Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sure it saved us twenty billion, but it sounds funny

I was very pleased to read this report (via Mr. Salmon,) in the Washington Post:
Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) believes it is time the sex life of the screwworm got its due.

 On Wednesday afternoon, Cooper rose to the defense of taxpayer-funded research into dog urine, guinea pig eardrums and, yes, the reproductive habits of the parasitic flies known as screwworms--all federally supported studies that have inspired major scientific breakthroughs. Together with two House Republicans and a coalition of major science associations, Cooper has created the first annual Golden Goose Awards to honor federally funded research “whose work may once have been viewed as unusual, odd, or obscure, but has produced important discoveries benefiting society in significant ways.” Federally-funded research of dog urine ultimately gave scientists and understanding of the effect of hormones on the human kidney, which in turn has been helpful for diabetes patients. A study called “Acoustic Trauma in the Guinea Pig” resulted in treatment of early hearing loss in infants. And that randy screwworm study? It helped researchers control the population of a deadly parasite that targets cattle--costing the government $250,000 but ultimately saving the cattle industry more than $20 billion, according to Cooper’s office.
This is a good story in the sense that it's good news -- for too many years, important research with huge economic pay-offs has been ignored and often mocked -- but it's also a good story for a guy trying to write  a post for a science and technology blog because it illustrates so nicely some of the reasons that so much science reporting is so bad:

1. Most reporters have a weak grasp of what goes into good research. For example, studying conditions in different animals often produces giggles from the press (see the dog urine study) even though changing the population of animals studied is generally an excellent idea.

2. The press corps have an urban bias accompanied with a pronounced disinterest in agriculture. As a result, even agricultural research of immense and obvious economic value is routinely mocked by publications like the New York Times.

3. The press corps also has decided ddulite tendencies and unfortunately this research doesn't sound cool. (Even though it is.)

update: Upon review, I'm thinking that I didn't out my point sufficiently. The studies described on the WP were good, solid research that paid for itself. The media's inability to recognise good science makes it all the more difficult to fund and pursue good science.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Organizational strategy

Brad DeLong:
The strategy that Berkeley has settled on is to seek to produce the funding stream necessary to maintain a great University by becoming a finishing school for the superrich of Asia. This may be the wrong strategy--I sometimes think so, many others think so, and you can certainly argue so. But it is the strategy that we have. And the worst strategy of all is to have no strategy. A bad strategy is vastly preferable to no strategy, or to an unimplemented strategy.
There is a lot of good stuff in this particular post.  In global terms, the critique of reducing access to education in the United States is probably the single most important point in Dr. DeLong's piece.

But I think that the point above is one that academics should pay a lot more attention to.  You may or may not agree with a particular strategy (or Dr. DeLong's specific recommendations as to how to approach the strategy) but it is critical that there be a strategy.  I have seen bad strategies work out for all sorts of unexpected reasons (nobody can know all possible variables).

But it is true that sticking to a strategy is a sensible plan.  The costs of constantly changing strategies is non-trivial and may replicate the worst elements of no strategy.  

On the tech beat

Lots of interesting technology stories out that I ought to be blogging about, most via Felix Salmon.

Salmon examines the career of "the Man Who Makes the Future."

Neal Stephenson and Tyler Cowen have some questions about innovation in the internet age.

While the other side seems to be retreating to the position that we're doing fine; just look at how slow progress was in 1900.

And finally, Noah Smith effectively makes the case that, in an era of limited budgets, particle accelerators are a bad place to spend our research dollars.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Is this really the basic lesson of economics?

Frances Woolley:
The basic lesson of economics is that people - including governments - aren't stupid. If it was possible to generate an immediate increase in tax revenues by reducing tax rates, taxes would be cut instantly. Taxes are what they are in part because reducing taxes creates an immediate revenue short-fall.
But it is worth noting that countries don't immediately do a "race to the bottom" on tax rates and so there has to be some underlying level of support for current policies.  It is not that change is never good, but it is the case that it pays to carefully examine the full set of incentives.

Somebody is usually benefiting from social arrangements.  

Can you plagiarize folklore?

[the following is a follow-up of sorts to this earlier post on plagiarism.]

You can certainly steal the wording, perhaps the narrative structure, but does it make any sense to talk about plagiarizing something that has neither distinct authors or authorship dates? That's a question raised by by this
kerfuffle over the following paragraph lifted by Karl Weick:
The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wilderness. It began to snow immediately, snowed for two days, and the unit did not return. The lieutenant suffered, fearing that he had dispatched his own people to death. But the third day the unit came back. Where had they been? How had they made their way? Yes, they said, we considered ourselves lost and waited for the end. And then one of us found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down. We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm, and then with the map we discovered our bearings. And here we are. The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map and had a good look at it. He discovered to his astonishment that it was not a map of the Alps but of the Pyrenees.
It's possible that this story really happened (I have reason to doubt it but I'll get into that later), but that's not really important. Some times the events in folk tales and urban myths do happen but that doesn't stop the tales and myths from functioning, culturally and aesthetically, as folklore.

The genre of worthless items proving valuable stretches at least from Stone Soup (which merits its own type in the Aarne-Thompson folktale classification system) to Mamma's Bank Account. Add to that the related genre of false or misunderstood instructions and you can find literally thousands of antecedents.

