Sunday, January 29, 2012

Arsenal 3 - Aston Villa 2

January has been a dismal month for the Arsenal, having won not a single game in the Premier League. Fortunately, today they narrowly avoided going winless for the entire month by beating Aston Villa in a thrilling FA Cup tie. The Villans led 2-0 at the half, on goals by Richard Dunne and Darren Bent, despite the fact that the Gunners were not playing at all badly. In the second half, the worm turned quickly. Just as in the first half, Arsenal turned up the heat early in the first half, and this time, Aston Villa succombed to the pressure, giving up two penalties (on fouls by the two first-half goal-scorers) - both dispatched by van Persie - with a rare Walcott goal sandwiched in between. Walcott, who played better today, shouldn't be given too much credit for the goal, although it was his fine run into the box that forced the action. He was just lucky to have an attempted defense clearance ricochet off him into the net, while he was looking the other way.

For once, I thought no one played badly for the Gunners today. It was a solid team effort. In the first half, the Gunner's goalie, Lukasz Fabianski, subbing for his countryman Wojciech Szczesny, made a meal of a few outlet passes, but fortunately he didn't have to pay a price, and he quickly learned to get rid of the ball with greater dispatch. In the second half, I thought Mertesacker played his best half of football so far as a Gunner. Not only did he dominate the air in his own box, but he nearly scored on a solid header at the other end of the pitch. Villa were fortunate to have a player stationed at the far post to keep it out of the net. Oxlade-Chamberlain was terrific again throughout the match, and no one was upset when, in the final minutes, he was substituted by Theirry Henry. It was particularly good to see Arsenal's two other substitutes get a run in the game. Mikel Arteta and Bacary Sagna are both coming off of injuries, and their return to the side can only improve the squad.

My New Ride

Thanks to master mechanic Scott Rodriguez of T3 Multisport in Indy for building up my new bike, which I picked up today. Good news for folks in B-town, Scott will be moving down here sometime in the next several months. The best mechanic in Indy (IMHO) will become the best mechanic in Bloomington (also IMHO).

Here's my new Bianchi Oltre, complete with Record Group, HED Ardennes SL wheetset, Hutchinson tubeless tires, 3T bars and stem, Speedplay pedals, Bianchi Dr. Dobermann bottle cages, and a Specialized Toupe saddle to top it off (so to speak). I haven't had a chance to weigh it yet, but I guess it'll be under 16 pounds, which is plenty light for a big guy like me. (I didn't go for the lightest saddle, cassette, or tires).

UPDATE: Bike weighs in at 15.5 lbs

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Yeah, IU is Ranked 216th!

Don't you just love university rankings? The 2011/12 QS World University Rankings are out (I refuse on principle to link to rankings, so you'll have to find them for yourselves). Cambridge tops the list. Indiana comes in at 216, just between the University of Reading (UK) and the University of Indonesia.

What complete and utter BS. Like all other educational ranking systems, you will probably find general agreement on the top quintile and, perhaps, the bottom quintile (although where to rank individual schools within those quintiles is another matter). But any effort to rank the vast majority of institutions of higher learning in between is utter nonsense and should be given no weight by prospective students. And, yes, I'd say the same if IU were ranked in the top quintile, which it is not and probably should not be, except in specific subject areas (but the QS rankings only deal with the university as a whole).

Gino Bartali Was a Hero, and Not Just as a Cyclist

Gino Bartali was one of the greatest grand tour riders in history, winning both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France on mutliple occasions, both before and after World War II. There's no saying how many grand tours he might have won, had the War not interrupted the prime of his career. Today, Cyclingnews has a great story (here) about Bartali's brave efforts to save Italian Jews during World War II. He smuggled photos and documents in his bike frame and saddle to a convent that produced counterfeit IDs, while soldiers guarding the roads assumed he was on training rides.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Starving the Beast; Killing the Economic Recovery

The  UK's Conservative/Liberal Coalition took office with an assumed mandate to solve the country's long-term debt problems by slashing budgets. The "City" pushed for it; but many economists, including for example Lord Skidelsky (see, e.g., here), warned on traditional Keynesian grounds that it was a dangerous thing to do in a recession.

