Wednesday, April 28, 2010

no words...

You're not allowed to sue your doctor for intentionally withholding information about birth defects in an effect to persuade you not to have an abortion, and you're also required to have an ultrasound with detailed description of the fetus prior to an abortion.

If I try to comment on this in civilized terms, my head may just explode. Someone bring this to the Supreme Court ASAP please...

Monday, April 19, 2010

so much to know, so little time

I love this metaphor: "This study suggests that Internet users are a bunch of ideological Jack Kerouacs. They’re not burrowing down into comforting nests. They’re cruising far and wide looking for adventure, information, combat and arousal."

I think that's probably true for a majority of internet users, and certainly the most intensive internet users. But more importantly, the internet allows you to become familiar with endlessly more ideas compared to watercooler talk with the same people about the same news channels day after day. The reason I use the internet is primarily for economics, yet most of the content that I get on a daily basis is about completely other stuff: everything from bayesianism vs frequentism to optical illusions, keyboard shortcut hacks, geographic catastrophes, rants using words like heteronormative way too much, inflationary theory, and most-valuable draft picks. None of these things hold more than a passing interest to me, but I learn about them anyway, and cycle through news sites and blogs as I find something new to get acquainted with and eventually leave satiated.

If I had to get my information from books and magazines and TV, I would have a hundredth of that variety. Even for this new inexplicably postmodern-youtube-video-obsessed generation, the tenth of the time they spend online looking at things of real interest is much more comprehensive than the media buffet of a couple decades ago.

(And that's not even including the black hole that is wikipedia.....)

I tend to reflexively spurn Tyler Cowen's new media/internet/social networking/bite-sized-chunks-of-information-consumption soapbox, but to the extent that this is what he really means, I have to agree.

volcanic lightning

This is so cool. I love science. I can't believe I never heard about something so awesome and beautiful until now.

great news for the LGBT community

I can't believe I only saw this three days late: Obama is requiring all hospitals that accept medicare and medicaid funds to allow patients to specify who may visit them with equal rights as family members. Ie, gay and lesbian partners can no longer be cut off. Decades too late, but still wonderful.

This is a vastly more important breakthrough in anti-gay discrimination than any silly marriage rights. I only care about marriage rights because those provide a legal shortcut to the rights that actually matter: the right to visit loved ones in the hospital and to specify who qualifies as "family" and can visit you if you're in the hospital, the right to specify who shares financial responsibility with you for tax and debt purposes, the right to specify "next of kin" relationships that kick in when emergency medical decisions need to be made or after death, etc.

There's no reason for government to be involved in marriage at all. And there's no reason to limit people's choices of surrogate decision makers in any particular situation, (ideally in each individual situation, rather than unilaterally.) But the latter is no where near a reality, and if legal gay marriage allows a unilateral decision of that kind, that is much much much much better than nothing.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

I love the whole world

Never fails to make me grin =D (especially the Stephen Hawking boom-de-yadda)

Link for the facebook people.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

experiences vs stuff

Experiences are more satisfying because they shape who we are, they are relived in memories for the rest of our lives, they add friendships and stories and ideas and context to everything else we do.

Buying stuff (unless it's a middleman to buying an experience - books, motorcycles, cats, telescopes, etc...) only satisfies some ephemeral impulsive desire, which half the time is a misguided attempt to emulate who you want to be seen as or to put a bandaid on the true source of your dissatisfaction. Of course that's not as satisfying.

That's why I prefer to be super stingy in my everyday life and spend the savings on campground fees and plane tickets, and give/receive gifts of activities rather than things. Going to a Mariner's baseball game on my 10th birthday (and skipping church to do it! *gasp*) stands out in my memory more than anything I asked Santa Claus for.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

disinterested allocations

In the huge literature on social preferences there is shockingly little research exploiting disinterested allocation decisions, which de-confounds ideas of fairness from self-interest.

When these experiments are done, either there is no difference between the recipients in the eyes of the decision maker, or one recipient has "earned" his role. Is there anything exactly like the dictator game, where one person is provisionally allocated some amount, and then a third party can decide to reallocate any amount of it to the other person?

If people are loss averse, and know that people are loss averse, and have fairness preferences over outcomes rather than allocations, the fair outcome would be to give less than half of the pot to the other person. I wonder if that ever happens. I doubt it, but it would be cool...

Sunday, April 11, 2010


I heard a great quote by John von Neumann recently: "In mathematics, you don't understand things. You just get used to them."

This was right after trying to explain to someone, for the third or fourth time, in what sense there are more decimal numbers than fractions. And that there are the same number of fractions as counting numbers. I'm completely at a loss, having no way to visualize the issue but simply being used to it by now.

One type of infinity isn't bigger than the other type because one actually gets higher up on the number line. And it isn't bigger because it's "higher resolution" on the number line either; no matter how far you zoom in on the number line, you'll find more rational numbers and more irrational numbers. In fact this number line thing isn't the right way to think about sizes of infinity anyway: in any little segment of the number line, you can fit both kinds of infinity.

