Tuesday, September 30, 2014

One of my favorite Kreislers...

Joshua Bell recently returned for another engagement in the DC subway, to a little more fanfare than his first attempt. Here he is a while ago playing one of my favorites... The video is cheesy in parts, but who could play it better than Mr. B, besides Mr. K himself?

Your FSA/OWI Photo of the Day

Negroes speed war work for Tennessee Valley Authority. Alonzo Bankston is a furnace operator in the TVA plant producing carbide for use of plants manufacturing synthetic rubber. Alfred T. Palmer, 1942.

Frank Ramsey's philosophy of life

I love this quote, which is the closing passage of the Epilogue to Ramsey's The Foundations of Mathematics and other Logical Essays and was written in 1925. Five years later the body that housed this incredible mind would expire, at age 26.
Where I seem to differ from some of my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size. I don't feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does. I take no credit for weighing nearly seventeen stone. 
My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits. I don't really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; but that is a long time off still, and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing. Nor is the present less valuable because the future will be blank. Humanity, which fills the foreground of my picture, I find interesting and on the whole admirable. I find, just now at least, the world a pleasant and exciting place. You may find it depressing; I am sorry for you, and you despise me. But I have reason and you have none; you would only have a reason for despising me if your feeling corresponded to the fact in a way mine didn't. But neither can correspond to the fact. The fact is not in itself good or bad; it is just that it thrills me but depresses you. On the other hand, I pity you with reason, because it is pleasanter to be thrilled than to be depressed, and not merely pleasanter but better for all one's activities.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Muscle Shoals

Clocking in at 111 minutes, the documentary Muscle Shoals is a good 20 minutes too long. The story of how a little Alabama backwater became a soul and pop recording Mecca is compelling, but whether out of completism or a misplaced desire to appeal to the "young folks"(?!) the filmmakers add way too much footage of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Stevie Winwood and Bono. So unless you really dig "Sweet Home Alabama," you can fast-forward after the Stones roll through town.

Highlights: Rick Hall, the taciturn, embittered protagonist, who through pure grit, racial tolerance, and exquisite taste rose from poverty and repeated personal tragedy to record some of the most fantastic, soulful music ever made; the Swampers, the local white dudes Hall recruited to become the studio musicians behind funky soul classics like "Land of 1000 Dances" and "I Never Loved a Man," and who then betrayed their mentor and muse by striking out on their own to produce many more great records in their own studio; Keith Richards, the erstwhile guitarist and substance abuser who is never less than riveting on screen, if utterly ridiculous at the same time; the incredible beauty of the Tennessee River; and of course the Muscle Shoals sound.

Did I mention Aretha? The story behind "I Never Loved a Man"– especially Spooner Oldham's spine-tingling intro on the Wurlitzer electric piano– seems too good to be true, but so good it almost has to be true. She blows everyone away.

What was it about little Muscle Shoals? The movie half-heartedly tilts toward a woo-woo explanation drawing on Native American legends about the song of the river. One might as well say the stars aligned... and I suppose they did, when these talented and ambitious small-town white boys figured out how to bring out the very best in the greatest African-American artists of their generation.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

"... running a so-called negative split...

"... by covering the second half of the course 33 seconds faster than the first half." The first half being 13 F-ing miles, in just over one hour. Then Kimetto apparently decided to step up his game. Mind-boggling.

Saturday, September 27, 2014


Every acorn is a beautiful thing, but the acorns of the valley oak (Quercus lobata) are particularly lovely, with their graceful elongated olive shape and variable coloration. Not to mention that each one has the potential to grow up to be California's most beautiful tree.

Friday, September 26, 2014


Dominic should be a most impatient dog, so eager is he to get on with his adventures and to experience everything the great wide world has to offer. But he is a very good listener and will take a pause from his journey for as long as necessary to help a fellow creature in need. One such was Barney Swain, a wild boar who had scrimped and saved for his wedding and honeymoon, only to have it all stolen by the wicked Doomsday Gang...

Dominic is happy to share his own fortune and save the day. And how did Dominic, a dog of modest means, come to acquire his extraordinary riches? By providing care and comfort to a lonely bedridden stranger, Mr. Bartholomew Badger (a pig), during his final days. In gratitude Mr. Badger has left Dominic directions to his buried treasure, before departing this mortal coil. Dominic weeps for his friend, but he is irrepressible:
Dominic couldn't abide being in the doldrums for long. The doldrums were dreary, and Dominic's spirit was sprightly, it liked to rollick. So he had to get moving. He shook off the dumps, and since he was still holding the shovel with which he had buried Mr. Badger, he went to dig up the treasure.
William Steig's Dominic is a masterpiece... how did I miss it when my kids were the right age? But what is the right age? Here is a novella of 146 pages, including Steig's humble but evocative ink drawings. There are big words and subtle ideas, and a touch of the sadness that permeates his picture book, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. But overall this is a joyful book, perhaps even ecstatic, with a delightful fairytale ending. It is also alive with poetic, richly descriptive language, appealing to all five senses–especially Dominic's most powerful: smell.