How's it working out? Well, in the last quarter of 2011 the UK economy shrank by 0.2% (see, e.g., here), precipitating concerns of a possible double-dip recession. Indeed, Brad DeLong observes that the UK's   economy is actually doing less well now than it did during the Great Depression (see here), and provides the following graph as evidence:

Does this prove the Keynesians right about the relatively importance of short-term stimulus over austerity? Of course not. But it does raise some tough questions for the deficit hawks, and not only in the UK, who have argued that budget cutting, by itself, would improve investor confidence enough to boost the economic recovery.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Indiana State Politics in Microcosm

Two events in the Statehouse today pretty much sum up the sorry state of Indiana politics: a mass-transit bill was killed in committee, while a bill requiring public schools to teach religion (artfully rebranded as "creation science") was approved for consideration by the full Senate.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Limits of Heuristics?

In his elegant book, Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2011), Daniel Kahneman reports on many fascinating findings of cognitive science over the last half century, including the following: when confronted with difficult questions, which would normally require a "System 2," deliberative approach requiring relatively greater attention and energy, individuals often resort instead to answering substitute, "heuristic" questions that allow System 1, the fast, intuitive decision process, to come up with quick and dirty solutions. Here is one of his examples: when faced with the "target" question, "How popular will the president be six months from now?" individuals will substitute the "heuristic" question, "How popular is the president now?" Because System 1 is, in fact, answering a different question, there is a heightened risk that the answer will not be correct for the more difficult target question. Nevertheless, in many cases the "heuristic alternative to careful reasoning ... works fairly well" (p. 98). While System 1's heuristic answers are subject to review and rejection by System 2, "a lazy System 2 often follows the path of least effort and endorses a heuristic answer without much scrutiny of whether it is truly appropriate."

I do not doubt that Kahneman's description of this process is correct (I certainly have no basis for raising any such doubts). What I wonder, however, is whether individuals typically differentiate between low-stakes and high-stakes questions/decisions, calling on System 2 when the stakes or risks stemming from an erroneous answer are relatively high. Kahneman doesn't raise this question (at least not at this point in the book). I suspect we do call on System 2 more as the costs of erroneous answers rise. If so, then we require some basis for explaining how individuals differentiate high-stakes from low-stakes circumstances, which the brain must be able to do very, very quickly.

I have not read past Chapter 9 in the book yet, and perhaps Kahneman takes up my question in later pages (although I didn't find it on a quick leaf through the balance of the book). However, given his findings about the generally poor ability of individuals to calculate risk, one wonders how individuals could accurately decide when the stakes are high enough to call on System 2.

I don't know the cognitive psychology literature at all well - certainly not well enough to know whether anyone's tested experimentally whether raising the costs of incorrect answers, or rewards for correct answers, to "target questions" reduces reliance on System 1's intuitive responses to substitute, heuristic questions. I would be surprised if no one has done this. I would be even more surprised to learn that material incentives play no role at all in the way individuals make decisions.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

"I'm Sorry, Officer, But I Didn't See the Cyclist"

Bob Mionske has an excellent column at (here) about why that statement is not an excuse, avoiding liability, but an admission of guilt, and should be treated as such (unless the cyclist is not reasonably visible or is otherwise negligent).

This One's on the Manager: Arsenal 1 - Manchester United 2

The outcome of this game was determined by one man: Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. With zero fullbacks available to him because of injuries, Wenger, who has reneged on an earlier promise to sign at least one fullback during the January transfer window, was forced to play four center backs. In past games, Vermaelen and Koscielny have each deputized pretty well in that unfamiliar position. Today, inexplicably, Wenger chose to play the ever dubious Djourou in that position, and in the first half he was torched time and time again before Giggs beat him one last time to create the goal that put Man U up 1-0 at halftime.

Wenger had clearly seen enough of Djourou in the first half, and replaced him at the beginning of the second with young Gunner Nicholas Yennaris, who held his own resaonably well. That was Wenger's good substitution. Later in the second half, he made a horrible, game-changing substitution, bringing on Andrei Arshavin to replace Arsenal's best player to that point in the game, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. If anyone should have been substituted, it was the ever-woeful Walcott, who barely played one decent ball the entire match. Oxlade-Chamberlain came off just after he created Arsenal's equalizing goal, which van Persie (who else?) scored. On came Andrei Arshavin, who's first contribution to the game was a textbook example of matador defense (in an area that should have been occupied by a left fullback), allowing Antonio Valencia, scorer of Man U's first goal, into the box where he set up Danny Wellbeck for an easy finish. And that, as they say, was that.

After the match, Arsene Wenger attempt to justify his decision to substitute Oxlade-Chamberlain, saying that he noticed the player had begun to fatigue (see here), something no one else watching the match would have noticed. Even van Persie was visibly angry when the substitution was made. One has to wonder at what point RvP says, "That's enough, I'm off to Barca or Real."

