Friday, July 31, 2009

natural born citizens

This whole controversy about whether Obama is a natural born citizen of the United States is obviously insane baseless conspiracy theorizing by a desperate GOP trying anything in its power to fear-monger its base into action. I wouldn't normally even dignify its existence with a comment.

But I have to ask, who cares if he is?? He obviously grew up an American from before he could remember anything different. I couldn't care less whether he was flown to Hawaii from Kenya at age 3 months. It in no way affects his qualifications as President.

I'd go even farther and say the natural born citizen requirement should be dropped altogether. Arnold Schwarzenegger can be governor of the 5th largest economy in the world but he can't be president because he wasn't American as a child? The GOP should be pushing for the drop of the requirement just so they can run him. (Can you imagine an Obama v. Schwarzenegger campaign? The thought makes me giddy.)

And there's even plenty of wiggle room in between "natural born" and "citizen and resident for 14 years". I was born an American citizen (not even dual citizenship) but because that took place in Germany (and not on a military base, within US jurisdiction) I can't be president. Does anyone in the world think my 2 weeks with natural born American parents in Tübingen should stop me?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Attention span

Steven Dubner is falling over himself with enthusiasm for this paradigm of work styles and so am I. It divides the world into "makers" and "managers", the former who tend to work on things in large blocks of time without interruption, and the latter who divide their days into hour-long distinct tasks.

This has been such an important theme in my life I had to comment and elaborate. I have always thought of it just in terms of attention span (most of the rest of the world seems ADHD to me...) but maybe this manager/maker split is more general. Or maybe attentions span just predicts which type of worker you are better suited to be.

In school I never really work in between classes during the day. I fill up the gaps with minor tasks and errands and wasting time because a free hour isn't enough to really delve into something. I always wished we could take one class at a time for 4 or 5 weeks each so we didn't have to switch focus every day. Part of the reason I skip classes so often is because a class isn't just a one hour commitment, it splits up the day and delays by five hours getting home to a blank solitary 12 hour stretch of concentration. The 8 months I worked on Wall Street were completely miserable in large part because I was never able to adapt to the rigid, fractured, people-filled distracting work environment. I'm horrible at multitasking. Even this summer, working on as many as seven different projects, I only do one at a time in week long blocks.

I'm often torn between the merits of the two working styles. Structured blocks assigned to different tasks, on the one hand, forces you to be "on task" more often. When you only have an hour for something, you can't spend an hour looking up papers, reading abstracts, fiddling with data, and generally reabsorbing yourself in the thought process of the project. On the other hand, that hour is a profitable investment in the next eight when you can make the major breakthroughs.

But, despite the tradeoffs, it's pretty clear that the 'real world' is much more sympathetic to the manager style of work. Meetings are scheduled in blocked-up calendars. Lunch breaks and coffee breaks and commuting from place to place break up your schedule and interrupt your concentration, school and activity schedules fill up all the gaps. When does someone in an office job ever get a six hour chunk of time to really focus on something? It just doesn't happen, unless you're self-employed or in academia and intentionally create that for yourself.

So please, let's make a collective effort to reduce distractions and respect the time requirements for intense work. Only have a real meeting when you really need to collaboratively discuss something in real time. Send quick emails the rest of the time. Don't require physical presence at minor engagements. Don't ask me to "grab lunch" or "get some coffee". Move all of the errands and meetings and bureaucratic nonsense to Friday afternoon.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven, by Barry Holstun Lopez. I picked this up thinking it would be good motorcycle-trip-through-the-southwest reading. I vaguely enjoyed reading it at the time but have already forgotten most of the stories. Stick with Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. This is one of my boyfriend's favorite books so I was coerced into reading it. Didn't really do it for me. I can tell why someone with an appreciation for that sort of thing might consider McCarthy one of the best modern prose writers but the plot didn't grab me and went on and on monotonously, and I didn't find the characters realistic or sympathetic. And I don't like dreary, depressing books.