So my friend says to me, well I understand what you're saying, I just think about it as higher resolution. But, I insist, that's wrong! There's lots of mathematical intuition that people use to understand more complicated concepts that is wrong, and you might think it's useful for a few minutes, but it'll invariably lead you astray. Logic is a very precise thing. If you think you understand something, make sure your explanation doesn't also prove something false.

Anyway, back to different sizes of infinity. The correct sense with which to compare sizes of infinities is a one-to-one mapping. If you have two sets of numbers and you can match them up in pairs, so every number in each set is associated with exactly one number in the other set, those sets are the same size.

So there are the same number of fractions as counting numbers because you can list the fractions in order in a way that covers all of them. Then "1" matches with the first fraction in the list, "2" with the second, and so on. The list is created by first listing all the fractions, in reduced form, whose numerator and denominators sum to 0. Then the ones that sum to 1. Then 2, and so on. This list covers all of the fractions eventually. Like this:

[Fraction #1] 0
[Fractions #2 and #3] 1, -1
[Fractions #4 and $5] 2, -2
[Fractions #6-#9] 3, -3, 1/2, -1/2
[Fractions #10-#13] 4, -4, 1,3, -1/3
[Fractions #14-##21] 5, -5, 1/4, -1/4, 2/3, -2/3, 3/2, -3/2
...and so on.

But, there are other numbers that can't be represented with fractions. For those you have to use decimal representation, with infinitely many decimal places to the left of the decimal and infinitely many to the right (So 1 becomes ...000001.00000...). But you can't list these in order to correspond with the counting numbers: any such list will be missing another decimal, so no such list exists. (You can prove that by supposing that you have such a list, and find another decimal that's not in the list. If you build this new missing number by letting all the digits to the left of the decimal place be 0, and the first digit to the right of the decimal be the first digit of the first number in the list + 1, the second digit be the 2nd digit of the 2nd number in the list + 1 etc, then your new number differs from every other number on the list by one digit.)

So, there are infinite fractions, and infinite decimals, but the latter infinity is much much bigger than the first.

How do you explain that in visual terms??

(More mind-boggling is that there are actually many more sizes of infinity. Infinitely many more. But I forget how to construct those. But they're not just new dimensions tacked onto your number line. Yes that's right, you can draw a squiggle on an infinitely big piece of paper that will cover the entire paper, no matter how thin the tip of your pencil is. Math is cool.)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

changing social norms

I find this very baffling but very cool.

Basically, people in India use zero rupee notes to hand to officials when they ask for a bribe, which mysteriously freaks them out and gets them to do their job without corruption. Anecdotal evidence suggests a very high success rate at avoiding bribes this way. (I am not convinced until I see real unbiased statistics, but for the sake of argument I'll take this claim at face value for now.)

I have no idea why this works better than just saying "I know you're asking for a bribe, and that is corrupt and I will not comply." It seems that "getting caught" by having their bribe requests named with clear, non-euphemistic terms is what freaks them out, and I don't know what is special about fake money at making that happen. I wonder if they were coached to just say it in those terms, rather than using the fake money, it would have a similar effect. And how he came up with this zero rupee note solution in the first place is beyond me. Maybe it's obvious to those who are familiar with Indian culture?

I suspect that over time officials will get used to the notes and return to brazen bribe requests. But I also suspect that this taste of power by the helpless poor masses will make the culture permanently less tolerant of corruption, and if the phenomenon is widespread enough, that will provoke real change.

Changing social norms is one of the most difficult hurdles in development economics, which is why I want to study social norm origins and dynamics, and stuff like this shows that that line of research could go in some very weird places. (And perhaps not be as impossible as it seems.)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

grad school

You know you're doing something right when you're perpetually amazed at how stupid you were a month ago.

Monday, April 5, 2010

You're disturbing me, I am picking mushrooms.

(I stole this link from Fred, thank you =)

This guy, Grigori Perelman, is fantastic. He's back in the news again after declining the Fields medal (equivalent to the Nobel prize, in mathematics) in 2003 for proving the Poincare conjecture. Now he's declining the $1 million prize from the Clay Mathematics Institute for solving one of the famous millenium problems.

He lives with his mom and sister in St. Petersburg, extremely humbly, and has even resigned his position at a mathematics research institute after being "dismayed by the intellectual and moral faillings of his peers". One rare journalist who managed to contact him was answered with the title of this post.

I love mathematicians... they have their priorities straight. And are a little crazy.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A most excellent sentence

An ad for the census on the side of a bus: "If we don't know how many people there are, how will we know how many busses we need?"

Good lord...

(So good I had to repeat MR)

(My roommate claims this is not as self-evidently hilarious as I think it is, so: an explanation. Not to mention that this is definitely not how the government calculates busses, or what the census is used for, either.)