Friday, November 01, 2002

A note on style
...all right, one Parthian shot.

As you might have noticed, I still haven't quite decided what I want this blog to be, possibly because I'm not particularly thrilled by any of the standard stereotypical blog types. I suppose it seems to have evolved into more of a forum for what I think rather than a forum for what I've done, which isn't too surprising, when it comes down to it, since I tend to think more than I actually do things. On the other hand, I have no particular desire to just turn it into Generic Political Blog, since, well, then it'll utterly fail to interest anyone who doesn't already agree with me (at least, this is my experience with other blogs). So, the moral of the story: feedback is critical at this embryonic time! So if there's something you want to say (like, "shut up about economic issues already! We all took Econ at some point in our lives, you know!") feel free to do so.

And now, I'm outta here.
So far, so good
I've kind of refrained from publicizing this blog too extensively because of my fear that I'll lose interest and it'll just die. So far, I've managed to prevent this from happening, which makes me optimistic about the future of the blog, so I suppose I can start announcing its existence to other people. And if you want to go out and spread the word (hey, I can dream, can't I?) feel free.

Of course, having said that, I'm now going to leave this fallow for a little while, since I'm heading down to LA for a quizbowl tournament. But I'll be back Saturday night.
(from Kenneth, again)

Remember Ellen Feiss? Of course you do! Well, now she's back -- in pumpkin form! This is actually really cool.

On a more serious note, Microsoft engages in sleazy business practices in Namibia (in other news, dog bites man). I'll resist the temptation to turn this into Generic Anti-Microsoft Rant (especially since the article does an admirable job of that to begin with), and instead, since I'm in an economic mood, muse about the economic issues involved.

(Why did I suddenly start talking about economics so much? Good question.)

Anyway, to state the obvious, whether we like it or not, we're in the age of multinational corporations. However, most corporations are limited in their ability to expand across the globe by the limitations on their ability to produce their product (diminishing marginal returns, and all that). To pick an often-picked-on company, I would be extraordinarily surprised if Nike's business plan was "sell shoes to all 6 billion people in the world"; there simply aren't enough Indonesian workers to support such a strategy. So Nike contents itself with selling its shoes to rich Americans, and the Chinese market is filled by Chinese companies producing lower-quality products at a lower cost. Everyone is happy, or at least has an available product within their means (hopefully).

But software is an entirely different beast. It's essentially a zero-marginal-cost industry (to a first approximation -- and remember, kids, it's okay when I make approximations!), so Microsoft has every incentive to market its products to as many people as possible. Thus, I wouldn't be in the least surprised if Microsoft's business plan did contain something to the effect of "Our goal is to put Windows on every computer in the world"; in fact, all things considered, I'd be more surprised if it didn't. The result is that Microsoft will naturally act aggressively to expand its market in developing countries (see, in addition to this, the recent clashes in Peru, and the oft-repeated line that the motivation behind Palladium is to get the Chinese to pay for their software). Of course, given that only a small fraction of the population in Third World countries can afford a computer in the first place, the actual market for Microsoft products is going to be quite small. If that were all there were to the story, then the situation would more or less resolve itself like I described above -- people who could afford Microsoft software would have it, those who couldn't would have something else, and that would be that.

The problem is, of course, is that when Microsoft is around, "something else" tends not to exist. If Microsoft establishes itself as the de facto standard, and/or if it eliminates local competition, then an even larger portion of the population will find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide. Is this really the kind of society we want to be perpetuating?