Farm City, by Novella Carpenter. This was my latest book club book, about an urban farmer in Oakland. It was fairly entertaining series of stories about her turkey/rabbit/pig raising escapades in an abandoned ghetto lot, which I particularly enjoyed due to the familiar setting. I was very relieved that it was not yet another preachy Berkeley-esque book about food in modern society. The author actually seemed much more preoccupied with her own identity as a farmer than the local food movement or the virtue of killing your own food, etc. And it makes me want to raise food rabbits as soon as I live in a more suitably sized apartment (easy and cheap to raise and breed, quiet, not too messy, dumb enough that I wouldn't be too queasy killing them, easy to clean, and tasty...)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Women in Science

My favorite thing about being a woman in science? I can say things that men would never dare.

I'm analyzing data on four classic economic games. In these four games, there are two possible avenues for screwing over your (anonymous) partner. In the ultimatum game, you can reject an offer to split a certain sum of money, resulting in neither of you getting anything. In the trust game, you can take an investment from your partner, triple it, and return only a small amount. Guess what demographic attribute most strongly predicts that you will be more than normally backstabbing? Being female. (And, sex is not a significant predictor for any other action in any of the four games; just those two.)

I don't know how robust is this effect even within this small dataset let alone in the world, but I was pretty tickled at the thought of publishing it. (As Ted Miguel said this morning "I'll let you be the lead author on that paper...")

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

overestimating control

This quote from the altogether-way-too-prolific Matt Yglesias I reacted to with an internally enthusiastic "Yes exactly!!" so since it is only one sentence from several million he's written in the last five minutes I wanted to re-quote it selectively. (Note: it was in the context of discussing Obama's Ghana speech, which you should definitely read.)
One sociological finding I’m fascinated with is the fact that the extent to which one overestimates one’s personal degree of control over one’s fortunes is an important predictor of success. In other words, success in life is partly a result of circumstances and luck and partly a result of individual effort. And people who overestimate the importance of effort at more likely to succeed. It makes sense when you think about it, but it’s also a bit paradoxical.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Obama on Africa

A bit of a blatant re-post from Undercover Economist, but anyway:

Not much to add that isn't already said in one of those three links. Fantastic stuff. (Isn't it nice to have an eloquent, thoughtful president again? Even if I don't agree with everything he believes in, I can't get enough of that.)

Monday, July 13, 2009

notes from motorcycling

"Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest: 'Land of Many Uses'" should actually be called "Humboldt-Toiyabe National Barren Wasteland: 'Nothing but Scrub Brush for 300 Miles'". I dare you to find a single naturally occurring tree within its borders.

300 miles is a little much to tolerate riding west with gale force gusty south winds. Probably it was not the smartest thing to continue on across a desert with no gas station or shade for 170 miles after sitting in a gas station when a gust of wind came up so powerful that all the plastic numbers flew off the price sign, smashed into the backs of parked cars, and one into my leg (which is now blue-striped.)

And now a list of a few of my favorite rides in the country (rather limited experience, but 16,000 miles in 21 states produces at least a few definite favorites.)

1. Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Highway - The Blue Ridge Highway is a 600 mile stretch along the ridge of the Appalachians, starting in Shenandoah and ending in the Smoky Mountains, with a maximum speed limit, if I recall correctly, of 45 mph (and usually slower.) In other words, this stretch will take a few days. But it's just the right curvature to be really fun, well designed and well banked, and GORGEOUS, especially in the far north, looking into Shenandoah Valley.

2. Highway 1 between San Francisco and Fort Bragg (to the north). This is where highway 1 terrifyingly follows every tight curve of the coast, dropping in a sheer cliff into the Pacific. Quite an adrenaline rush of a ride, and the most beautiful coastline (which faces west so you can see sunset over the water) I've ever seen.

3. The Florida Keys. There's something about having transparent blue ocean on either side of you and island hopping for almost a hundred miles (and then hopping on a ferry to go to Dry Tortugas National Park for snorkeling and blindingly colorful tropicalesque scenery). And the wind off the ocean, random torrential rainfall, and snaking roads and narrow bridges, make it not just a great drive but a great motorcycle ride.

