Monday, November 30, 2009

How to make economics confusing enough to get published

In an article called "Confessions of an Economist: Writing to Impress Rather than to Inform" (PDF), economics professor David R. Hakes tells this story about academia's perverse bias in favor of inscrutability (via):

A colleague presented a fairly complex paper on how firms might use warranties to extract rent from certain users of their products. No one in the audience seemed to follow the argument. Because I found the argument to be perfectly clear, I repeatedly defended the author and I was able to bring the audience to an understanding of the paper. The author was so pleased that I was able to understand his work and explain it to others that he asked me if I was willing to coauthor the paper with him. I said I would be delighted.

We managed to reduce the equations in the paper to six. At this stage the paper was perfectly clear and was written at a level so that it could reach a broad audience. When we submitted the paper to risk, uncertainty, and insurance journals, the referees responded that the results were self-evident. After some degree of frustration, my coauthor suggested that the problem with the paper might be that we had made the argument too easy to follow, and thus referees and editors were not sufficiently impressed. He said that he could make the paper more impressive by generalizing the model. While making the same point as the original paper, the new paper would be more mathematically elegant, and it would become absolutely impenetrable to most readers. The resulting paper had fifteen equations, two propositions and proofs, dozens of additional mathematical expressions, and a mathematical appendix containing nineteen equations and even more mathematical expressions. I personally could no longer understand the paper and I could not possibly present the paper alone.

The paper was published in the first journal to which we submitted. . . . While the audience for the original version of the paper was broad, the audience for the published version of the paper has been reduced to a very narrow set of specialists and mathematicians. Even for mathematicians, . . . the time and effort necessary to read the paper may exceed the benefits received from reading it. I am now part of the conspiracy to intentionally make simple ideas obscure and complex.
Alas, although he says in the article's conclusion that he'll try to "write to inform rather than to impress," he admits he'll still occasionally succumb to the professional norm of obfuscation:
If in the future a referee or an editor suggests that I "generalize the model" or "make the model dynamic" when I feel that the change is an unnecessary complication which will likely cloud the issue rather than illuminate it, I will probably do as they requested rather than fight for clarity.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The 100 best songs of the first decade of the 2000s (30-21)

(Click here for the whole list.)

30. Ra Ra Riot — "Ghost Under Rocks"

This song has a great propulsive energy. There's some debate on the internet about the correct lyrics of the chorus, but I hear:

Here you are, you are breathing

Life into ghost under rocks

Like notes found in pocket

Coats of your fathers

Lost and forgotten

29. Yeah Yeah Yeahs — "Maps"

The kind of song that inspires graffiti.


28. The Dodos — "Red and Purple"

This song has a personal resonance to me. I started listening to this song around the time, I was one of many people who had to say an emotional goodbye to someone important to us, and I kept finding parallels between that situation and this song. On one day when we said goodbye, many people showed up wearing this person's favorite colors: red and purple.

27. Rihanna — "Umbrella"

Possibly the youngest singer on the list: she was 19 when she recorded this song.

26. Arcade Fire — "Rebellion (Lies)"

25. MGMT — "Kids"

This song feels to me like a living, breathing creature on the prowl.

The instrumental interlude (starting about 3 minutes in) is outstanding. First, there's an adventurous and floridly Baroque keyboard solo — which is abruptly cut off and followed by a simple but effective drum passage, backed by just one relentlessly repeated chord. Then the bottom drops out for a moment, and we're back to the catchy chorus.

24. The Strokes - Last Nite

The Strokes and Tom Petty have admitted that this is derivative of Petty's "American Girl."

23. Esperanza Spalding — "Fall In"

22. OutKast "Ms. Jackson"

21. Rufus Wainwright - I Don't Know What It Is

This is a masterful fitting of melody to chord progressions. He must have taken exquisite care to make this sound so effortless.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mark Bittman and Ezra Klein on how to eat rationally on Thanksgiving (and other days)

Why do more parents want to have girls than boys?

Mickey Kaus seems incredulous that parents who use baby sex selection services usually prefer girls. He quotes this passage from an article in Elle:

Seventy-one percent of American families who use MicroSort—which is still in clinical trials—want a daughter. ... “The era of wanting a first-born male is gone, not to return,” founder Ronald Ericsson, MD, has said.

What’s behind the modern-day girl fetish? One explanation: Women envision a brighter future for their daughters than they do for their sons. Boys are practically the underdogs these days, having fallen behind girls on nearly every measure of academic achievement, from college attendance to high school graduation rates. ...