Now check out the "original" version (again from Gelman):

1916: Albert Szent-Györgyi, a medical student in Budapest, serves in World War 1.
1930: Working in Szeged, Hungary, Szent-Györgyi and his colleagues discover vitamin C. In the next several decades, he continues to make research contributions and becomes a prominent scientist, eventually moving to the U.S. after World War 2. He dies in 1986.
1972: Medical researcher Oscar Hechter reports the following in the proceedings of a “an international conference on cell membrane structure,” published in 1972:
Let me close by sharing with you a story told me by Albert Szent-Györgyi. A small group of Hungarian troops were camped in the Alps during the First World War. Their commander, a young lieutenant, decided to send out a small group of men on a scouting mission. Shortly after the scouting group left it began to snow, and it snowed steadily for two days. The scouting squad did not return, and the young officer, something of an intellectual and an idealist, suffered a paroxysm of guilt over having sent his men to their death. In his torment he questioned not only his decision to send out the scouting mission, but also the war itself and his own role in it. He was a man tormented.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, on the third day the long-overdue scouting squad returned. There was great joy, great relief in the camp, and the young commander questioned his men eagerly. “Where were you?” he asked. “How did you survive, how did you find your way back?” The sergeant who had led the scouts replied, “We were lost in the snow and we had given up hope, had resigned ourselves to die. Then one of the men found a map in his pocket. With its help we knew we could find our way back. We made camp, waited for the snow to stop, and then as soon as we could travel we returned here.” The young commander asked to see this wonderful map. It was a map not of the Alps but of the Pyrenees!
The moral of the story, as given by Hechter and by Bernard Pullman at another symposium a year later, is that the map gave the soldiers the confidence to make good decisions
1977: Immunologist Miroslav Holub publishes a poem (of the prosy, non-rhyming sort) telling the lost-soldiers story (again, crediting Szent-Györgyi) in the Times Literary Supplement, translated from the Czech. Holub may have actually attended the meeting reported on by Hechter.
Take a good look at the format here. The narrator says a person he knows told him a story which he then repeats. The source is specific and reliable. The story is improbable, involves unnamed protagonists and a fairly non-specific setting, and has folkloristic aspects. This puts us squarely into urban myth territory and a map of that territory is useful when you try to what's happening here.

Much of the pernicious staying power of urban myths is the tendency to attribute the credibility of the source to the story itself. Of course, with an urban myth, the source is simply another link in the chain just as we are when we repeat the story.

With that in mind, when Gelman emphasizes the importance of crediting Szent-Györgyi, it begs the question, what should we credit him with? What is Szent-Györgyi's role here? Though we can't say for certain, it seems unlikely that he came up with the story (and if so, he certainly misrepresented it). Likewise, it doesn't seem like these events happened to him or that he witnessed them. Instead, based on the evidence that we have in front of us, it seems obvious that Szent-Györgyi's role here was the same as Hechter's and Holub's and Weick's; he heard a story and he repeated it.

Weick certainly owes Holub an apology and an acknowledgement, but as for not mentioning Szent-Györgyi, I think he made the right call. Naming Szent-Györgyi implies that we know the source and can trust the story's veracity (I doubt that we do or can). Saying nothing about where the story came from is possibly more honest; it doesn't imply anything we have reason to believe is untrue. Instead it presents this as an apocryphal tale, a bit of folklore. As such, it has to stand on its own merits: is it interesting and thought provoking?; does it make a valid point?

Weick unquestionably stole the words he used to tell this story, but I suspect the story itself has been told and retold since soldiers started carrying maps. Arguing about plagiarism at this point seems rather silly.

Monday, April 23, 2012

What I'm currently blogging about in some alternate reality

Via Andrew Gelman, Gary Rubinstein digs through NYC's data dump and produces a series of interesting posts. If you can't read the whole thing, make sure to check out part 1 and part 3.

Elsewhere in education, Felix Salmon points us to this case of a foundation providing high school lesson plans that push a definite agenda.

Back on the USPS beat, the NYT explains how the service's attempts to diversify are often blocked through the lobbying of competitors. Dean Baker has more on the subject.

And on the subject of the growth fetish (with a bit of ddulitism thrown in), Noah Smith looks at the performance of venture capital firms since the bubble burst.

On the plagiarism front, stealing from unpublished work is especially egregious.

When you're feeling old, reading Tennyson can improve your outlook.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Like complaining about saucy language in Sodom and Gomorrah

Here's an idea for a novel: in a dystopian future/alternate history, the country is governed by a totalitarian central government that forces teams of teenagers to battle to the death in an annual televised event. In the hands of competent writer it's a premise that could generate plenty of drama and suspense and it has highly cinematic elements.

I'll get back to that idea in a minute but first I want to direct your attention to this recent post by Andrew Gelman. Go ahead, take a look. I'll wait...

There are a number of things to discuss here but let's start with this assertion quoted by Gelman:

“The essence of plagiarism is passing off someone else’s work as your own."

This nicely catches the stark moral terms that we often see in this debate, but when look at this more closely, particularly when we look at what's entailed in different types of plagiarism and the reactions to those types, the picture is a bit murkier.

Let's go back to the idea from the top of the page and fantasy stories about young adults. Back in the mid-Nineties, J.K. Rowling came up with the inspired notion of combining the two great traditions of British juvenile literature. The concept and Rowling's skillful execution produced the enormously successful Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

Rowling's success was followed by a wave of science fiction and fantasy novels aimed at the young adult market. These included Percy Jackson, the Lorien Legacies (co-written by the disgraced James Frey), Gregor the Overlander, and, of course, Twilight and the Hunger Games.