Economics Nobel Prize

Here's the case for Tony Atkinson. An excellent economist, but not really Ken Arrow material... then again, who is? I doubt he'll get it.

If it were up to me, I'd go for a three-way split between Sam Bowles, Herb Gintis, and John Roemer. These guys have kept Marxian economics alive, against all odds, through sheer creativity, brilliance, and relevance. Each has repudiated the master in his own way, whether by way of evolutionary or ethical theory, or libertarianism. Each has enriched the discipline of economics at the edges, like Marx himself. And as Piketty proves, Marxian themes are ripe for a comeback.

Banerjee and Duflo are the other obvious choices to me, but it's unseemly to give the prize to someone 10 years younger than the all-time youngest recipient. That would be Professor Arrow, of course.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Dismal climate realities

Initially I read this article by Robert Stavins the way he must have intended it: realistic, and profoundly pessimistic. Nobody knows climate policy and climate economics better than Stavins, and most of what he says is indisputable. But upon re-reading, some of it started to rankle...
In the United States, the issue is mired in partisan politics, and the outlook is not promising for an effective national climate policy that would encourage carbon-friendly innovation and cost-effective emission reductions by putting a price on carbon emissions — either by taxing them or using a national cap-and-trade system that would make it more expensive to pollute. Rather than rewarding today’s voters with benefits financed by future generations, as Congress typically does, solving the climate problem will require costly actions now to protect those who will follow us. 
Making matters more difficult, climate change is essentially unobservable by the public....
Well, something here is not quite right, Bob... not quite "realistic." Your paragraph elides the partisan congressional gridlock on climate policy on the one hand, and the public-goods problems that make climate action so challenging on the other—viz., the costs are mostly in the present, and the benefits mostly in the (distant) future; and the benefits are shared, and thus subject to free riding. But you see, the thing is this: there was and likely still is a (big-D) Democratic majority for cap-and-trade, despite the clear obstacles to building political support that you so clearly identify. The proof is in California. Meanwhile the handful of former Republican supporters (e.g. John McCain) have largely abandoned ship. In the United States, at least, the political divide is between those who acknowledge the problem and its challenges and those who either deny the problem or cynically obstruct progress for short-run political gain.

I suppose Professor Stavins is thinking that by bending over backwards to appear politically neutral, his legitimacy, prestige, and expertise may in some small way help win back the necessary Republican minority support for what needs to be done. But his willingness to obscure history, if not rewrite it, is troubling. Not to mention unrealistic.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pegu Club

More a wine and beer man myself, but this cocktail is just about as good as it gets... Kind of like getting the best of a martini and a margarita all in one...

My version (for 2) was:
5 oz No. 209 gin
3 oz. Cointreau
2 oz. lime juice
a few dashes angostura bitters

Shaken with ice until very cold. Yum.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Overlooked again...

... for a MacArthur genius award. Dammit! The annual condolence email from a friend got me wondering... should I have stuck with the sax instead of economics? By my count some 7 of 41 geniuses in music are jazz saxophonists. This year, the deserving Steve Coleman was added to the list, which also includes Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, Steve Lacy, Ken Vandermark, Miguel Zenón, and John Zorn. Changing my name to Zundstrom might improve my odds as well...

Monday, September 15, 2014

Hottest August on record

Globally, that is. But if you look at the map of temperature anomalies, you can see that the United States was largely spared. It's almost as if God were giving the Republicans another excuse to ignore the problem... as if pure ignorance and greed were not enough.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What could possibly go wrong?

Those ISIS guys do seem to be very bad guys. But... but... 
President Obama’s determination to train Syrian rebels to serve as ground troops against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria leaves the United States dependent on a diverse group riven by infighting, with no shared leadership and with hard-line Islamists as its most effective fighters.... 
“You are not going to find this neat, clean, secular rebel group that respects human rights and that is waiting and ready because they don’t exist,” said Aron Lund, a Syria analyst who edits the Syria in Crisis blog for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It is a very dirty war and you have to deal with what is on offer.”

We're in the top 25 for salary growth!

