Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Charles Murray quiz

There is an interesting quiz in Charles Murray's (of Losing Ground fame, for older readers) new book Coming Apart that addresses the subject of the cultural disconnect between upper-middle-class Americas and working class and plain-old-middle-class Americans.

My score: on the quiz is 2, with both points coming from movies. And I think of myself as pretty conversant with popular culture by academic standards. Indeed, I still have fond memories of taking one of my graduate school girlfriends (now a successful academic) to Burger King for the first time in her life. Perhaps Murray needs to expand the quiz so that it does a better job of sorting in the tails of the distribution.

Hat tip: Dimitriy Masterov

Travel advice you can use.

From the Atlantic's James Fallows via the Economist Gulliver blog.

My opinion of Fallows has just gone up. Maybe he'll drink to that?

A budding development economist ...

... is suspended from "mid-high school" in Oklahoma for snapping a picture of his sleeping substitute teacher.

Corresponding Esther Duflo development economics paper here (this is an older, ungated version. The paper is listed as forthcoming in the American Economic Review on Esther's CV and is now co-authored with both Rema Henna and Stephen Ryan).

Via: reason.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Charlie Brown: media trendsetter

From the Guardian: the Daily Mail (!!!) surpasses the New York Times as the number one online news source.
Mail's Online's editor, Martin Clarke, puts it down to ever-improving US traffic, and says: "We just do news that people want to read."
In an interview with the BuzzFeed website, he talks about the paper's middle-class roots and its "Fleet Street heritage" being the source of its "entertaining, engaging way with clear, concise, straightforward copy and lots of good pictures."
Read the whole thing to learn about the Times' unhappy responses.

Via: instapundit

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Buckeye humor

Q. How do you get an Ohio State graduate off your porch?

A. Pay him for the pizza.

It is amazing what you can learn while standing in line and wearing your U of M hat.

CNN experts

As I type this, CNN's chosen higher education expert is speaking in front of a bookcase full of Reader's Digest condensed books.

Oh dear.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Culinary adventures

Meatloaf cupcakes ... click through to the picture and the recipe, if you dare.

Hat tip: Lisa Gribowski

Monday, January 23, 2012

Orwell in Spain

Some background on Placa de George Orwell.  You should read the book too, especially if you are planning a visit to wonderful Barcelona.

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

This post is dedicated to over-zealous corporate IT staff who ban this blog. Surprisingly, not an empty set.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Bacon, chocolate and Zingerman's

Some interesting food history from the New Yorker.

Clothing police

Some dingbat politician in Louisiana wants to ban the wearing of pajamas in public.
Williams told the Shreveport Times he was moved to push for an ordinance after an incident at a local Walmart in which he and others were offended by a customer clad in pajamas.
"I saw a group of young men wearing pajama pants and house shoes," he said, according to the Times. "At the part where there should have been underwear," his private parts were showing through the fabric.
Williams [told] the Times that “pajamas are designed to be worn in the bedroom at night."
“If you can't (wear pajamas) at the boardwalk or courthouse, why are you going to do it in a restaurant or in public? Today it's pajamas," Williams said. "Tomorrow it's underwear. Where does it stop?"
In contrast, I want to ban the politicians from speaking in public.

Hat tip: Dann Millimet

Bonus: the Wall Street Journal on pajamas as a fashion trend.

Economist on taxes

Some wise words (as usual) on taxes from the Economist.

One can more or less summarize the Economist's position as: why don't you idiots read the public finance literature?


Addendum: But wealth is still a stock and income is still a flow. Incomes taxes affect those with high incomes, some of whom are rich and some of whom are not. The Economist really ought to get this right; the rhetorical use of rich to mean high income by those on the left is designed to mislead.

Beer in history

This is very funny and works on several levels:

1. There is actually a bunch of more-or-less true stuff about beer.
2. It is a fantastic parody of the History Channel and other similar media.
3. It is fun to learn about professors who study beer - one is a "fermentation scientist".

Long, but entertaining throughout.

Hat tip: Mark

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Decisions to make in Fargo.

Hot times in cold North Dakota.

Fargo? Legendary?

The end result of the entire episode is to make the state tourism board look silly.

Recommendation irritation

Recommendation letters for graduate school are,. on the whole, a giant waste of time and energy. The vast majority of letters I write are for students about whom I have no information other than what is on their transcript other than their rank in my class, which I dutifully report, along with information about the textbook and teaching style, as well as some boilerplate about how hard the class is and how only keeners select into it.