Thursday, October 31, 2002

Useful fact #1
Eating often makes you feel better, even if the symptoms you're suffering aren't obviously due to hunger. Good thing to remember, that.
"Everybody's an idiot except for me"
In my experience, nothing fosters that mindset quicker than driving (where, of course, it's always true...heh). Of course, it seems that sometimes people don't leave that mindset behind when they leave their car, which is a pity, because for everyday life it's really a terrible way to think. But I've exceeded my political quota for the day, so I'll leave it at that.
Hey, neat
Toyota to move to all-hybrid vehicles by 2012 (link courtesy of Kenneth)

Never one to pass up an opportunity to extend my previous meanderings, I'll point out that even most conservative economic observers, assuming they're intelligent, have to admit that externalities are a topic not solved by the Econ 101 version of the free-market viewpoint. (The rest are idiots who'll say "But Coase's Theorem solves everything!" Um, no. Coase's Theorem contains an extremely large assumption which, while useful for presenting examples in Econ 201, is essentially never true in the real world. I'm not saying that a property-rights-based framework of looking at externalities is worthless; it's just that Coase's work needs to be the starting point, not the ending point, of these discussions. I have nothing but contempt for those people, but then again, I have nothing but contempt for overly-simplistic views on both ends of the political spectrum. But I'll save my rant about the Greens for another day...)

Anyway, the case of electric (or hybrid, or fuel-cell, or what have you) vehicles illustrates another pitfall with the standard approach to dealing with externalities (namely, government intervention to reward businesses which reduce externalities or punish those who don't): the feedback loop works in both directions. While the government can (and should) exert its influence on automakers, automakers can (and have) exerted their influence on government. One needs only to look at the lamentable history of California's ZEV policy to see this in action. (You can certainly argue that this was done the "wrong way" in the first place, with mandates instead of incentives, and this is probably true -- but this is yet another tangent.) With the automobile industry so large, powerful, and facing such a large cost of changing to any other system, it's understandable that they would fight such proposals tooth and nail.

In the end, it appears like the market has finally ended up doing the right thing -- consumers have demanded more fuel-efficient cars and so the market has responded by producing more fuel-efficient cars. A macroeconomic love story, to quote those annoying ads. But if anyone claims that this is proof that the government doesn't need to meddle in situations like these, I'll cheerfully smack them upside the head, since, well, why do you think the automakers got started researching these technologies in the first place? Hint: it wasn't because they wanted to.

Moral of the story: markets usually good, but far from perfect; sky is blue. Film at 11.
Happy Halloween!
And all that.
The carrot and the stick
As you undoubtedly know, conservative economic thinkers tend to stick to the line that the free-market capitalistic economy works well because, instead of trying to work against man's natural greed, it acknowledges it and uses it to further the system. You'll always hear words like "incentives" being tossed around all the time in this kind of economic logic: "we shouldn't tax this because it'll reduce incentives for innovation in the field", or whatever, is something I've heard a million times. Now, the general triumph of capitalism indicates that this way of thinking is, fundamentally speaking, pretty sound, and since I'm a pragmatist at heart, I certainly don't believe that systems which don't take this basic avarice into account can ever be successful.

But, as they say, the devil's in the details. Greed is a powerful motivator for innovation, but it's also a powerful motivator for dishonesty, and since the latter is usually easier than the former, the cost-benefit analysis doesn't always favor the former. You might think that it was something like Enron or WorldCom which inspired this post, or maybe, drawing from more recent material, this article arguing that the practice of billable hours in law encourages fraud (incidentally, I should point out that the more non-tangible the product being provided, the easier this is. If, as you might see in Econ 101, you claim to produce 60 widgets, then it's pretty easy to tell if you actually produced 60 widgets or not. But if you produce 60 "billable hours", that claim is a lot more nebulous). Actually, my train of thought started from an entirely different point and just kind of ended up here as a natural conclusion.

This article (for those too lazy to follow the link, it's talking about Johnnie Cochran's proposal to address the embarrassing paucity of black head coaches in the NFL by rewarding teams that interview more black candidates with extra draft picks, and conversely penalizing teams that don't) is actually what started me off thinking about this. This is incentives at their worst: aimed at a laudable goal, for sure, but so easily circumvented in dishonest ways that they're almost completely useless. I suppose the most optimistic person could believe that a club would bring in a couple of black candidates as a sham, and realize "hey, maybe this guy really is good!" But, like I said, I'm a pragmatist at heart, and I'm more than a little skeptical about this scenario. Not that I claim to be an NFL insider or anything, but everything I read about coaching situations indicates that it's very much a Good Ol' Boys network, and I don't think merely forcing clubs to bring in a few extra candidates is going to do much at all to change that situation.