But one thing Rowling's success didn't inspire was the idea I mentioned at the top. That one came from a Japanese writer who used it for a novel written in 1996 and published in 1999 under the name Battle Royale,

The book and the movie that followed a year later were huge international hits. Despite the somewhat disturbing subject matter, both generally received positive reviews. Here's the Guardian in 2001, "Some will find the explicit violence of this movie repulsive - or plain boring. But this is a film put together with remarkable confidence and flair. Its steely candour, and weird, passionate urgency make it compelling." And Stephen King, writing in Entertainment Weekly (February 1, 2007) gave the book an enthusiastic endorsement (while noting it had some elements in common with his novel The Long Walk).

A little bit more than a year and a half later, Scholastic published the Hunger Games.

Given the number of blogs by fans of science fiction and Japanese popular culture, it's not surprising that the resemblance was discussed at some length.

From Wikipedia:
The 2008 American young adult novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has been accused of being strikingly similar to Battle Royale in terms of the basic plot premise and the world within the book. While Collins maintains that she "had never heard of that book until her book was turned in", Susan Dominus of The New York Times reports that "the parallels are striking enough that Collins's work has been savaged on the blogosphere as a baldfaced ripoff," but argued that "there are enough possible sources for the plot line that the two authors might well have hit on the same basic setup independently."
That "might well have" is an awfully weak defense (particularly given the puff piece tone of the NYT article) and it points to one of the central problems in the plagiarism debate: while it's easy to prove the relatively trivial crime of lifting wording, it's next to impossible to prove more substantial thefts. We can look at the timeline. We can look at Collins' previous career as a writer of fairly derivative kids' shows (no Spongebob or Pete & Pete) and the author of the Underworld books (a series that bears a marked resemblance to Harry Potter). Nothing here gives us any reason to believe that she didn't steal the idea but also nothing that could be called evidence that she did.

This is not meant as an attack on Collins who is, as far as I can tell, an excellent writer and who is doing a wonderful job getting kids to read. I'm in favor of what she's doing and I couldn't care less how she does it.

My point is that the theft of wording -- a problem that is both trivial and rare, but easy to prove -- is treated as a major offence while stealing more substantial elements -- a problem that is both serious and common, but is hard to prove -- is largely ignored.

If we truly want to embrace the inclusive definition of plagiarism we quickly ourselves in the uncomfortable position of pointing out the extensive lapses of friends and colleagues rather than the failings of a few convenient pariahs.

If we're going to be anywhere near consistent and proportional, we're going to have to ask ourselves whose names really belong on a research paper. I can think of at least one case where the credit was given to someone who happened to be the spouse of the main researcher's thesis advisor (the valid reasons for being listed as an author do not include marrying well). If you didn't substantially contribute to the research behind or the writing of a paper and you put your name to it, you're a plagiarist.

And we need to ask ourselves how much journalism consists of simply paraphrasing and regurgitating other people's ideas, arguments and interpretations. When you hear someone talking about a meme, they actually mean that stories are being borrowed and recycled on a massive scale.

Discouraging plagiarism in the broad sense is a worthy goal, but focusing exclusively on those few people who lift some phrases from other published work is simply a distraction.

Job cuts in science

From Alyssa:
. . . last week, the Government of Canada announced that thousands of public service jobs will be cut. This includes a10% budget cut at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).* Their budget is about $300 million (paltry compared to NASA's budget of about $20 billion - clearly not scaled by population), so cutting 10% is pretty huge. So, apparently the decision was made to completely abolish the CSA Space Awareness & Learning program - the program that funds 100% of my salary.
We have one more year on our grant. We're hoping that they'll make good on all their current grants and contracts - but looking at our contract with the CSA, it clearly states that they are entitled to change/cancel grants if the federal budget changes.
So, here's where I start preparing for any number of possibilities, from best- to worst-case scenario:
1. The last year of our grant comes through, and we have a year to come up with other funding sources.
2. The last year of our grant doesn't come through, but we find another source of funding. Depending on the source, this could be a short- or long-term solution, and could potentially mean a pay cut.
3. The last year of our grant doesn't come through, and we can't find another source of funding. I am out of a job. We have to pull Evan out of daycare. We can live on DH's salary alone if we cut back slightly on our spending, but we would not be able to do anything else. I have to find another job.
This is a really good (and actually Canadian) example of how austerity economics cause trouble during a recession.  Right now, unemployment rates are high.  This makes it a bad time to decide to cut programs.  In good times, the elimination of a government program would lead people to retool themselves for the public sector.  In a recession, it merely increases the overall level of hardship without people being easily able to find new employment.

What I found most interesting about this situation is that the person in question was funded on short-term rotating grant funding.  This is not the sort of high-security and extensive benefits type of work that is at the center of the public debate.  Instead, it is a PhD level educated person who is being funded entirely through a competitive mechanism.  So it is hard to imagine that the person in question isn't working very hard (I know I did under this sort of funding).

Perhaps now is not the ideal moment to reconsider precisely which government workers need to be re-purposed.  Maybe we could wait for the glut among the unemployed to pass?

Derivative originality -- the paradox of Harry Potter

Another lemma post (but at least it's the last in the series) in support of a longer piece I'm working on. The topic of that one is going to be plagiarism which leads naturally to the topic of originality, and since the post will involve Harry Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games, I thought I should address the question of J.K. Rowling's originality in advance.