Arsenal are back to being a team in crisis, as they were at the beginning of the season. Qualification for the Champion's League is looking increasingly like a long-shot. At some point, it's not good enough for Arsene Wenger to make excuses about injuries and complain about high prices of players in the transfer market; he needs to take some responsibility for fielding a squad that just is not good enough. Walcott is not getting any better; Arshavin probably couldn't get a run out with Swansea; Djourou has never developed into a top-flight player; Rosicky is past his sell-by date. When your team is ravaged by injuries, and your only January signing is a 34-year-old Theirry Henry, questions will be raised about whether you still have what it takes to be a top-flight manager. It is now time for Wenger to step up, take control, and prove to Arsenal supporters and detractors alike, that he does still have it.

Amazingly, having lost three games in a row, the Gunners remain in 5th place, tied with Newcastle, one point ahead of Liverpool, and 5 points behind Chelsea. It is still not out of the question for Arsenal to finish fourth or even third. But they need their manager to make better footballing (not economic) decisions, and need some of their under-performing senior players to step up. I'm almost beyond hoping that Walcott has it in him. It will certainly help if they can back a couple of legit fullbacks from injury, not to mention Arteta and Wilshire in midfield.

Books I'm Reading Now

I just finished reading, on my daughter's advice, Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (Vintage 1984). Rilke is among my favorite poets and novelists (his prose output was slight but wonderful). I thought I had read everything (significant) he had written; I even read Wolfgang Leppman's very good biography of him. But, somehow, this magical, slender collection of letters had escaped my attention. It confirms just what a thoughtful, kind, and wise person was Rilke, as well as a great, great writer.

I am about halfway through Stuart Banner's latest contribution to the legal history literature, American Property (Harvard 2011). Property scholars, in various disciplines, will learn (sometimes to their own surprise) how much they previously did not know about areas in which they are supposed experts. Others will find it a rich and eminently readable historical introduction to a topic that is fundamental to American law and society. My favorite chapter (so far) concerns the rise of the condominium in the 1960s, which raises the question of why such a useful and valuable form of ownership took so long to emerge in the US. Banner's characteristically interesting answer focuses on institutional prerequisites that needed to be put in place in order to support the market - a thoroughly "new institutional' explanation. This is must reading for all legal scholars, economists, and other social scientists working on property issues.

I'm just a few chapters into Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Grioux 2011), which develops a coherent story around many of the findings of cognitive psychology experiments over the past few decades, describing two radically different approaches to individual decision making: (1) System 1, which is fast, intuitive, and signficantly error-prone; and (2) System 2, which is slower, more costly, time-consuming, and less prone to error. The experiments and other evidence suggest that System 1 dominates and works very well for many, many more or less automatic kinds of decisions, and System 2 intervenes only when necessary to prevent significant errors when the stakes are high. Fascinating ideas presented in clear and convincing fashion by one of (if not the) most important cognitive psychologists of our time (Kahnemann won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 for his contributions to behavior economics). As someone who wants to hold on tightly to some minimal conception of rational behavior, I find some of the experimental findings Kahneman reports to be cognitively dissonant, but one of the hallmarks of rationality is the ability to absorb, digest, and make sense of information that does not necessarily agree with one's prior assumptions and conclusions.

After a long delay, based in part on sheer intimidation about the sheer weight of the volumes and the intellectual challenge of understanding the contents, I have finally cracked open Volume I of Derek Parfit's On What Matters (Oxford 2011). This will not be a book I read quickly and easily. I am, however, highly sympathetic to Parfit's grand scheme to combine into a single theoretical framework Kant's moral theory (e.g., the categorical imperative) with welfare-consequentialism. While I retain substantial doubts about the likelihood (or even the value) of discovering a unified, all-encompassing theory of ethics (for reasons identified by Amartya Sen in his recent book, The Idea of Justice (Harvard 2009)), I'm open to being convinced otherwise by Parfit's arguments. 