That is to say, while I don't object to incentive-based thinking as a starting point, I think it's more than a little simplistic to take it as an ending point as well.

Whew, I was all over the map with that post, wasn't I? I guess that's what I get for writing at 4am, and that's what you get for reading it! Ha!
"I know it when I see it"
Erica used to insist to me that I had to have "a type", and would get quite agitated when I would insist that I didn't, really; I just went by the philosophy espoused in the above quote (yes, the reference is intentional, as if you had to ask). I mean, seriously, I pose this as a challenge: see if you can find any commonality among my last three crushes (assuming that you know who they are/were, of course). I can only come up with two: they're female, and they're all younger than me. The former is kind of a prerequisite, and the latter is incidental, and neither is all that useful as a guide to this nebulous concept of "type". If you can come up with anything better, I'd be most impressed. Heck, you could probably shorten that list of three to two and still fail to come up with any more useful common trait than the two I just mentioned.

I feel the same way about music sometimes; less so, since I think it's easier to say "these two bands are similar" than "these two people are similar", but sometimes I'm surprised by just how much difficulty I find in articulating what I like in music. It's partially that I lack the vocabulary, I think, but there really isn't that much of a common thread -- at least, not one that I can really see.

The problem with this viewpoint, of course (staying on the music side of the example) is that it's harder to determine whether I'll like a given band or CD or song that I haven't heard before, which tends to discourage my exploration. I'm sure you can complete the other half of this analogy.

[Update: Kenneth points out that another common trait is intelligence. I suppose this is true; I think of it as pretty much of a sine qua non, although I might make an exception for, say, Tyra Banks. But even as I write these words, I know that that's not really true, either.]
My listening habits suck, these days
Back in the olden days, when my computer was too weak to play MP3s while actually doing other things, I was forced to listen to CDs. This often meant that I would actually listen to the whole CD all the way through, and the result of this was that songs (or, in some cases, entire albums, like "Reading, Writing & Arithmetic") I was initially unimpressed by later grew to become some of my favorite songs. Of course, the converse was also true; songs that grabbed me the first time through would often prove to not stand up all that well to repeated listenings.

But now, Winamp has spoiled me. When I acquire a new album, I listen to it a couple of times, and then pick the best songs to put on my permanent playlist. This means that not only am I missing out on all these potential gems, but also that my playlist picks up quite a bit of fool's gold, songs that I end up growing tired of and deleting from my playlist later.

I wish I could break myself of this habit, but it's so convenient. Wah.

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Am I a tool of The Man?
Not just because of the below entry, though that's true too...but today, I was listening to a particular rap song ("hereWEcome", or however you want to capitalize it, from the Strange Days soundtrack), and I was enjoying it. It's a very good song (and the Web appears to agree with me). Then I got to thinking, "You know, this song is written by people who don't particularly like people like me, about how they don't particularly like people like me." After all, through no particular fault of my own, I did have the luck to end up on the more-privileged side of the line that's being drawn here. So is it right for me to listen and enjoy a song like this? Or am I just being a poseur who doesn't -- can't, really -- understand the fundamental issues they're talking about? (The latter half of that is certainly true. When it comes right down to it, I have absolutely no conception of what life in the 'hood is really like, and I think that most of the people who haven't been there themselves don't quite grasp the difference, either.)

It's just a song, I suppose, so I don't worry about it too much and just enjoy the music, but it does make me think a little.

There's a much longer post about race in this country that I have to write (but then again, doesn't everyone, really?) but I don't have the time right now, so you're spared for the time being.
Teaching to the test
I suppose I'm going to do it today, despite feeling terribly guilty about doing so, given that it violates all the Principles of Good Teaching I've been raised to believe in.

The reasons for this are manifold, I suppose. Principally, it's because last time, I focused on the main concepts, like, y'know, we're supposed to, and my students got nailed because our professor decided to include something which I had made a conscious decision not to cover, because I thought it was too unimportant in the grand scheme of things (and I was right, dammit). So I want to make up for that.