Stephen King has said that Rowling is a terrific writer and I'm fully prepared to bow to his judgement, but it's possible for a writer to be good without being original and original without being otherwise good. Rowling built Harry Potter around an extraordinarily original idea working with parts that were almost completely derivative.

Let's start with the parts.

You could argue that there are two distinctly British traditions of coming-of-age novels: the Arthurian (think the Sword in the Stone) and the school story. The best known example of the latter is Tom Brown's School Days; the best is Mike. Both genres are uniquely tied to British character and culture but, as far as I know, no one saw how fundamentally similar they were until Rowling came along.

You can see that underlying similarity of the two genres (and Rowling's skill at combining them) by imagining the Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone first with the fantasy elements removed, then with the public school elements removed. The results would be, respectively, a conventional school novel and a conventional juvenile fantasy novel, but they would both be basically the same story. Most of the characters and the majority of the plot work equally well in both genres.

To see connections between seemingly disparate elements and to find a way to bring them together in a coherent whole is pretty much the soul of originality, even those elements are old and familiar and worn smooth with use. This is in sharp contrast to most of the writers in the upcoming post.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Quote of the week

From NPR:

"Blowing up carcasses is a little bit of an inexact science."

Out of town

I will be at a conference for the next four days.  Posting may be lighter than usual.

Is working through school still a viable plan?

Prices have risen for education in the past thirty years:
Representative Foxx would have paid $279 for the academic year—about $2,140 today. That’s about equivalent to what students pay right now at community colleges, not public four-year institutions—especially not public flagships.  
In-state students at Representative Foxx’s alma mater pay $7,008—more than three times what Foxx paid. It took Foxx seven years to graduate, probably because she was working to put herself through college. During the 7-year period she was at UNC, tuition and fees increased about 0.6 percent per year. Compare that to UNC students who have seen their tuition and fees increase on average 7.2 percent per year since 2005. UNC students who take fewer classes in order to subsidize their tuition through work have found themselves in a losing battle with steep tuition increases.  
They have also come up against work that pays less and less. When Representative Foxx was working her way through college, the minimum wage was worth about $9.62 in today’s dollars. Today’s students who work minimum wage jobs earn about 30 percent less per hour while paying much more in tuition. If Representative Foxx worked 20 hours a week for an entire year during her time at UNC, she would have made approximately $9,795 before taxes, which would probably cover her entire cost of attendance. Using the same calculation, a student today working 20 hours a week for an entire year would make $7,176. This would barely cover tuition and fees. It wouldn’t even make a dent in the estimated full cost of attendance of $20,660. Indeed, if a student worked 40 hours a week, a situation not feasible for a full-time student, he would only net $14,352—still leaving a considerable gap. That gap is exactly where student loans have come into play.
 I think that this (long) piece illustrates a few things (and neglects how the difference in costs for state schools is heavily driven by less state support for higher education).  One, is that there is a huge difference between $2,000 year (five years of school = $10,000 in tuition) which leaves manageable levels of debts (as I have seen people pay off $10,000 in debt).  Two, the return on unskilled labor continues to drop. 

The drop in unskilled labor compensation have two syngeristic effect.  First, they make working one's way through school even less viable.  Second, they make the opportunity cost of not getting a degree much higher.  When you couple this loss of value of unskilled labor with a dramatic rise in tuition, the real story seems to be that the rational choice seems to be to focus on being successful in school (to rise your eventual market wage) and give up on working.

This is not, as Representative Foxx seems to suggest, a loss of virtue among the youth of today.  Instead it is the best strategy available (among a set of bad strategies).  However, it is also predicated on having good information on the real value of special educational pathways.  Since guessing the job market in four years is always a "crap shoot", it just about guarentees a certian proportion of students will end up with a lot of debt and no way to pay it back. 

Most of this problem could be fixed on the tuition side as it is clearly the larger problem.  If state schools cost 2000/year and tuition was stable then working one's way through school would make a lot more sense. 

More on Markets

There is a good post over at the Incidential Economist that discusses games that companies can play with drug patents.  I think that this highlights one of the issues that we always neglect -- modern economic systems are based in a system of regulations.  In the absence of regulations we would not have patent protection and these games would be more difficult to play.  But a complete absence of rules (anarchy) isn't usually a very economically profitable equilibrium.

Once you have a government (with laws and soldiers), you are really just picking your poison.  Hyper-free market approaches have the same issues as communism does, only in reverse.  Communism removes private property, which weakens those parts of society that work best in private markets where ownership incentives productivity and long term care of the resource (think subsistence farming).

In the same sense, Randianism removes public goods, resulting in other problems (like the failure to have an educated workforce, a strong military, or a system of roads).  Health care seems to be one of those areas where treating it as a public good seems to lower costs no clear drop in outcomes.

So I think the authors of the above post are correct to doubt that free markets will improve health care anymore than communism improved agriculture.  The right tool for the right job should be the goal.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A lemma for a lemma -- Mike, Psmith and Orwell

I'm working on a long post that will refer to a post on British school novels (such as Tom Brown's School Days). That post will, in turn, refer to this literary evaluation of P.G. Wodehouse:
In 1909 came Mike, which George Orwell long afterward called "perhaps the best light school story in the English language." It is here that Psmith makes his first appearance, the initial P silent as nothing else about him is silent. He even had his monocle then, and the devious mind that makes him a pleasure to follow through all the rannygazoo of the later novels when he is, in a manner of speaking, grown up
Orwell's fondness for Wodehouse is one of those things that seem strange at first glance but make more sense the longer I think about it. Both were tremendously inventive writers and, at the same time, skilled craftsmen. Both brought a rare precision to their prose. Both were masters of plot. And though Wodehouse may have been gentler, both were still sharp satirists.