Obama Wins Big in South Carolina

That is not a typo.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

An Enclosure Movement for the 21st Century

"Enclosure" is a term that refers to the parcelization and privatization of "the commons," i.e., lands previously open to all "commoners" to graze livestock, hunt wildlife (within legal limits), and gather peat, wood, and other resources. The commons were enclosed in order to create incentives for greater economic production (as many economist historians including Douglass North and Deirdre McCloskey have pointed out), but also to consolidate political power in a small group of large landowners, who were well represented in the various parliaments that passed "inclosure acts." As the great Marx-ish social historian, E.P. Thompson wrote in Whigs and Hunters (1975), p. 261, n. 3,
What was often at issue was not property, supported by law, against noproperty;it was alternative definitions of property-rights: for the landowner,enclosure; for the cottager, common rights; for the forest officialdom,'preserved grounds' for the deer; for the foresters, the fight to take turfs. For as long as it remained possible, the ruled - if they could find a purse and a lawyer - would actually fight for their rights by means of law; occasionally the copyholders, resting upon the precedents of sixteenth-century law, could actually win a case. When it ceased to be possible to continue the fight at law,men still felt a sense of legal wrong: the propertied had obtained their power by illegitimate means.
As I wrote many years ago in an article about Thompson's conception of the rule of law, which he articulated as an afterward to Whigs and Hunters, "[t]he enclosure laws took away property rights - specifically, common-use rights - from those who traditionally had foraged and grazed their animals on the commons, and gave those rights to other, politically powerful individuals who already possessed a great deal of property." Daniel H. Cole, "'An Unqualified Public Good:' : E.P. Thompson and the Rule of Law," 28(2) Journal of Law & Society 177, 180 (2001).

This past week, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld legislation with precisely the same effect in Golan et al. v. Holder, 2012 U.S. LEXIS 907 (2012) (full opinion available here). In a 6-2 decision (Justice Kagan did not participate in the ruling because she had worked on the case as Soliciter General before she joined the Court), the Court upheld section 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, 17 U.S.C. sec. 104A, 109(a), which sought to improve US compliance with the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (in effect since 1886) by expanding US copyright protection to works that have long been in the "public domain" under US law. Traditionally, the US only recognized intellectual property of foreign writers and artists if their works were published in this country or their home countries granted reciprocal rights to US writers and artists.

The Court's ruling is just the latest example of its unwillingness to set limits on the intellectual property rights under the Copyright Clause (see Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 US 186 (2003)), and is already being criticized by constitutional and intellectual property scholars (including my IU colleague Gerard Magliocca, from the Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, here). Effectively, the Court held that Congress can take remove works from the public domain, giving their creators monopoly property rights, thereby raising the cost of use by others, including the symphony orchestras and individual musicians who were among the petitioners arguing that the law was unconstitutional. The named petitioner in the case, Lawrence Golan, is a Professor of Music and conductor of the symphony orchestra at the University of Denver. His long and ultimately unsuccessful battle against the Uruguay Round Agreements Act is chronicled here, in an article that also clearly explains what was at stake for musicians, scholars, and students in the US.

It is difficult to see how such a Uruguay Round Agreement Act furthers the purposes of the US Constitution's Copyright Clause (Art. I, sec. 8) which gives Congress the authority: "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." The progress of science and useful Arts cannot possibly be promoted by the post hoc granting copyrights to writers and artists whose works have long been in public domain and who are long dead. It seems unlikely that Stravinsky, Virginia Woolfe, or Picasso will be taking advantage of the new incentives Congress has created for them. But their estates and descendants will profit at the expense of artists, musicians, and students in the US. Meanwhile, the Act does nothing to increase protections for current or future generations of artists, composers, and writers. The effects are purely redistributional, and in ways that do not obviously improve social welfare.

What Will We Learn from the South Carolina Primary?

South Carolina is a social conservative bastion. Whether or not he actually wins the primary, the fact that Romney will not be soundly defeated in South Carolina constitutes a moral victory for him, and indicates that he has the Republican nomination all but sewn up. If he actually wins, the nomination will be a done deal, even if Gingrich and Santorum keep campaigning. Whoever "wins" South Carolina, it is nearly impossible to imagine either Gingrich or Santorum going on to claim the nomination over Romney.

The more interesting feature of the South Carolina primary is to see how many votes non-candidate Herman Cain garners on behalf of Stephen Colbert. Colbert, who announced his candidacy last week, could not get on the ballot, but Cain's name remains on the ballot, despite the fact that he dropped out of the contest weeks ago. Yesterday, ex-candidate Cain and Colbert appeared together at a rally at the College of Charleston.

Colbert's faux campaign is designed, in non-coordination with the "Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC," to illustrate the detrimental consequences of the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizens United, which declared corporations to be people for purposes of first amendment rights, including the right to fund political advertisements. As a practical matter, I don't know that the Court's ruling has changed campaign finance as much as its critics have argued. I do, however, greatly appreciate the way Colbert and Jon Stewart are shining a very bright light on the general problem of financing political campaigns.