The waste of time associated with such letters is accentuated when the application form is non-standard, so that rather than simply taking a letter that can be written, converted to PDF, and then uploaded at multiple schools, the school being applied to wants individualized responses to its own particular questions, and then to top it all off, designs the software so that you cannot simply cut and paste your pre-written letter, or bits of it, into the response areas.

The worst offender I have run into this year is Cornell's MBA program. For their troubles, or rather for the troubles they just caused me, they got a little lecture in one of their response areas about negative externalities and wasting people's time.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why I love America ..

Mealtime prayers for pagan families from the "kitchen witch", whose description reads:
I am a (occasionally doting) wife, a damn proud momma of two adorable and brilliant children, a veteran of the United States Navy, part-time steampunk hausfrau, beach addict, (American) Civil War reenactor and Victorian natural history aficionado, a canoeing fanatic, returned student and semi-erratic blogger.
What a country! I do love heterogeneity and I do love people who follow their own path.

Urban prairies and local public goods

From Atlantic cities, some amazing photos of areas close to downtown St. Louis that are gradually returning to nature in the decades following slum clearance. Detroit has plenty of similar areas; they are testament to the power of local public goods, or the lack thereof, to affect the incidence and character of economic development.

For local readers, driving across the border between Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park on Jefferson Avenue illustrates this point dramatically. There is literally an instant transformation from a not awful but pretty run down part of Detroit to pretty nice homes and businesses. When I have driven by, there has often been a Grosse Pointe Park police cruiser parked just on the Grosse Pointe Park side of the boundary to drive home the point about the change in the nature of public goods provision.

More on interesting ways to pay for college

The Jackson (Michigan) News runs a story about undergraduates on the web site seekingarrangement.com (probably not a good idea at work) which acts as a broker between buyers and sellers on the medium-term paid relationship services market, informally known as the sugar babies market. This market lies somewhere between paid escorts who charge by the hour or day and particularly mercenary marriages.

The Jackson News story basically riffs on this press release from Seeking Arrangements, but adds in the obligatory scary remarks from local law enforcement (playing double duty here as moral scolds) and local college administrators who note the legal cover provided to their institutions by their email address use regulations, which presumably most students never read.

As with yesterday's Dare Dorm TV story, note the implicit mutually beneficial exchange between the Jackson News, which gets to excite its readers with stories of wild coeds, and the Seeking Arrangements folks, who get free advertising for the site.

A couple other fun bits: (1) the guy who runs the website has an MBA from MIT.  I am not really surprised given the clever marketing strategy; and (2) very conservative Hillsdale College has 11 sugar babies signed up on the site with their hillsdale.edu email addresses. I guess the free market message is working.

Hat tip: Actually, I found this on my own via the daily update email from annarbor.com but Dan Marcin also emailed me to alert me regarding the article, perhaps in the hope that a hat tip would help him to capture the votes of sugar babies as well as sugar mommies and daddies in his bid to unseat ancient local Congressman John Dingell.

Hilton in China and for China

An interview with a Hilton executive about their plans in China and their plans regarding catering to Chinese travelers in their hotels in other countries.

I liked this bit: "Our strategic perspective is that a brand is a promise consistently delivered".

China is indeed a big market in everything. It is hard to recall that, when I was in high school, the number of people leaving mainland China was approximately zero. In addition to their big increase in income, the mainland Chinese have had a big increase in freedom as well. Let's hope there is more to come.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

APPAM elections

At least for the next year or two, the Association for Public Policy and Management will be run by my friends.

Congrats (I think) to Paul, Jens, Marcy, Sue, and Jane.

Dorm porn

Detroit's Channel 4 local news ("the Defender") reports on the shocking fact that students sometimes make videos of themselves engaged in sexual activity in their dorm rooms. And, worse yet, they send their videos to the nice folks at daredorm.com (NSFW!) in exchange for lots of money.

Can you imagine?  Students having sex in the dorms? Video cameras? The internet? Money? What is the world coming to? Surely the end times are near!

Some thoughts.

1. Someone at the UM public relations office scored a great big coup in getting the UM's message to Dare Dorm broadcast for free on the local news.

2. The nice folks at Channel 4 provided a lot of free advertising to the Dare Dormers.

3. Note the use of students (presumably carefully selected for their negative views) to provide the illusion that Channel 4 is engaged in reporting rather than running an anti-sex editorial. Could they really not find a single student with something positive to say about getting lots of money for doing very little work?