While on the subject of dystopian visions, the sometimes symbiotic, sometimes parasitic relationship between Wodehouse's servants and their childlike aristocratic masters has often reminded me of Wells' Morlocks and Eloi but that's a subject for another post.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Composition of the Economy

Brad Delong:
Second, over the past generation our our economy has shifted in directions--toward education and toward healthcare--where the private competitive market is much less effective. As a result, a good society now would have a significantly larger role for government than a good society then. And it is thus bad policy to drop any of our sources of revenue to fund government.
I think that this point is interesting and not one that I have thought much about before.

I notice, for example, that private universities actually pay higher salaries than public universities (or at least the top 10 list skews in that direction).  Or if we look north (to Canada) it is true that health and education seem to be sectors that a country with a larger government sector seems to do well with.  They have much more cost-effective schools and manage universal health care (at a much lower cost per person).  Sure, there are issues with quality of care between the the two countries (although it is not absolutely clear which one wins out in aggregate).   

Monday, April 16, 2012

Student Loans

This is a really good question by Steven Taylor:
Likewise, states are facing increased demands to pay for prisons and Medicaid and universities are facing increased health care costs (and increased enrollments). At a minimum we have to recognize that we have developed a system in which we expect a large number of high school graduates to go onto get college degrees at the same time we have cut spending to higher education. It is a problematic model, to be sure. Is it too much to ask that people who are in positions of power to acknowledge these complexities?
The context of this question is Virginia Foxx questioning the wisdom of student loans.  It is true that we have created a situation where state funding is declining but a university degree is a key element for a young person to enter the workforce.  After all, human capital development is one of the keys to increased productivity.  We can argue whether universities are ideal (hopefully in a context of the real world where waste, inefficiency and problems are present in all human systems) for this role.

But if we are not going to create alternatives then we should not be surprised that students see no good options.  In particular, is the trade-off of more prisons for less education really the ideal choice?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Looking at the same graph -- seeing an entirely different picture

There's plenty to talk about with this chart (which comes to us via Andrew Gelman), but the thing that struck me (and this happens a lot) is that, when you look at it closely, the graph actually undercuts the point it's supposed to be making.

The idea that technology is coming at us faster and faster is one of the most ingrained ideas in our society. Given the title of this chart, its creator would certainly seem to share this notion, but does the chart really show what its name indicates or are we seeing something more like a distant cousin of Simpson's paradox where shifts in make-up and other factors create the illusion of a trend?

(Before we get into these factors, though, take a minute to look at the graph. It looks like the steepest curve is associated with the VCR. That's over thirty years ago, a long time for a record to hold if we really are seeing an upward trend.)

As you're looking at the graph, think about these three things:



Big ticket items

Going last to first, big ticket items requiring heavier manufacturing always had slow adoption curves regardless of when they were introduced (check out the dishwasher). Much of the appearance of acceleration can be attributed to a shift in composition to smaller items.

Then there's the period of 1930 to 1945, pretty much the ultimate in anomalous data. During the Depression most people couldn't afford new products. During the war, new technology was rapidly developed and adopted, but by the military, not consumers.

Finally there's infrastructure. The adoption curves of electricity and telephones are almost entirely governed by the hard work of developing infrastructure (something we have arguably gotten slower at) and infrastructure at least indirectly constrains every line on this graph (check out the Reivers for an account of what cross country driving was like at the beginning of the last century).

The infrastructure constraint points to perhaps the most impressive case of a technology exploding. Take a look at the curve for radio. Now look at the curve for electricity. Even allowing for a few crystal radios and battery operated sets, you have to conclude that radios achieved almost 100% penetration of houses with electricity in about a decade. By that standard, the record for fastest adoption is over eighty years old.

Update: There's a good string of comments on this over at Andrew Gelman's site, some of which make some of the same points I've made here..

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A par-baked* idea for a programming competition

Here's a notion I've been kicking around for a while, sort of the opposite of Deep Blue. In the IBM initiative a single team of computer scientists (with the help of a grandmaster) built an extraordinarily complex machine to master a specific task. In what I have in mind (I'm tempted to call it "shallow pink" but I'm afraid the name might stick) a number of teams will write simple programs (at least simple by today's standard) that will do something extremely general.

The task is to write a program to play a game without knowing exactly what the game is.

This is how it would work:

The game will be played on a rectangularly or hexagonally tiled board of dimensions no more than 20x20 or 15x15x15. It would involve placing and/or moving pieces that may or may not be differentiated. The rules should be simple enough for a human player to get up to speed relatively quickly (no humans will actually be playing; this is just a rule of thumb to keep things manageable). The rest of the rules won't be announced until the programs have been submitted for that year's competition.

I'll leave the details to those better qualified to supply them but here are the basics. The programs will be size constrained, held to a format, set up so that game rules can be entered as a separate set of parameters, and configured for automated play.