“The way society is now—I feel there’s a preference for girls,” says Linda Heithaus, a marine biologist from Hollywood, Florida, who has two sons and is contemplating doing IVF/PGD in the hope of getting a girl. “They can do everything a boy can do, plus you can dress them up. It’s almost like, to fit in, you need to have one.” Girls, in other words, are boys plus. They can play sports and have careers, and you can dress them in pink and take them to tea at the American Girl cafe. What’s not to like?

Others link the yearning to women’s belief that they’ll have a richer lifelong relationship with a daughter than a son. ...
Kaus responds: 
Maybe I'm out of it, but I was unaware that parents now want girls, not boys. ... Girls are boys plus? That's one way to look at it. I don't quite believe this trend (though some of my Westside yuppie friends confirm it).
Well, yes, this has been going on for a while. Ten years ago, the New York Times magazine reported, in a cover story called "Getting the Girl":
Americans, unlike much of the rest of the world, do not prefer boys. Of the first 111 Microsort attempts, 83 were for females and 28 were for males. True, the process began as a way to select for girls, and true, because it is better at selecting girls it is more likely to attract couples who want them. But there is something else going on as well, something Shettles and Ericsson learned a long time ago.

''More want girls,'' Shettles says. ''Definitely we heard more from women who had many boys and wanted a girl.''

Ericsson, too. ''We see more requests for girls,'' he says. At some Ericsson clinics, the ratio is as high as 2 to 1, despite Ericsson's own statistics showing a higher success rate for boys. It is, he says, a gap that has been growing since he first introduced his method 25 years ago.

In a lopsided, counterintuitive way, he insists, this is a streak of feminism, although it hardly appears that way at first, what with all the talk of ponytails, dresses and bows. ...

Also in keeping with [Ericsson's] experience, most [women on a sex selection website] yearn to parent girls. They speak of Barbies and ballet and butterfly barrettes. They also describe the desire to rear strong young women. Some want to recreate their relationships with their own mothers; a few want to do better by their daughters than their mothers did by them. They want their sons to have sisters, so that they learn to respect women. They want their husbands to have little girls. But many of them want a daughter simply because they always thought they would have one. They feel that their little girl is out there, somewhere. Every so often, while their boys are playing, they catch a mind's eye glimpse of her, and wonder where she is.
Back to Kaus -- he adds:
It seems to me men still have a lot of advantages, the lack of a mommy track being only the most obvious. But if true ... it would be an extraordinary example of relative changes in earning power affecting fairly basic and millenia-old socio-cultural preferences with startling rapidity--another victory for Vulgar Marxism ...
I can't quite disagree with Kaus's literal words when he says that men have "a lot of advantages"; after all, you probably could list "a lot" of them if you decided to. But I don't accept the implication that men have most of the advantages. As I've blogged before, men have plenty of disadvantages too. I'd be interested to know which advantages Kaus had in mind that he would have expected to tilt the scales in favor of parents wanting sons.

The only specific example he gives -- that girls are on a "mommy track" -- cuts both ways. You could see that as a downside. But when we're talking about the modern-day United States, where there's no question that it's socially acceptable for women to do any job they want, the option to forgo professional advancement and focus on being a parent seems like an advantage. All other things being equal, it's better to have more rather than fewer choices about how to live your life. Of course, it is possible for the father to do most of the parenting -- but there are still powerful social norms against it. There are no equivalent barriers to women being stay-at-home moms or having high-powered jobs. 

Of course, the parents' preferences aren't just objective calculations about the costs and benefits of being born a girl or a boy. As the Elle and NYT articles point out, a mother might want to have a daughter because she imagines they'd have a stronger relationship or because this conforms to her dream of how her life will end up. But if the parents are thinking about costs and benefits, they might want to have a girl -- who's less likely to be laid off in a recession, go to prison, or fight in a war, and more likely to grow up to earn a bachelor's degree, make more money (at least if she lives in a big city), and live longer.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Was he "homeless" or a "drifter"?

My mom talks about this and more as she deftly dissects the language the Daily Mail uses to report that an exterminator killed a germophobe in a subway car, which stayed enclosed with other passengers inside until the police showed up.

Scientific happiness studies are missing the point.

"The fundamental error of the science - and the reason why so many of its recommendations sound trivial or just confused - is the assumption that happiness is the same as positive emotion. Researchers are continuously drawn back to this idea since it makes happiness measurable."

So says Mark Vernon (who also writes the excellent "Philosophy and Life Blog"), channeling Robert Schoch's book The Secrets of Happiness: Three Thousand Years of Searching for the Good Life.

The whole article is well worth reading and worth keeping in mind the next time someone tries to tell you that researchers have discovered that people who do such-and-such are "happier" than people who do so-and-so.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The 100 best songs of the first decade of the 2000s (40-31)

(Click here for the whole list.)