4. So let's see. Suppose that you can get $10K for a video. At typical local wages for undergrads, that means putting in, say, two or three hours of time rather than 1000. Those 1000 hours could be spent, say, studying. They might allow an aspiring student to take harder classes or complete a harder major than he or she otherwise would. Is that necessarily a bad tradeoff?

5. In the age of facebook and surveillance cameras does anyone really think that one video on Dare Dorm is going to ruin someone's life, as suggested by the undergraduates interviewed for the story? How exactly will someone's children find their parents' Dare Dorm video from among the zillions of porn videos on the internet?

6. Note to Channel 4: there are lots of important things to report on in the Detroit metro area. This is not one of them.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Canadian coffee

Tim Horton's raises the stakes in the cross-border caffination competition.

Via Marit Rahavi on Facebook

Ford School joint doctoral programs

Happy 10th Anniversary to the Ford School joint doctoral program!

Many of the students whose dissertation committees I have served on during my time at Michigan have been in the joint program. My sense is that they enjoy and benefit from it, and not just because of the nicer offices.

And Mary Corcoran is just a gem.

On Washington football's new defensive staff

A number of articles:

Former defensive coordinator (during the golden age) and head coach Jim Lambright on the problems with the Husky defense.

Steve Sarkisian on how hard it was to fire Nick Holt.

Jerry Brewer on Justin Wilcox, the new defensive coordinator.

Background on Justin Wilcox from Bob Condotta.

On Keith Hayward, the new defensive backs coach.

Addendum: one last coaching hire, lured away from Cal.

Prostitutes for Paul

The Daily Mail covers Ron Paul's endorsement by the working girls of Nevada's Bunny Ranch.

One good bit:
Dennis Hof, owner of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, told CNN: ‘If a client comes into the Bunny Ranch and says ''I'm pimpin' for Paul,'' they’re gonna have a real good time.’
Several of his girls, who were sitting next to him in their underwear, added: ‘Yeah!’
Mr Hof admitted that he had thought about supporting Newt Gingrich ‘because he's a cheater - and we like cheaters', a reference to the fact Gingrich cheated on his second wife.
But you should click through to look at the picture.

Ironic, in a way, that prostitutes would support the only candidate who is not himself a prostitute.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

French credit rating .... sacre bleu!

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Monday, January 16, 2012

Cochrane on DeLong on freedom

A memorable, and completely on target, rant from "little Johnny Cochrane" as we called him in the skit show.

Freedom really is the best thing.

SNL on Tebow

In honor of the Patriots' drubbing of the Broncos this weekend, it seems appropriate to revisit Saturday Night Live's take on the Bronco's saintly quarterback Tim Tebow.

I got into a Facebook debate a couple of weeks ago with some friends of a friend (always a dangerous business) about Tebow's public displays of piety. I defended the position that they are more about self-righteousness than anything else. Said position proved to be unpopular.

Addendum: the Jimmy Fallon piece linked to in the comments is at least as funny as the SNL piece.

Social media and the reformation

Some interesting historical parallels from the Economist.

Newt on Romney

I think Newt has lost his mind.

Note to Newt: it is good to speak more than one language.

Perhaps Romney can package his French as "speaking in tongues" to increase his appeal to the evangelical set?

Via Bo Honore on Facebook

Economics of communion wafers

A quite interesting piece on the history and current workings of the communion wafer industry.

The authors tries to pack more deep meaning into the narrative than it can really sustain. The truck driver carrying the corporate wafers may actually, on any given day, be a lot more spiritual than the nuns whose product competes with the corporate wafers, who may well be pissed off about cloister politics or distracted by their aging feet.

Perhaps there is a follow-on piece lamenting the fact that nearly all bibles are now printed on printing presses by industrial printers rather than being hand-copied by Irish monks? Think of all the jobs!

Via MR (I think)

Dan Drezner and the NYT

Dan's experience is one example, and far from the worst, that I have heard or read about. Taken together, they make me very suspicious of reporters.

Usually what happens is that I get an email or voice mail from a reporter and then I fret about whether or not to respond until their deadline has passed, then I send an email apologizing for my slow reply. Probably this is not optimal.

I did have a nice, and informative, exchange with an Atlantic reporter a couple of months ago following my apologetic email. Somehow the fact that I am an Atlantic subscriber and reader made me trust him more, though it is not clear why it should.

Fraternity humor

This is wonderful!