4. Highway 550 in Colorado between Ridgway and Durango. Specifically, between Silverton and Ouray. This is a mindblowingly stunning mountain drive through the San Juan mountains, zigzagging along ridiculously tight 15-mph curves, with a sheer cliff upwards on one side and a sheer cliff down into a rushing white river on the other side, no guardrails, and then into a narrow rocky box canyon into Ouray. As a bonus, there are a few hot springs along the route to stop at and soak, which is probably the most relaxing and bone-warming way to end a ride ever.

5. Highway 6 to Highway 120 from Tonopah, NV to the west edge of Yosemite National Park. First comes (what I consider to be) gorgeous barren Nevada desert. And as soon as you get into California, you enter a crazy beautiful landscape where somehow gorgeous red wood evergreen trees are growing out of what appears to be nothing but white sand. And of course Yosemite pass/valley is stunning. The fun thing is that the road is like a rollercoaster. The landscape is naturally very bumpy and absolutely no pains were taken to adjust that landscape to the road rather than vice versa. Up and down, suddenly, over and over, and only occasionally can you see what's happening on the other side.

6. I can't pinpoint a single spot, but my favorite places to ride are empty back highways through farmland and tiny towns where the crowds and commercialism of interstates haven't reached. A few favorite spots would include highway 1 north of LA before it heads back to the coast, highway 90 between Houston and San Antonio, and highway 301 through Maryland east of Chesapeake Bay. This is of course great in a car too, as compared to the interstate, but you miss all the smells of farmland, fruit stands, etc, that way.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

sixlets, candy for nerds

Not even nerds themselves are better suited for nerds than sixlets, which I recently rediscovered (apparently they still sell them in the middle of the country. And now I'm so addicted I'll have to order them on the internet from Berkeley.)

You know how people, maybe predominately nerdy people, develop habitual algorithms for eating m&ms, like my favorite: eat the most common color until there's the same amount as the second most common color, then alternate between those until there's a three-way tie, etc, until you end up with a mouthful of one of each?

Sixlets (which are incidentally an objectively better version of the candy-coated-chocolate idea than M&Ms, and should be called eightlets, since they come in little packets of eight) open up a whole new realm of potential nerdy eating habits. Optimize eating one from each end of the line of eight to maximize the variety of colors left at any point? In ones or twos or fours? So that all the brown ones are gone before the most possible other colors?

Then start in the category of compulsive mental calculations. Since all the colors seem to be mixed together randomly and put in groups of eight randomly, it's a great random number generator. What's the probability of not having one of each of the five colors in a pack? What's the probability of getting equal numbers of each color? What's the probability of getting a rainbow? Are any of these overrepresented in your bag of 8-packs? What's the p-value?? Is the sixlets company conspiratorially allocating sixlets in groups of 8 only pseudorandomly? Can you backwards engineer the selection process from observing various distributions of events?

I've never spent so much time mulling over candy packaging.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Behavioral economics doomed?

Rather interesting lecture claiming that behavioral economics shouldn't be as hot as it is. I don't buy it.

First of all, the claim isn't really that strong: that behavioral economics has plenty of hope of improving on classical economics, but little hope of replacing it. Well of course. We know classical economic theory works amazingly well in the laboratory and in the real world in almost all situations, in the aggregate. We're certainly not going to throw out that success just because psychology leads to some quirky behaviors sometimes.

Secondly, I firmly put learning in the category of behavioral economics. When Levine says several times that a phenomenon isn't a result of irrationality but of imperfect learning, this only says to me, as a behavioral economist, that there is hope to model the process of learning so that these quirky situations can be understood more generally and improved upon, not that behavioral economics has nothing to say on the matter.