But more fundamentally, it's not really the professor's fault, either. When you get down to it, the number of solvable problems in elementary E&M is extremely small. (Not as small as in introductory QM, but still quite small.) So you're faced with two choices: either ask one of the basic problems, which have (hopefully) been already covered a multitude of times, or add in some twist which requires knowledge of something which is pretty irrelevant, but at least makes the problem nontrivial. Our professor seems to have chosen the latter option, because it does at least produce a wider spread of scores, which makes the all-important grading that much easier.

I could add in some more cynical comments, but I think I've already exceeded my quota for this post, plus I need to actually work on writing aforementioned teaching for the test, so I'll be quiet now.
What, it's basketball season already?
I'll freely admit that of the Big Three, basketball is the sport that interests me the least, but I'm still surprised that it managed to completely sneak up on me like that. I guess it's partly because baseball managed to hold my attention longer than usual (*sigh*), and partly because hockey has grabbed more of my interest as a winter sport. In fact, the truth is, although I think of myself as a True Fan and look down on bandwagon fans, I am to some extent a fair-weather fan (and I suspect that pretty much everyone is, to some degree, regardless of what they may claim). After all, it's just really hard to stay really interested in a team when they consistently suck, and it's equally hard to avoid becoming really fanatical about a team when they are doing well and have a chance to win. So, given the consistent suckiness of the Warriors, I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised that basketball has dropped to the bottom of my radar screen, to engage in a little metaphor-mixing.
Paul the chameleon
Sometimes I feel like I would be an ideal resident of Oceania, because if someone told me that we had always been at war with Eastasia, then I would certainly believe that we had always been at war with Eastasia.

What I mean by this is that I adapt very quickly into new surroundings. It doesn't take me long after moving into a new milieu to feel like I've been there forever, or at least for a very long time. (This is true, I think, in both the physical and social sense.) This might seem, on the surface, to be a useful trait, and it is in some cases; I don't really get homesick, for example. The downside is more subtle, but I think it might be more pernicious than it seems: because I feel so comfortable in my surroundings, I often don't get to really know them as well as I should.

I suppose there's some kind of moral to this story, but I'll leave it to the reader to find.

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Living in an ivory tower
I was reminded yesterday just how much I use math and physics jargon in my everyday conversation. This usage falls into two categories, I suppose: words like "isomorphic" and "canonical", which are useful ways to express concepts that can't be expressed in non-jargony English without being a lot wordier, and words like "subset", which are perfectly understandable to the average person but also have perfectly good ordinary equivalents, too; the latter have just seeped into my vocabulary because I use them so often.

The reason for the title of this post, of course, is that this is perfectly normal to the people I interact with on an everyday basis. Pretty much everyone I talk to is directly involved in the academic world or recently departed from same, so they have no problem understanding what I'm saying (perhaps more obscure math words like "isomorphic" might confuse some of my acquaintances, but I've never heard a peep from any of them).

But this isn't actually normal. If I ever end up in the Real World, people will wonder why the hell I talk like that. Fortunately, I don't see this in my future any time soon.
Disappointment of the day
Or more technically, Saturday.

I always enjoy wearing my "death of ferdinand de saussure" shirt (on the front: a picture of a tree, with "ARBRE" beneath, and both enclosed in the "not" symbol), because it always draws me such strange looks. I suppose this is because it looks like it's anti-tree, and wandering around with such a slogan in Berkeley is a bold act indeed. (Plus, I enjoy wearing it since the "making references people don't understand" factor is off the charts. I have yet to meet anyone who has managed to get both halves of the reference from the shirt.) However, I'm always slightly disappointed that while sometimes people will ask me "Hey, what's up with your shirt?", no stranger has ever asked me that question. They seem content to just give me confused (or dirty) looks.