NB: I had to click on the picture to make it larger in order to see the letters.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Applied econometrics bleg

I am looking for published (including working papers) discussions of the use of propensity score matching and/or inverse propensity weighting in conjunction with sampling weights.

I am aware of the Zanutto (2006) Journal of Data Science paper as well as an informal discussion in my old report, with Juao Pedro Azevedo and Peter Dolton, on the evaluation of the New Deal for Lone Parents prepared for the UK Department for Work and Pensions, but not much else.

Here is a free idea for someone looking to get a zillion cites: update psmatch2 to incorporate weights, then write a paper for Stata Journal about it. Oh, and thank me for the idea.

Illustrating the importance of multiple comparisons corrections ...

... with a dead fish.

For readers not up on the latest in applied statistics, the multiple comparisons problem arises when a researcher  performs a large number of statistical tests, say 100, using some conventional p-value cutoff for "statistical significance." With 100 tests and the traditional cutoff of 0.05, we would expect five statistically significant findings out of 100 tests even in a world in which the null hypothesis of no effect is true in all 100 cases. These five findings would then be reported in the New York Times and all heck would break loose. Multiple comparisons corrections adjust the statistical procedure to reduce the number of false positive findings and thereby to make the New York Times less interesting but more accurate.

Hat tip: Brian Kovak

The amazing success of university administrators

My esteemed colleague Charlie Brown suggest celebrating the approximate 20th anniversary of this wonderful short rant about university administrators from his former Maryland economics colleague (who had left by the time I got there) Barbara Bergmann.

The only thing missing, perhaps, is anything about the pernicious role of lawyers in the rise of the university administrative caste.

An economist for president?

Larry Kotlikoff of the Boston University economics department is running for president.

We could do a lot worse. Actually, we will do a lot worse. That's one economist prediction that is sure to come true.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Larry Katz on journals

Development Impact provides a really useful interview with Larry Katz, long-time editor of the Quarterly Journal of Economics. For non-economist readers, the QJE is one of the magical "top five" general journals in economics that play a big role (too big, in my view) in determining who does and does not get tenure in good economics departments.

The interview is interesting throughout. Were I ever to be an editor again, something I do not plan on at the moment, I think I would implement Larry's scheme of sending out many requests for referee reports for a given paper, reading each report as it comes in, and then deciding as soon as the verdict is clear. This scheme does two things. First, it reduces average response times, which is nice for the author, however things turn out. Second, it gives referees who care a lot about a particular paper more weight, as they are more likely to get their report in quickly. Certainly the times when I have managed to get a report in before Larry decided based on the views of others were times when I really cared about the paper in one direction or another.

UM in the past

Annarbor.com gets nostalgic and pulls out some gems from their photo archive showing UM scenes in 1912.

Electoral oddities

I bet this does not happen very often: Ron Paul came in second not only in the New Hampshire republican primary, but in the democratic primary as well.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

New age fun

It will surprise no one that this all rings very true in Ann Arbor, that little bit of the west coast that somehow got lost in Michigan.

Hat tip: Susan Major

Friday, January 13, 2012

World Book Encyclopedia

We arrived early for the information session in the library of Emerson School, where we hope to send our daughter, so I got to spend a few minutes of quality time looking at the 2011 World Book Encyclopedia.

After I got over my shock that dead tree encyclopedias are still produced (albeit with many more color pictures and graphics than the very serious Britannica my parents owned), I decided to check out their coverage of Nobel economists. I had time to look up five: Becker, Friedman, Heckman, Krugman and Samuelson. Of these, only two had entries: Friedman and Samuelson. I would have thought that winning a Nobel prize in anything would be a ticket to an encyclopedia entry, but apparently the World Book committee is more selective than the Nobel committee.

They are not that selective though. In the place where the Heckman entry should have been there was an entry of multiple paragraphs for Margaret Heckler (you should click through just for the hair style), who was a cabinet member (for Health and Human Services) in the Reagan administration. Call me crazy, but is Heckler really more important than Heckman, or Becker or Krugman? Really? Bizarre.

Advances in employment discrimination law

A northeastern Pennsylvania woman is suing a South Jersey-based maker of frozen treats and other snack foods, claiming that she was wrongfully fired because she wore a prosthetic penis to work.
Pauline Davis, 45, wore the device to the J&J Snack Foods plant in Moosic, Lackawanna County, while she contemplated a gender change, according to a federal civil-rights complaint filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Scranton. She confided in several co-workers about the device, and someone told management, according to the complaint.
She subsequently was fired from her job as a packer/line inspector. Her termination, she claims, was discriminatory because a male co-worker who wore female clothing and prostheses and took hormone treatments was not fired nor disciplined.
The people at J&J snack foods seem to be having a lot more fun than one might normally expect at such a firm. Full story - there is not much more - here.