Of course, the quality of play won't be that impressive but that's not the point. The idea is to get lots of bright people trying to come up with innovative, elegant and flexible approaches to problem solving.

I suspect most OE reader are better programmers than I am so I'm opening the floor for suggestions.

* Yeah, I mean half-baked, but this way sounds better.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

More thoughts on the growth fetish

I recall a quote from investor Peter Lynch saying (if memory serves) that he didn't like it when companies invested his money, meaning that if a company he owned stock in was sitting on piles of cash he would prefer for it to send him his share of the money as a dividend (or use it for a stock buy-back) rather than spend it acquiring new companies.

I don't have the passage in front of me but I think it's safe to say that Lynch would consider exemptions for expansion and vertical integration. Acquisitions in those categories have to be examined on a case-by-case basis. I doubt, for instance, Lynch would have objected to Tyson picking up pork producers after it achieved dominance in the chicken market.

Instead, we're talking about something like a tobacco company acquiring a cookie manufacturer -- different markets, different vendors, different everything. There are a lot off these acquisitions that don't make a great deal of sense to the casual observer (how did Starwood hotels end up with ITT Tech?). Obviously, the people who made these decision had access to information not available to the general public and there are undoubtedly cases where these decisions would have made more sense had the casual observer been thoroughly briefed. Still, given sheer number of odd-looking acquisitions, I have to suspect that at least some of them are attempts to cash in on the growth fetish.

A brief argument in favor of splitting infinitives

I was listening to a public radio story on Facebook's recent billion-dollar acquisition and I heard the reporter say that the first order of business was "not to screw [the company] up." Of course, what he meant was that the first order of business was to not screw it up. The first statement simply says that there were other things more important than screwing up.

If it comes down to a choice between splitting an infinitive and not saying what you mean, always take the first option.

Today's required reading

On this blog, we have been talking about budget deficits on the blog recently and I thought that some perspective on the factors driving the US debt would be worth considering.  Aaron Carroll goes into the real drivers of the debt: increased interest on the debt (due to tax cuts) and increased health care costs.  It is well worth reviewing in detail.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Joseph lurches to the right

I have to admit that I'm a little perplexed. I always thought my co-blogger Joseph was fairly liberal on health care issues, but in his last post he voiced his support for a single payer system.

This is strange because Talking Points Memo quotes the following from an Associated Press story:

“[I]f Republicans have moved to the right on health care, it’s also true that Obama has moved to the left,” reads an AP wrap on the Obama speech. “He strenuously opposed a mandate forcing people to obtain health insurance until he won office and changed his mind.”
As TPM noted, Obama's previous position had favored single payer. Therefore, we would seem to have two possibilities:

1. Single payer is significantly to the right of individual mandates, a market-based approach with a solid conservative pedigree, thus making Joseph quite conservative, or;

2. A reporter for one of the world's most recognised news organisations was willing to misrepresent a move to the right as a move to the left in order to support a cherished but flawed narrative of partisan equivalence.

I wonder which is more likely?

Following up the follow-up

Following up on Joseph's latest, I actually think the problem here is more James Stewart than Paul Ryan. Ryan's budgets have been fairly obvious attempts to form a more Randian union. That's not surprising coming from an avowed follower of Ayn Rand. Ryan also comes from a Straussian tradition so I'm not exactly shocked that he would try to sell proposals that are likely to increase the deficit as a path to fiscal responsibility.

But that's OK. The Ryan plan is exactly the kind of bad idea that our national immune system ought to be able to handle. Liberals should savage its underlying values (Rand is always a hard sell); centrists and independents should spend their time pointing out the endless ways that the numbers don't add up and the evidence contradicts the basic arguments; respectable conservatives should damn it with faint praise or simply avoid the topic. The Republicans would then come back with a new budget, hopefully a proposal based on valid numbers and defensible assumptions, but at the very least one that obscures its flaws and makes a cosmetic effort at advancing its stated goals.

For Ryan's proposals to maintain their standing as serious and viable, the system has to have broken down in an extraordinary way. Specifically, the centrists such as James Stewart have had to go to amazing lengths to make the budget look reasonable, up to and including claiming that Ryan intends to take steps that Ryan explicitly rules out (from James Kwak):

Stewart is at least smart enough to realize that a 25 percent rate is only a tax increase if you eliminate preferences for investment income (capital gains and dividends, currently taxed at a maximum rate of 15 percent):

“Despite Mr. Ryan’s reluctance to specify which tax preferences might have to be curtailed or eliminated, there’s no mystery as to what they would have to be. Looking only at the returns of the top 400 taxpayers, the biggest loophole they exploit by far is the preferential tax rate on capital gains, carried interest and dividend income.”

So give Stewart credit for knowing the basics of tax policy. But he is basically assuming that Ryan must be proposing to eliminate those preferences: “there’s no mystery as to what they would have to be.”

Only they aren’t. Stewart quotes directly from the FY 2012 budget resolution authored by Ryan’s Budget Committee. But apparently he didn’t notice this passage:

“Raising taxes on capital is another idea that purports to affect the wealthy but actually hurts all participants in the economy. Mainstream economics, not to mention common sense, teaches that raising taxes on any activity generally results in less of it. Economics and common sense also teach that the size of a nation’s capital stock – the pool of saved money available for investment and job creation – has an effect on employment, productivity, and wages. Tax reform should promote savings and investment because more savings and more investment mean a larger stock of capital available for job creation.”