40. Daniel Merriweather — "For Your Money"

Sean Lennon plays some nice guitar leads on this.

39. Faded Paper Figures — "North by North"

I love the male/female vocal harmonies in this song.

38. Polydream — "Hollywood"

(Full disclosure: I'm friends with them.)

37. Bat for Lashes — "Daniel"

36. Mika — "Grace Kelly"

And here's a solo unplugged live performance.

35. Grizzly Bear — "Two Weeks"

34. Sara Bareilles— "Love Song"

Here a few of the main questions I've asked myself in selecting the songs:

1) Is it capable of giving me chills? (Or: does it emotionally affect me?)

2) Is it capable of getting stuck in my head?

3) Do I enjoy listening to the singer's voice?

4) Does the music have some sort of dramatic arc or development? (A bridge or other deviation from "verse/chorus/verse/chorus" is especially helpful.)

5) Is there a sense of "inevitability" — that is, does each note seem to lead naturally to the next?

A song where I'd answer "Yes" to all those questions is probably a good contender for the list. A song where I'd answer "No" to most of those questions probably won't be on the list.

This song — which has a casually effervescent quality that reminds me of Paul McCartney — gets a "Yes" answer to all 5 questions.

33. Dntel — "(This Is) the Dream of Evan and Chan"

This song was created by the same lineup as The Postal Service.

Another blog, The Factual Opinion, ranked this the best song of the decade, saying:

The 2001 people imagined decades ago must have sounded like this--the electronic squall, the nearly overwhelming surge of drums, the drifting grasp on reality. ... 8 years on, “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan” sounds like a future that we still haven't caught up with.
The Factual Opinion quotes the line, "He then played every song from 1993," and says, "I always imagine that he’s talking about hearing every song from 1993, from 'Whoomp (There It Is)' to 'Mr. Jones.'" Although that's what the line would seem to literally mean, I always imagine that he's talking about Kurt Cobain in the last full year of his life, and "every song from 1993" means every one of his songs from 1993 — in other words, In Utero, Nirvana's last studio album. That's why (I imagine) Ben Gibbard wittily accentuates the next line, which I hear as a reference to Cobain's famously conflicted feelings about his own success: "The crowd applauded as he curtsied bashfully."

32. The New Pornographers — "The Laws Have Changed"

It's always fun to hear both A.C. Newman and Neko Case singing lead in the same song.

31. Camera Obscura — "Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken"

When I listen to Camera Obscura, I imagine a band from the early '60s traveling through time to the '00s and trying to fit in.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why isn't there "philosophy of journalism"? Or how about journalism of philosophy?

There should be courses in "philosophy of journalism," says Professor Carlin Romano. He teaches such a course at Yale. (The article is via Arts & Letters Daily.)

Prof. Romano frames the issue this way: 

If you examine philosophy-department offerings around America, you'll find staple courses in "Philosophy of Law," "Philosophy of Art," "Philosophy of Science," "Philosophy of Religion," and a fair number of other areas that make up our world.

It makes sense. Philosophy, as the intellectual enterprise that in its noblest form inspects all areas of life and questions each practice's fundamental concepts and presumptions, should regularly look at all human activities broad and persistent enough not to be aberrations or idiosyncrasies. ...

Why, then, don't you find "Philosophy of Journalism" among those staple courses?
Listing those topics creates a sense that you could have a philosophical field to correspond to every profession, but things don't work out so neatly. "Philosophy of art" is trying to penetrate the very nature of what artists create by asking, "What is art?" I don't think "philosophy of journalism" would be about trying to define journalism or explain what journalists do, since that wouldn't be a very challenging philosophical task.

Based on Prof. Romano's description of his lesson plans, he seems to be using journalism as a platform to discuss ethics, epistemology, and political philosophy. Journalism isn't a sui generis subject of philosophical inquiry; it's a bundle of human interactions that can be analyzed philosophically within traditional branches of philosophy that have existed for centuries. (In this respect, "philosophy of religion" is closer to "philosophy of journalism" than to "philosophy of art." Trying to define "religion" may be a worthwhile exercise, but it's unlikely to be the main point of a philosophy of religion class.)

I'm actually so convinced by his argument that this kind of class is worth teaching that I don't find the article too interesting. Instead of an article about whether there should be a philosophy of journalism, I'd rather see some discussion of whether there should be journalism about philosophy.