Via: reason.

WSJ on Romney at Bain

The Wall Street Journal dug around a bit to find enough data to say something about how well Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney did during his time at Bain.

Some quick thoughts:

1. This article reminded me of the reaction a group of us had to reading the famous early sociology book Suicide by Emile Durkheim. Durkheim knew he wanted to estimate a multiple regression, with suicide rates as the dependent variable, but because of when he was writing he did not know how, so he tried to approximate the multiple regression with a large number of pairwise correlations between suicide and various predictors of suicide. The Wall Street Journal author is in a slightly different position. I think the knowledge is there, but the data are lacking. What you really want to do here is to compare Bain's performance to that of other similar firms, holding constant things like the state of the firms when Bain invests in them and broader economic conditions such as the business cycle. The WSJ, like Durkheim, tries to get at this by sort of conditioning on each right-hand side variable in turn in its discussion.

2. I think the WSJ's decision to measure outcomes a fixed amount of time after Bain's initial investment is defensible as a way of avoiding the endogenous timing associated with measuring outcomes when Bain's investment ends. Though both are interesting and worth looking at.

3. One hates to harsh on the buzz, but firms have a legal and fiduciary duty to their shareholders to maximize their return on investment. They do not have an obligation, legal, fiduciary or even moral, to maximize the employment of the businesses they operate in the short run. One can debate this situation, but I think that even if one is a strong redistributionist, there is a good case to be made for what is popularly known as the Danish system of "flexicurity" in which firms face low hiring and firing costs and the social insurance and active labor market systems aim to reduce variation in consumption among workers over time (who can, of course, also accumulate precautionary savings to the same end).

4. Gingrich and Perry manage to position themselves as both ignorant and hypocritical. The are hypocritical because they are usually in the business of defending markets and are ignorant because the market-bashing positions they take in going after Romney's time at Bain reflect a deep misunderstanding of how economic growth happens. They should both be assigned some days off from campaigning and given a copy of Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy to read.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Literary humor

Via Lones Smith on Facebook

RuPaul != Ron Paul

I doubt anyone is really confusing RuPaul and Ron Paul, but good for RuPaul for using the opportunity to get some free publicity.

And it is fun to imagine a candidate who was a comvex combination of the two: Run Paul!

Movie: the Adventures of Tintin

Our child care provider for last night cancelled and so "date night" became "family movie night". As a result, we saw Tintin rather than some counterfactual movie aimed at older ages.

But that was not so bad. I was not really familiar with Tintin at any level. I had seen the character around but did not know the history and had never read it. My sense from the NYT review is that having read the books made it a bit harder to like the movie, which is my usual experience in other cases. 

For our purposes, it was very good fun and, contra the NYT reviewer, a love interest was not really missed, and would have very much changed the character of the movie. And, yes, the drunkard captain Haddock is portrayed in a more positive light than would be approved of by modern-day public health scolds, but this is art, not a documentary, so people ought to chill out about it. It is also a movie based on books written in a different time, and so ought, in my view, to be true to that time.

My 4.5-year-old daughter was engaged throughout (probably the result of the non-stop pace that the NYT reviewer complains about) which is extra impressive given that the movie runs more than two hours in length. 

The one error in the movie, which is set somewhere in the 1930s or 1940s, was having one of the characters use the term "third world". That term came along decades later. I thought big-budget movies like this one had people on staff to check that sort of thing.

Recommended if you have a kid and marginally recommended otherwise.

Two cheers for cheerleading?

"The Feminist Case for the NCAA's Recognition of Competitive Cheer as an Emerging Sport for Women" Free Download Boston College Law Review, Vol. 52, p. 439, 2011 Western New England University School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 11-1

ERIN BUZUVIS, Western New England University School of Law

This Article examines whether a university can count opportunities in competitive cheer to demonstrate compliance with Title IX. A federal court in Connecticut recently considered this question for the first time. Although it held that the sport as it currently exists is not sufficiently similar to other varsity sports to qualify for Title IX compliance, the decision has mobilized two separate governing bodies to propose more organized and competitive versions of competitive cheer as possible NCAA emerging sports. This Article argues that these proposals would satisfy regulators and the courts. It then discusses how competitive cheer has potential to improve Title IX compliance, in a way that would benefit women?s sports generally, by expanding the definition of sport to include those that are women-driven and by reclaiming as sport an activity - cheer - that was initially deployed to separate women from athleticism. In light of these reasons, as well as the burgeoning interest in competitive cheer at the college and high school levels, the Article concludes that the NCAA should promote the growth of competitive cheer by endorsing it as an emerging sport for women.