In other words, taxes on capital gains should not be increased, but if anything should be lowered.

These distortions aren't just journalistic laziness or rhetorically overkill on Stewart's part; it's essential to a narrative that writers like Stewart have built their careers on.

Here's Paul Krugman:
But the “centrists” who weigh in on policy debates are playing a different game. Their self-image, and to a large extent their professional selling point, depends on posing as high-minded types standing between the partisan extremes, bringing together reasonable people from both parties — even if these reasonable people don’t actually exist. And this leaves them unable either to admit how moderate Mr. Obama is or to acknowledge the more or less universal extremism of his opponents on the right.
The point about self-image and professional selling points is remarkably astute and when you combine those with the decline in fact-checking, diminishing penalties for errors, and a growing trend toward group-think, you get a journalistic system that loses much of its ability to evaluate policy ideas.

And for a democracy that's a hell of a loss.

Follow-up to Mark

There is a good follow-up to Mark's post yesterday here.

The central issue is that the Ryan budget only works if you can find a huge number of tax expenditures to remove and/or enormous cuts in the budget.  Removing all taxes on capital gain plus dropping the rate on the top tax bracket is an extreme change in the historical structure of the United States government.

Now, I have no trouble with people arguing for their ideas as to what is an ideal form and structure of government.  But I do think that both sides should be really transparent.  When I argue for single player health care, I try to be enormously transparent with how dramatically it would impact current providers (and how it would change the relation between patients and physicians).  I also suggest what I think might work as ways to mitigate these issues.

But the idea that dropping the top tax rates and setting the capital gains tax rate to zero would increases taxes paid by the ultra-rich only makes sense if there is a tax expenditure that can be targeted.  What that tax expenditure is should be the center of the debate now.

But it sounds like this has got to be one heck of an interesting plan.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Inventing the (original) reasonable Republican

This passage from Paul Krugman about the need to invent reasonable Republicans these days reminded me of something:

What’s going on here? The defenders of Ryan come, I’d argue, in two types.

One type is the pseudo-reasonable apparatchik. There are a fair number of pundits who make a big show of debating the issues, stroking their chins, and then — invariably — find a way to support whatever the GOP line may be. There’s no mystery in their support for Ryan.

The other type is more interesting: the professional centrist.* These are people whose whole pose is one of standing between the extremes of both parties, and calling for a bipartisan solution. The problem they face is how to maintain this pose when the reality is that a quite moderate Democratic party — one that is content to leave tax rates on the rich far below those that prevailed for most of the past 70 years, that has embraced a Republican health care plan — faces a radical-reactionary GOP.

What these people need is reasonable Republicans. And if such creatures don’t exist, they have to invent them. Hence the elevation of Ryan — who is, in fact, a garden-variety GOP extremist, but with a mild-mannered style — to icon of fiscal responsibility and honest argument, despite the reality that his proposals are both fiscally irresponsible and quite dishonest.
The idea of having to invent a politician to fit a need is not a new one. Thanks to an old LP my father had, I grew up listening to one of the most memorable takes on the subject.

* Had Krugman been willing to speak ill of a fellow New York Times writer he probably would have linked to this.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Social Darwinism

John Chait brings up an interesting point:
I happen to think "social Darwinist" captures the prevailing Republican philosophy pretty well. The point of the label, created by historian Richard Hoftsadter, is that a species of laissez-faire economics treated the market the way Darwinians treat natural selection — as the sole natural and correct mechanism for distributing rewards.
I think that this line of thinking fits well into the paradigm of the "magic of markets".  However, markets are man-made constructs and suffer the flaws of all such systems.  For example, it is unclear that there is such a thing as a true free market without issues of fraud (because regulations are subject to capture by political forces) or force (because how do you fund police without taxes).  Once you have a mixed economy, there are inevitably going to be winners and losers based entirely on who gets to develop the rules and who starts off with advantages.

Going back to a state of nature involves either starting from scratch (which nobody appears to be actually proposing) or trying to unwind a harrowing history of inappropriate use of force/fraud (just ask the First Nations about this issue).

Given that, I honestly do not understand the opposition to mixed economies. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

According to, four out of five bills have traces of cocaine on them

That factoid came to mind while reading the last paragraph of the passage below:

Knutson was working at the Fryn' Pan in Moorhead, Minn., when, according to her attorney, Craig Richie, a woman left a to-go box from another restaurant on the table. Knutson followed the woman to her car to return the box to her.

"No I am good, you keep it," the woman said, according to the lawsuit.

Knutson did not know the woman and has not seen her since, Richie said. Knutson thought it was "strange" that the woman told her to keep it but she took it inside. The box felt too heavy to be leftovers, Ritchie said, so she opened it -- only to find bundles of cash wrapped in rubber bands.

"Even though I desperately needed the money as my husband and I have five children, I feel I did the right thing by calling the Moorhead Police," Knutson said in the lawsuit.

Police seized the money and originally told Knutson that if no one claimed it after 60 days, it was hers. She was later told 90 days, Richie said. When 90 days passed, Knutson was still without the $12,000.

Police told Knutson the money was being held as "drug money" and she would receive a $1,000 reward instead, the lawsuit states. Lt. Tory Jacobson of the Moorhead police said he could not disclose much information about the case because it is an ongoing investigation.

"With turning this money over to us, we initiated an investigation to determine whose money this is," Jacobson told ABC News. "The result has been a narcotics investigation."