The New York Times, for instance, regularly reports on some of the more socially important academic breakthroughs, even including some that happen to be of interest to philosophers. But I can't remember seeing the Times directly report on a philosopher's ideas -- except in an obituary. You regularly read news articles about how the latest brain experiment has revealed so-and-so. Well, that's how the news likes to present it, but the truth is rarely so clear-cut or sensational. A headline-grabbing story based on brain scans is probably going to be highly conjectural, in part because brain imaging doesn't yet have much explanatory power.

Could any philosophical insight about the brain and/or the mind be significant enough to be reported in the New York Times? I'm sure reporters would say philosophical thoughts are too abstract to count as "news" at all. But philosophers of mind should stay sufficiently up to date with the latest neurological discoveries so that their philosophizing actually is timely.

I wish we lived in a world where philosophical ideas routinely made the news. I'm not sure if the journalists or the philosophers are more to blame. Probably the philosophers.

Monday, November 16, 2009

My dad reports from a Rwandan genocide site, "including as few details as I can."

"The memorial rooms stink of death, still."

Clicking on the photograph of "a mother holding her child" goes to the full-size version. Sitting here in the comfort of our rooms, it's impossible to appreciate the full horror contained in that photo.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The 100 best songs of the first decade of the 2000s (50-41)

(Click here for the whole list.)

50. Decoder Ring — "Fractions"

49. Beirut — "Elephant Gun"

48. Tori Amos — "A Sorta Fairytale"

Here's a full band performance, but here's Tori Amos alone:

47. Ben Folds — "Zak and Sara"

46. John Mayer — "No Such Thing"

45. My Brightest Diamond — "Inside a Boy"

44. Hot Hot Heat — "No, Not Now"

43. Seal — "Waiting for You"

42. Zwan — "Lyric"

After the Smashing Pumpkins broke up, Billy Corgan brought a more positive and poppy approach to this sadly short-lived band.

41. Lady Gaga — "Speechless"

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Goethe for bloggers

I recently bought Goethe's Maxims and Reflections at the fantastic NYC bookstore Three Lives. I started reading it yesterday morning over breakfast and underlined numerous passages. I was initially concerned that the book -- a posthumously compiled set of aphorisms from the early 19th century -- might seem dry or antiquated, but it's quite the opposite. It has less wit and pithiness than the standard quotations book, but it makes up for this by having more actual insight.

Here are three thoughts I want to keep in mind while blogging:

[N]o one should be silent or give in; we must talk and be up and doing, not in order to vanquish, but so as to keep on the alert; whether with the majority or the minority is a matter of indifference. [#159]

It is much easier to recognize error than to find truth. [#166]

Surely the world is quite full enough of riddles for us not to need to turn the simplest phenomena into riddles too? [#81]
Finally, here's a point that I hope we Americans can appreciate:
No nation attains the power of judgement until it can sit in judgement on itself. [#113]
(To those who might sit in judgment of that spelling: the book was published in the UK.)

As a side note, other people also deserve credit for this wonderful little book: (1) Elisabeth Stopp, who completed the translation shortly before she died and saw it as the crowning achievement of her life, (2) Max Hecker, who compiled the maxims (Goethe jotted them down on scrap paper over the course of decades and used about half of them in other works), and (3) various sources, many of them unknown -- the book euphemistically points out that Goethe would "borrow" other people's aphorisms without including quotation marks or attribution.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Another lull

I usually like to have a new post up on Monday, but I probably won't be blogging till later in the week since I have another set of job interviews. They're callbacks from the interviews from a few weeks ago, so I'm optimistic that something will come through and I can stop posting these notices...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Why does America have so many more premature births than Europe?

"Premature births are the chief reason the U.S. ranks 30th in the world in infant mortality, with a rate more than twice as high as infant mortality rates in Sweden, Japan, Finland, Norway and the Czech Republic."

The AP lists possible reasons suggested by "experts":

-Fertility treatments and other forms of assisted reproduction probably play a role because they often lead to twins, triplets or other multiple births. Those children tend to be delivered early.

-The U.S. health care system doesn't guarantees [sic] prenatal care to pregnant women, particularly the uninsured, said Dr. Alan R. Fleischman, medical director for the March of Dimes.

-Maternal obesity and smoking have been linked to premature births and may also be a factor.

-Health officials are also concerned that doctors increasingly are inducing labor or performing C-sections before the 37th week. However, Fleischman said most infant deaths do not occur in babies just shy of 37 weeks gestation, but rather in those much younger....
While "smoking" makes sense as one of the factors causing premature births in the US, it doesn't make sense as an explanation of why America has more premature births than Europe. Europeans smoke much more than Americans, and I'd assume there's a direct correlation between a country's overall smoking rate and the prevalence of pregnant women smoking. There must be factors aside from smoking that are so harmful to babies that they go even further than canceling out America's advantage in having relatively few smokers.