Back in the day or, more precisely, back at Totem Junior High School, yours truly "lettered" in chess. I have to say that I was quite sympathetic to the thoughts that were surely going through the heads of the real jocks on the day of the letter-awarding ceremony, which is that the chess team should not have been involved in any way, shape or form. I am guessing that the NCAA does not (despite the endorsement of Totem Junior High) view women's chess as qualifying under title IX or we would observe many such teams, given how cheap it is to field a chess team. 

More broadly though, there are interesting questions here about what does, and what should, define a sport for the purposes of Title IX. One possible criterion would be caloric: my guess is that cheerleading burns substantially more calories than, say, golf, which is, I assume, an "official" sport. Or you could use whether or not there are professionals who make money to define sports, in which case cheerleading would qualify but swimming would not. Or you could ask whether having participated in a particular sport in high school or college has a measurable effect in a wage equation. I bet cheerleading passes that test as well. There is so much for the lawyers to do here, and perhaps some for the economists as well.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

When education fads go wrong

A math teacher in Georgia does not quite get it right when incorporating the slavery unit into the math problems.

Hat tip: Dann Millimet

Monday, January 9, 2012

Modern christmas

Belated, but still funny.

Hat tip: someone on Facebook.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Will you still need me ...

... when I'm 64? A fine meditation on turning 64 from my colleague, and UM dean of libraries, and generally one of the coolest people in the economics department, Paul Courant.

Friday, January 6, 2012

An excellent commercial

Marginally  not safe for work (at particularly prudish workplaces) due to language.

Educational performance management in the UK

Economists delight in cataloging the many and varied ways in which local government employees, whether in the schools or in job training programs, respond to performance incentives by gaming the system. Under poorly designed performance management systems, it will be easier for workers to improve their measured performance by gaming the system than to improve their actual performance.

The Daily Mail reports on just these sorts of shenanigans in schools in the UK. Schools there are subject to periodic inspections by something called Ofsted. One highlight:
In one example, a teacher described how he was worried about taking three of the worst classes in his ‘hell hole’ school during an inspection.
But, the day before, the deputy headteacher arrived and reeled off the names of more than a dozen of the most challenging pupils from the ‘worst’ three classes.
He told the teacher: ‘None of these little **** will be in tomorrow, you have my word.’
The teacher asked how he could be sure as the pupils had ‘excellent’ attendance records and the senior teacher showed him an ‘inch-thick wad of £20 notes’.
You can find more on this theme (and much else) in my Fiscal Studies paper (with Alistair Muriel) on educational performance management.

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

Why I am not a republican #9374937

Dear Lord, please save us from the scourge of Rick Santorum who embodies everything that is bad about the Republican party. Amen.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Movie: The Artist

We had some trepidation about seeing "The Artist" - it is (sort of) a silent film - but were won over by the very high - 97 - rating at rotten tomatoes. It turned out that the critics were quite right. The film is a delight, visually, historically and due to the beautiful music that (largely) replaces the spoken word.

To quote A.O. Scott's fine NYT review:
All of this suggests a feast for antiquarian film geeks. It certainly is, and Mr. Hazanavicius’s skill in replicating some of the visual effects of early cinema is impressive. But he evokes the glamour and strangeness of silent movies without entirely capturing the full range of their power. His film is less a faithful reproduction than a tasteful updating, like a reconstituted classic roadster with a GPS device and a hybrid engine.

The Fashionable Professor

It has been a matter of some discussion in my household whether I should teach my undergraduate econometrics course in polo shirts or in button-down shirts. In order to shed some additional empirical light on the issue, I decided to gather some input from the students, and so added a question on the issue to my end-of-semester feedback form. The results from that exercise are:

Button down: 7
Polo: 16
Other: 13
Not voting: 34 (in almost all cases because no feedback form at all was turned in)

The polo total includes three or four votes for "whatever is most comfortable". Among the other suggests were Hawaiian shirts (someone misses Lones Smith), a tuxedo, a tuxedo t-shirt and, from one misguided soul, showing up naked.

Bottom line: next fall I will wear more polo shirts.