Santa Clara University, that is, in terms of the difference between median starting salary and median mid-career salary. Well, we're exactly #25, according to this graph from the Washington Post. Outstanding career preparation, or something to do with location...?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Jesse Rothstein on teacher tenure

Here's a short interview with Rothstein, an economist doing interesting work on teacher quality and education. I like this closing passage:
Everyone agrees that the goal should be to make teaching a respected profession, a profession that talented and able people want to enter. So far, I've heard you say that there's not a lot of evidence suggesting ways that that could be accomplished effectively. Is there one policy that we haven't discussed? 
We could double teachers' salaries. I'm not joking about that. The standard way that you make a profession a prestigious, desirable profession, is you pay people enough to make it attractive. The fact that that doesn't even enter the conversation tells you something about what's wrong with the conversation around these topics. I could see an argument that says it's just not worth it, that it would cost too much. The fact that nobody even asks the question tells me that people are only willing to consider cheap solutions. They're looking for easy answers, not hard answers.
My son has just started his first teaching job in a very challenging middle school environment, working with a disadvantaged population. In other words, he is doing "God's work," if you ask me. He is putting in about 80 hours a week, and is stressed out just about every waking moment. I'm not sure I would trade places with him for twice my salary, never mind twice his. So sure, take away teacher tenure... but double their salaries. That sounds like a good start.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Amazing R Markdown

I teach a new basic econometrics course using R, and I am quite proud of my Guide to R for SCU Economics Students (available here), which features a series of instructive tutorials with accompanying R scripts and data. I revise it and revise it and revise it, using one of humankind's most infuriating creations, Word. If I change the code, or a graphic, I have to run the R and print and paste the results into the script. Then, make sure Word has not gone and F-ed up the formatting, then print to pdf and upload.

But lo and behold: R Markdown. Simple text entry, intuitive formatting, embedded R code that will run and show the code and/or results in your document, formatted for optimal clarity. Saved automatically to HTML. Post and fuhgeddaboudit. Open source and free. Seems almost to have been designed with my needs specifically in mind. Outstanding. The sooner I can move my Guide to Markdown the better.

Bill Gates, you really are a good man. But I will gradually wean myself from your bloated annoying products, I swear I will.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

More fungus news

Taking a stroll at Foothills Park today, what looked like a volleyball at the base of a pile of wood chips caught my eye... apparently the western giant puffball, Calvatia booniana. It's been such a dry year it's hard to believe anything could be growing in early September, especially something as large and fleshy as this, but maybe some moisture hitchhiked in with the wood chips. (Speaking of large and fleshy, my hand is not actually that color... usually....)

Photo: LMK.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Fungus news

The butter bolete Boletus regius is now Butyriboletus autumniregius! Helluva good-looking mushroom, regardless of the name. And tasty, they say.

Photo credit: Michael Wood.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Greg Brown, RIP

Palo Alto, where I have now lived for more than 20 years, must have the most atrocious public art of any affluent town in the country. I could go into a number of specific examples, but why dwell on the incompetence of our Public Art Commission? Accentuate the positive, as the song says. And the positive is that a number of the city's buildings are graced by the whimsical murals of Greg Brown, who died recently, too young, at 62. These life-scale paintings, whether at street level or tumbling trompe l'oeil from a window or balcony, can still catch you by surprise, even when you have seen them dozens of times. Here he is touching up Spiro Agnew, who happens to be pushing an alien in a stroller. It's hard to imagine that anyone has brought more everyday joy to Palo Altans.

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 46

Possibly the most beautiful song about bitter class resentment ever recorded.



Confirmation or falsification?