Police argue that the money had a strong odor of marijuana and therefore falls under a law that allows for forfeiture of the money because it was in the proximity of a controlled substance, the lawsuit states. But there were no drugs in the box and Richie said he believes this law is not being used correctly.

Salmon follows up on Groupon

Essential reading if you've been following the story.


I was reading this post by the usually amazing Jodi Beggs about contraceptive coverage in health care.  I was especially struck by the underlying assumptions in this point
Since it's mainly a subjective matter, I'm in no position to evaluate moral right-versus-wrong here. I am in a position, however, to point out a critical flaw in the argument. In order for the pro-mandate argument to hold, it must be the case that women are not in a position to choose their employers, their schools or whatever other institutions may be providing them with health insurance. As a woman, I find this assumption to be absurd and more than a little insulting. Since women are free to choose the employers and schools that are best for them, those women who prioritize free access to birth control can seek out institutions that offer that benefit.
If women behaved in this way, employers and schools would have an incentive to offer contraceptive coverage to their female employees. These incentives would come not only from the fact that birth control is likely cheaper than the corresponding amount of prenatal care and maternity leave, but also from the fact that the institutions offering coverage would have a wider pool of applicants to choose from. Of course, some institutions might refuse coverage on ethical grounds, but they would either have to offer higher compensation to make up for it or accept the fact that its female applicant pool is going to be limited to those women who either don't care about birth control or can't get another job or school acceptance letter. (Economists call these outcomes "compensating differentials" and "efficient sorting," respectively. I call it "voting with one's feet.")
I think that there are two assumptions that are made implicitly with these types of arguments that don't necessary hold.  The first, and most critical one, is that labor markets are reasonably tight and that it is easy to change jobs.  Back in the late 1990's that seemed like a realistic assumption.  Today, with unemployment hovering around 10%, that seems far less likely. 

The second assumption is that health care is a free market, which is definitely is not.  Have you ever tried to acquire an antibiotic without a prescription?  Or had to pay the (much higher) uninsured rates for medical visits and procedures? 

If employment is fluid then voting with one's feet might be a realistic option.  If health care was a free market then one could simply rebalance one's expenditures.  But when a market is not ideal, the second best outcome can actually be far from the theoretical ideal.  In this case, the regulation of benefits is trying to deal with two problems that we have: a hyper-regulated health care market and a high unemployment rate.  Now there may be good reasons for these problems (the alternatives could well be worse). 

But the idea of free labor market mobility is not the experience of the median worker right now (in the sense that changing jobs may well be a non-trivial issue). 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sharks in a kiddie pool

This story from PRI's the World connects nicely with some posts I'm trying to get around to about the appropriate scale for different research projects. Some are well suited to small, entrepreneurial approaches (like this). Others demand major commitments from governments or large corporations (or both). If we want to encourage technological development, that's an important distinction when we get down to individual cases. For example, the prize model makes more sense when dealing with the first than when dealing with the second. (and yes, I am thinking of this.)

Now back to the sharks:
Stroud, 38, used to work fulltime as a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry. Then, in the summer of 2001, he and his wife went on a cruise to Bermuda.

“We hit bad weather, and we were trapped in a cabin, and on the news was shark bite after shark bite,” he says. “It seemed like everyone that stepped in the ocean in Florida was getting attacked by a shark that summer.”

That’s when his wife suggested he turn his talents to developing shark repellents. When they got home, he set up several kiddie pools in his basement, and he filled them with small sharks.

Field assistant T. J. Ostendorf holds a lemon shark in a seaside pen at Bimini Biological Field Station. The shark is turned upside down to induce a sleep-like state called tonic immobility. A repellent is considered effective if it can rouse a shark from this state. (Photo: Ghinwa Fakhri Choueiter)
He watched how the sharks fed, swam, and behaved. Then, one day, he accidentally dropped a large magnet from his workbench. He noticed some small nurse sharks dart away.
“That night, we put magnets into the tank and couldn’t believe [that] the nurse sharks were just extremely distressed and stayed away from them,” he says.

Stroud had discovered that magnets repel sharks.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A thought about Libertarianism

I was reading a series called Monster Hunter International.  One of the interesting themes in the book is that a private corporation (the Monster Hunters) are doing a better job than the government at dealing with the creatures of the night.  The books are extremely well written escapism and I definitely enjoy reading them.

But I noticed one interesting element.  Despite the dislike of the government by the monster hunters, the business plan requires the government to offer extremely large bounties (often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars) to hunters who kill a monster.

So this hyper-libertarian scheme only works when the government is willing to infuse it with cash.  I notice that the same thing was true of the Old West -- another libertarian example.  Here the government offered resources through mechanisms like the homestead act.

This does two things.  One, the increase in resources makes hard work extremely rewarding.  Coal miners ended up in Unions despite huge amounts of hard work.  That is because a life-time of hard work results in few rewards ("another day older and deeper in debt").  In the homestead scenario, hard work leads to a land-based legacy for one's family.

Two, this makes it viable to simply move on.  If your neighbors are insufferable then you can just try your luck somewhere else.  Look at how frequently western figures like Wyatt Earp moved around the West.  If you can just set up stake somewhere else, leaving is easy.

So maybe this philosophy is better in good times?  I wonder if we'd worry about inequality, for example, if wages were rising for all social classes?

Will reading OE make you rich?

OK, I'll admit that a lot of people saw this coming.