Facebook and natural selection

Hat tip: Charlie Brown

The significance of significance testing

Gelman, Andrew and Hal Stern. 2006. "The Difference Between `Significant' and `Not Significant' is not Itself Statistically Significant." American Statistician  60(4): 328-331.
It is common to summarize statistical comparisons by declarations of statistical significance or insignificance. Here we discuss one problem with such declarations, namely that changes in statistical significance are often not themselves statistically significant. By this, we are not merely making the commonplace observation that any particular threshold is arbitrary—for example, only a small change is required to move an estimate from a 5.1% significance level to 4.9%, thus moving it into statistical significance. Rather, we are pointing out that even large changes in significance levels can correspond to small, nonsignificant changes in the underlying quantities.
The error we describe is conceptually different from other oftcited problems—that statistical significance is not the same as practical importance, that dichotomization into significant and nonsignificant results encourages the dismissal of observed differences in favor of the usually less interesting null hypothesis of no difference, and that any particular threshold for declaring significance is arbitrary. We are troubled by all of these concerns and do not intend to minimize their importance. Rather, our goal is to bring attention to this additional error of interpretation. We illustrate with a theoretical example and two applied examples.The ubiquity of this statistical error leads us to suggest that students and practitioners be made more aware that the difference between “significant” and “not significant” is not itself statistically significant.
This article is a few years old but I just ran across it. It is a quick read, and yet one more illustration of the many conundrums that arise when one takes classical statistics too literally. I am still working on a way that I am really happy with to teach undergraduates to have a sophisticated understanding of classical significance tests.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Atheist humor

New defensive staff at Washington

Washington has already moved to replace Nick Holt and some of the assistants who are departing with him. The speed of the move suggests to me that the decision to let Nick go was made long before the Alamo Bowl.

Sugar Bowl: Michigan 23, Virginia Tech 20 (OT)

Michigan was just good enough, and Virginia Tech made just enough mistakes, for Michigan to pull out a win in overtime in a game that Virginia Tech dominated much of the time. Well done!

A fitting end to a surprisingly positive season.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

John Cochrane blogging

University of Chicago Booth School macroeconomist John Cochrane is now blogging, which is very cool.

I took John's first-year macro course in the economics department (where he was before moving to Booth) my first quarter of graduate school back in the Fall of 1985. It was an excellent class; John did a really good job of putting each paper that we covered in context and also arranging them in a way so that the entire class told a coherent story.

I also learned from poking around on John's site, that his wife, Beth Fama (the "Fama's daughter" as we called her in one of our better skits) is now writing young adult fiction. Beth was a fellow student in John's class in the Fall of 1985, though as I recall she was getting her doctorate in what was then the Graduate School of Business rather than in economics.

Book: Life in Year One by Scott Korb

Korb, Scott. 2010. Life In Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine. NY: Riverhead Books.

Another book snatched from Borders with a going-out-of-business discount, Life in Year One by Scott Korb provides a short summary of what is known in the scholarly literature about daily life around the time we started counting years up rather than down. The style is sort of wannabe Bill Bryson, but Korb tries too hard with the jokes and is much less thorough with the literature relative to Bryson.

Bottom line: While the book is by no means awful, I am sure there are better books on this topic, and I wish I had read one of them instead.

Randomization at work

The story of a firm that used random assignment to study the effects of allowing telecommuting on worker outcomes such as productivity and absenteeism.

My sense is that firms do remarkably little of this sort of thing, though I have heard stories of catalog merchants randomly assigning prices across catalogs as a way of estimating their demand curves. And, of course, direct mailers of other sorts do a lot of experimentation with their mailings.

I think part of the reason that firms do not do this as much as they might is that business schools tend not to teach econometrics in a way that would encourage students to think this way. Put differently, my sense is, first of all, that most MBA programs do not require much in the way of statistics or econometrics to begin with and, second of all, that what they do require is often not taught in a way to emphasize the identification of causal effects.

Hat tip: Sue Dynarski on google+

Development economics humor

Chris Blattman quotes a very funny parody of over-achieving development wannabes.

Political labels

Will Wilkinson, guest-blogging at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, explains why he does not call himself a bleeding heart libertarian. Will seems a bit more stirred up than usual, but it is interesting reading.  I find the term "liberaltarian" awkward, but I really like "neo-classical liberal", which I had not heard before. I may roll with that one.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Book: The Book of Vice by Peter Sagal

Sagal, Peter. 2007. The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them). HarperCollins.