Thirdly, I don't throw out all hope of behavioral economics "replacing" classical economics just because classical economics is in fact so useful. Relativity didn't "replace" Newtonian physics; it kept the results of Newtonian physics in the domain in which they are accurate and refined the theory to be applicable in more contexts. This is a perfect analogy for where I see behavioral economics heading.

Classical economics makes predictions without any mechanisms for individual behavior. It just calculates aggregate outcomes which would result if agents were perfectly rational. This "as if" approach does not actually claim that agents are perfectly rational. It says that the aggregate quantity that results is as if the agents were perfectly rational and individual level behavior were in fact not the noisy misunderstood mess that it is (and Newtonian physics makes predictions as if mass did not bend spacetime.)

Behavioral economics should retain the aggregate predictions of classical economics but actually try to model the individually noisy, dynamic process that leads to it. In that sense, I think there is plenty of hope for behavioral theory replacing classical theory, even if classical theory remains incredibly useful in most situations and continues to be the shortcut method of calculation (just as I do not take time dilation into account when calculating the velocity of a projectile on impact).

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Fourth!

I love the 4th of July. It's summertime, first of all. And it has a buffet of nostalgic associations with fireworks, mosquito bites, driving home after bedtime in a small-town "traffic jam" on the last thread of my dad's patience, painting patriotic t-shirts, barbecue, marching around the neighborhood with a kazoo, the Stillwater Community Band, sweating in 106 degree 98% humidity weather, and winning silver dollars from the sweet old lady who actually bothered to put on that crazy parade every year.

Having spent the last few weeks motorcycling through the heart of the country and getting high on the sights and smells of farmland (hay, cows, and engine grease; grain silos, oil rigs, and those crazy irrigation sprinklers that spin around and hit the spray so it distributes evenly...) I would like to sentimentally encourage everyone else American to also appreciate the country you live in. It's beautiful. And filled with amazing people. And pretty decent as far as treating us right, when you consider the alternatives.

It's pretty sad that patriotism has come to be associated with Republican ideology, pro-militarism, and the religious-right. Or any political ideology at all. It's ok to think something is improvable, or to be afraid of the path society is taking, independent of your gratefulness for the country you to live in. Maybe this economic downturn, in some small way, will encourage everyone of all political affiliations to reflect on the basics a little more and pull people back into the same boat.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Jack Handey, Deep Thoughts

Only about 15% are really funny, but those are REALLY FUNNY. I had to put the book down because I was laughing so hard I thought I was breaking my ribs. Ridiculous. So I had to share.

"If you ever fall off the Sears Tower, just go real limp, because maybe you'll look like a dummy and people will try to catch you because, hey, free dummy."

"To me, boxing is like a ballet, except there's no music, no choreography, and the dancers hit each other."

"If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason."

"Better not take a dog on the Space Shuttle, because if he sticks his head out when you're coming home his face might burn up."

"To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kind scary. I've wondered where this started, and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad."

"Is there anything more beautiful than a beautiful, beautiful flamingo, flying across in front of a beautiful sunset? And he's carrying a beautiful rose in his beak, and also he's carrying a very beautiful painting with his feet. And also, you're drunk."

"I guess of all my uncles, I liked Uncle Cave Man the best. We called him Uncle Cave Man because he lived in a cave and because sometimes he'd eat one of us. Later on we found out he was a bear."

"Most people don't realize that large pieces of coral, which have been painted brown and attached to the skull by common wood screws, can make a child look like a deer."

"One thing kids like is to be tricked. For instance, I was going to take my little nephew to Disneyland, but instead I drove him to an old burned-out warehouse. 'Oh, no,' I said, 'Disneyland burned down.' He cried and cried, but I think that deep down, he thought it was a pretty good joke. I started to drive over to the real Disneyland, but it was getting pretty late."

"If you ever go temporarily insane, don't shoot somebody, like a lot of people do. Instead, try to get some weeding done, because you'd really be surprised."

"Perhaps, if I am very lucky, the feeble efforts of my lifetime will someday be noticed, and maybe, in some small they will be acknowledged as the greatest works of genius ever created by Man."