Anyway, I was wearing this shirt Saturday, figuring that inquisitive high school quiz bowlers would be the perfect kind of people to ask about the shirt. None did, though. One of the coaches was bold enough to ask, but the students acted like people wearing such shirts was completely normal. Between that and Depeche Mode, I'm beginning to fear for the youth of tomorrow. :)

Monday, October 28, 2002

Lifting the blackout
I've successfully managed to avoid visiting (or any other sports site) since the conclusion of Game 7. This is harder than it might sound, since it is my home page, so avoiding it has required a bit of trickery (admittedly, not much). All right, I'm exaggerating slightly, since I did read the highly appropriate Jim Caple column that Ken sent me.

I think it's safe to look now. Monday Night Football surely must have bumped it off the front page.
Obligatory bathtub masturbation scene
Well, so much for my attempt to avoid references that no one will understand.

(If you want the explanation: A long time ago, I was reading a review of some post-Basic Instinct Sharon Stone movie in the Chronicle -- I don't remember which one it was, possibly Sliver -- where the reviewer said something like, "After the obligatory bathtub masturbation scene, such-and-such happens." I found that to be a rather odd turn of phrase. The next day, I found out that Jon Carroll agreed with me, since he also wrote about its oddness in his column. Aaaanyway, I figured that since I'm covering all the obligatory bases, that seemed like the logical next step.)

(Disclaimer: No actual bathtub masturbation occurred during the writing of this post. Well, I suppose some did, somewhere, but not in my bathtub.)
Obligatory societal generalizations
(Yes, there really is a train of thought connecting this post with the preceding one. 10 points if you can find it.)

I've always been of two minds about the "I'm not a math person" type of person. I always feel that, at least in today's society, those words give you a free pass for ignorance in areas where you really should have at least minimum proficience (that is to say, I don't really look kindly on "I'm not a math person" when tip-calculation time comes around, though with everyone's profusion of electronic gizmos the average person probably can calculate the tip on 5 different machines without straining a neuron, but I digress). And I do feel that math is specially singled out for this kind of treatment -- if I were to say, "Oh, I'm not a history person" when someone mentioned the Gettysburg Address (to pick a random example), I expect that that would draw at least a quizzical look, while "I'm not a math person" is pretty much accepted without comment, if not outright agreement and sympathy.

On the other hand, I recognize that there really are people who aren't "math people". To pick a not-at-all random example, I've tried to teach various mathematical concepts to my mother over the years, with not at all that much success. Things that I find simple, she just doesn't "get" on the same level, even after putting quite a bit of effort into it (and, to be honest, much more effort than I had to put in to understand the same concepts). It's not like she's not an intelligent woman -- she is, but just not when it comes to things mathematical.

I suppose the dividing line comes from effort. I'll bet a significant fraction of the people who claim that "they just don't get math" could understand enough to get by if they were willing to put some work into it, and, conversely, I'm willing to excuse those who have tried and still don't get it. But, of course, with the need for mathematical skills arguably at an all-time low, except in the specialized fields that depend on it, people don't see the benefit of learning it.
Obligatory navel-gazing
Am I really getting old?

Saturday, we hosted a quiz bowl tournament for high schoolers. Since Berkeley QB doesn't believe in paying for questions of this sort, we had to write our own questions (grumble, grumble). I found writing high school questions to be surprisingly challenging; it really is harder to write easy questions than hard ones, and I was hampered by the fact that I had forgotten all the stuff I had learned in high school which I haven't used since then (for example, biology).

Anyway, to fulfill my "popular music" allotment, I decided to write a question on Depeche Mode. I figured that this would be eminently gettable, and fretted that maybe I was even making it too easy. But the question in question comes up, and in our room, it goes dead. No one touches the buzzer until the end of the question, and then we get one wild guess, and that's it.

Juliana points out that '80s music is probably too old for these kids. And I suppose she has a point -- I don't know anything about '70s music, nor do I have any particular desire to, so is it really fair to ask '80s music of kids who were born in, what, 1984-5?

But still, Depeche Mode? Yipes.
Oh yeah, content.
So, you see my point. I didn't expect to run out of content quite so quickly -- I had so many ideas before getting this thing actually started! But of course, once I actually got around to creating an account, my muse had flown.

I'm hoping that this won't actually be the way of things. It depends on whether I can get into a routine of doing this. We'll see.