I got this book for some pretty modest amount of money during the final days of Borders, which is good as I did not like really like it very much. The author runs some sort of show on NPR that I had not heard of, and writes essays as well. This book is a collection of reworked pieces originally published separately on topics such as swinging, strip clubs, pornography, lying and gambling. The striking thing about most of the essays is that Sagal has remarkably little empathy for the people who enjoy the activity under discussion. I can see going to a swing party and not participating, but going to a swing party and being bored strikes me as a signal of a remarkable lack of curiosity. Swing parties (one might imagine) could be fascinating on many levels, from their seeming defiance of evolutionary biology to the sorting of people with people to the selection into being there at all. How could you be bored? And yet he is. Sagal seems similarly puzzled by gamblers and by those who frequent strip clubs. Again, the lack of imagination and empathy, at least for me, was the main takeaway. On a different note, in the chapter on porn, Sagal learns that (surprise!) porn actors are real people with real lives. And, hey, did you know that Nina Hartley is really smart?  Maybe some people didn't but this chapter struck me as pretty old news.

Bottom line: while this is not a bad book, and while it will give you a chuckle or two, you can likely find better ways to spend your reading time.

History of UNIX

A short, but very interesting history of the UNIX operating system from the IEEE Spectrum.  There was lots here that I did not know, including where the UNIX name came from and why it began life as an open-source endeavor.

Hat tip (oddly, given the number of union typists and other clerks displaced by computers): portside.org.

Addendum: link added.

Movie: Young Adult

Young Adult proved a most excellent start to the 2012 movie watching year.

It is delightfully mean and wonderfully egalitarian in thumbing its nose at convention. Yes, the main character is horrible, and the viewer smiles at her humiliations. But the people in the small town she escapes from are really boring and small, just as she thinks they are, so while they can teach her a lesson or two about letting go of the past, they cannot do more than that. My favorite line comes when the main character is talking to her mother about her failed first marriage. Her mother still has a wedding picture up and the main character wants her to take it down. Her mother says something to the effect that "but the wedding wasn't a failure; remember the tiramisu?" That sort of thing could make anyone want to run away to Minneapolis.

A.O. Scott's positive NYT review here.

Highly recommended.

Quantitative easing ...

... explained in Australian.

Hat tip: Lars Skipper

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Movie: Sherlock Holmes

We saw the new Sherlock Holmes movie when we were in Toronto for the holidays.

I liked it more than you might think from reading the NYT review, but it is definitely not as good as the first one. To be more precise, the writing does not live up to the sets, costumes and special effects. It has the feel of a movie that was written by one committee and then re-written by another committee. This one won't kill the franchise, but the next one needs to be better.

There is also some truth to this jab by A.O. Scott:
The real point of the movie is the bantering byplay between Holmes and Watson (Jude Law) punctuated by punches, explosions and action sequences as bloated and pretentious as a 10-minute drum solo on a live album by a second-rate art-rock band from the ’70s.
Mildly recommended for mindless entertainment.

Mathematical dance moves

Hat tip: someone on Facebook


I only realized recently that I am not the only one who likes watching the Delta safety videos featuring flight attendant Katherine Lee, who goes by Deltalina on the internet. I do not, of course, actually listen to the safety instructions in the video. I just watch, mostly for the finger wag. I was surprised to learn that Katherine is an actual Delta flight attendant; I had assumed she was an actress hired solely to make the video, which I suppose is praise of a sort.

Delta needs to spend a few dollars now, and make another one with new jokes.

Protein and brain development

The Globe and Mail reports on a (very) long-term followup of a study from the 1970s that looked at the effects of protein on the brain development of children in Guatemala.

Missing from the newspaper report:

1. Information about the design of the study. Was it a randomized trial? One imagines so, but the article never actually says so.

2. Information about differential non-response by treatment status. The article, to its credit, does note the overall follow-up response rate of 0.60 but says nothing about whether that differed by treatment status, which is key.

3. A smell test. The reported effect on wages (what about non-workers?) is huge at 46 percent. Is this really plausible given the other evidence in the literature and/or what is known about the underlying biology?

4. A link to the article in the Lancet.

Replicating this and trying out various econometric methods for dealing with the non-response - e.g. the "Lee bounds" - would be a good second or third-year paper for some aspiring gradual student.

Hat tips: Dan and Susan Black

Changes in UW football

Well, that was quick! Nick Holt and most of the rest of the defensive staff are out the door just days after Washington's poor defensive showing in the Alamo Bowl.