers in the sequence.

For the harder version, first let's create an event of probability p with a fair coin. To do this, write p in binary. Now spell out another decimal digit by digit by flipping the coin as above. If the resulting number is less than p, player A wins. This halts with probability 1 because in some finite time you will figure out whether the number is less than or greater than p: on the first flip that differs from that digit of p. The intuition for this is pretty straightforward. p fraction of all real numbers between 0 and 1 are less than p.

Now to simulate a fair coin: I actually found a much less pretty answer for this, thought to myself "I bet there's some really easy symmetrical solution to this" and then didn't bother trying to find it. But then a friend of mine told it to me. Turns out it's known as Von Neumann's trick. All you have to do is flip the coin in sets of two. If it comes up T/T or H/H, ignore it. If it comes out T/H, take that as a tails flip. If it comes out H/T, that's heads. By symmetry there is an equal probability of these two events.