Many economists are trained to believe that when they do empirical work, they are– at least ideally– engaged in "Popperian" falsificationist methodology. That is, evidence can never prove something to be true, but it can prove something to be false. And using classical statistical methods, it's easy to convince yourself that this is what you are up to, because the whole enterprise involves seeing whether you can reject a hypothesis. But in this post, Andrew Gelman explains quite clearly why we are generally not falsificationists, but rather confirmationists... or at best that we "bounce" between the two. He goes on a bit, but here is the money section:
Deborah Mayo and I had a recent blog discussion that I think might be of general interest so I’m reproducing some of it here. 
The general issue is how we think about research hypotheses and statistical evidence. Following Popper etc., I see two basic paradigms: 
Confirmationist: You gather data and look for evidence in support of your research hypothesis. This could be done in various ways, but one standard approach is via statistical significance testing: the goal is to reject a null hypothesis, and then this rejection will supply evidence in favor of your preferred research hypothesis. 
Falsificationist: You use your research hypothesis to make specific (probabilistic) predictions and then gather data and perform analyses with the goal of rejecting your hypothesis. 
In confirmationist reasoning, a researcher starts with hypothesis A (for example, that the menstrual cycle is linked to sexual display), then as a way of confirming hypothesis A, the researcher comes up with null hypothesis B (for example, that there is a zero correlation between date during cycle and choice of clothing in some population). Data are found which reject B, and this is taken as evidence in support of A. 
In falsificationist reasoning, it is the researcher’s actual hypothesis A that is put to the test. 
How do these two forms of reasoning differ? In confirmationist reasoning, the research hypothesis of interest does not need to be stated with any precision. It is the null hypothesis that needs to be specified, because that is what is being rejected. In falsificationist reasoning, there is no null hypothesis, but the research hypothesis must be precise. 
In our research we bounce 
It is tempting to frame falsificationists as the Popperian good guys who are willing to test their own models and confirmationists as the bad guys (or, at best, as the naifs) who try to do research in an indirect way by shooting down straw-man null hypotheses. 
And indeed I do see the confirmationist approach as having serious problems, most notably in the leap from “B is rejected” to “A is supported,” and also in various practical ways because the evidence against B isn’t always as clear as outside observers might think. 
But it’s probably most accurate to say that each of us is sometimes a confirmationist and sometimes a falsificationist. In our research we bounce between confirmation and falsification. 
Suppose you start with a vague research hypothesis (for example, that being exposed to TV political debates makes people more concerned about political polarization). This hypothesis can’t yet be falsified as it does not make precise predictions. But it seems natural to seek to confirm the hypothesis by gathering data to rule out various alternatives. At some point, though, if we really start to like this hypothesis, it makes sense to fill it out a bit, enough so that it can be tested. 
In other settings it can make sense to check a model right away. In psychometrics, for example, or in various analyses of survey data, we start right away with regression-type models that make very specific predictions. If you start with a full probability model of your data and underlying phenomenon, it makes sense to try right away to falsify (and thus, improve) it. 
Dominance of the falsificationist rhetoric 
That said, Popper’s ideas are pretty dominant in how we think about scientific (and statistical) evidence. And it’s my impression that null hypothesis significance testing is generally understood as being part of a Popperian, falsificiationist approach to science. 
So I think it’s worth emphasizing that, when a researcher is testing a null hypothesis that he or she does not believe, in order to supply evidence in favor of a preferred hypothesis, that this is confirmationist reasoning. It may well be good science (depending on the context) but it’s not falsificationist.
P.S. for all you smug Bayesians: Read on. You're not off the hook.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Mohsin Hamid

Around this time every year the people in the dean's office ask business-school faculty for their summer reading recommendations, which are posted on our web site. Mine tend to be novels, or occasionally nature books relating to simple organisms like slime molds or lichens. This year it was only novelists. Having already blogged two of my three recommendations (here and here), I limit myself to the third here, with some augmentation (the excerpt in particular). But all you really need to know is: Read these!

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Mohsin Hamid

These are the two most recent novels by the brilliant young Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid. They are both coming-of-age stories, the protagonists South Asian men negotiating the rapid, radical, and often contradictory changes occurring in their homeland, or coming to terms with life as a dark-skinned émigré, post-9/11. As a writer, Hamid is at once poetic, efficient, and brutally honest. He never allows you, the reader, to avert your eyes from what is ugly or unpleasant, but he often adds some subversive irony or humor to help you nervously laugh it off... or not. For example, the unnamed second-person narrator of How to Get Filthy Rich, in the context of how he came to be the educated sibling, describes the fate of his older sister:
She was told she could go back to school once your brother, the middle of you three surviving siblings, was old enough to work. She demonstrated more enthusiasm for education in her few months in a classroom than your brother did in his several years. He has just found employment as a painter's assistant, and has been taken out of school as a result, but your sister will not be sent there in his stead. Her time for that has passed. Marriage is her future. She has been marked for entry.
Ouch, that stings. But in spite of it all, Hamid is a romantic, and a humanist. These are both love stories, after all. And a side note to business readers: Hamid is the rare novelist who writes cleverly about the realities of business and economics. He’ll make use of Keynes for a literary allusion. And those fundamentals? They just might be financial rather than religious.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The kittens have gone completely batshit insane...

... listening to Buck Owens. That is all.

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 45

One of the great things about America is that for every Andy Williams there is a Stevie Wonder... which is not to say there's anything wrong with Andy... but...

I'll be browning my Brussels sprouts in bacon fat...

"People who avoid carbohydrates and eat more fat, even saturated fat, lose more body fat and have fewer cardiovascular risks than people who follow the low-fat diet that health authorities have favored for decades, a major new study shows." (NY Times)

"So, how tall is Serena, anyway?"

From the service return side of the net, I'd say about 8-5, maybe 8-6...