Krugman on Academic Exchange in the Internet Age

Paul Krugman had an excellent blog post (here) the other day exploring the nature of academic exchange in the internet age, which is both pithy and interesting. In it, he describes the deplorable delays and increasing irrelevance of publishing in academic journals. Already 30 years ago, Krugman points out, economists and other social scientists relied mainly on working papers from reputable outlets (such as the National Bureau of Economic Research), with "journals serving  as tombstones" for the finished products. And that was before the Social Science Research Network almost completely democratized the dissemination of academic working papers.

Academic journals are still with us, but, as Krugman argues, they no longer serve the traditional purpose of disseminating scholarly ideas. I even subscribe to a few (mostly economics) journals, but it is an increasingly rare event to come across a published article in my areas of research which I have not already read (or skimmed) in some working-paper version.

So what purpose(s) do (costly) journals serve? I can think of two. First, journals persist as (fallible) proxies by which academic departments assess an individual scholar's reputation and worthiness for promotion and tenure. Second, because working papers can and do change as authors respond to comments and criticisms, citation becomes a confusing and potentially misleading business. Journals, as "tombstones," identify the final remains and resting place of articles, providing reliable focal points for citations.

Are these two purposes enough to ensure the continued persistence of academic journals? Well, probably not in expensive paper form. Based on anecdotal evidence, electronic publication definitely seem on the upswing, and we might predict that, based on cost considerations alone, all journals ultimately will be published only in electronic form; print versions are likely to disappear entirely (saving lots of trees in the process). I am aware that similar arguments have been made about books, but it seems to me the extinction of printed academic journals is more likely than the extinction of either scholarly or non-scholarly books. For one thing, a lot of people (myself included) like to hold books in our hands. I don't know anyone who feels so strongly about the feel (and smell) of journals. I could well be overestimating the relative value of physical books, compared to physical journals; but I'm pretty sure, at least, that I'm not understating the value of printed journals.

The remaining question is whether democratization of the scholarly mission, represented by on-line publishing, including self-publishing, is a good or bad thing on balance. As a non-elite academic myself (who has a relatively tough time getting his work into the top peer-reviewed journals as well as top-20 student-edited law reviews), I tend to favor easier dissemination of a wider range of scholarly research. But within limits. As the pool of academic research widens and deepens, it requires more and more time and effort for readers to separate the wheat from the chaff (assessed by their own lights). Many (if not all) of us will continue to desire proxies, including gatekeepers, to minimize our search costs for quality scholarship in our areas of research.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Mialon on "Rational Lovemaking"

A forthcoming issue of Economic Inquiry (Vol. 1, 2012) includes an article by Emory University economist Hugo Mialon on "The Economics of Faking Ecstacy," which offers a "signaling model of rational lovemaking." Here's the abstract:
In this paper, we develop a signaling model of rational lovemaking. In the act of lovemaking, a man and a woman send each other possibly deceptive signals about their true state of ecstasy. For example, if one of the partners is not in ecstasy, then he or she may decide to fake it. The model predicts that (1) a higher cost of faking lowers the probability of faking; (2) middle-aged and old men are more likely to fake than young men; (3) young and old women are more likely to fake than middle-aged women; and (4) love, formally defined as a mixture of altruism and demand for togetherness, increases the likelihood of faking. The predictions are tested with data from the 2000 Orgasm Survey. Besides supporting the model's predictions, the data also reveal an interesting positive relationship between education and the tendency to fake in both men and women.
Who even knew there was a 2000 Orgasm Survey? Is there anything economists cannot explain?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Back to the Economic Future

Adam Posen, External Member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, recently gave a speech to the Royal Institute for International Affairs, which has just been published at the Bank of England website (here). In it, he mounts an interesting argument about the relevance of the late nineteenth century for understanding the global political-economic picture both currently and for the next 10-20 years. Interesting stuff.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Andrew Sullivan Mounts a Heroic Defense of the Obama Record

Here, at the Daily Beast/Newsweek. In contrast to Sullivan, I don't believe that Obama's reelection is "essential to this country's future," even if it is preferable to the election of any of the Republican candidates.

Monday, January 16, 2012

MLK Day Ride

I rode a 34-mile loop today, featuring four hard climbs, and an "easy" southward leg on Bottom Rd, the only flat road in Bloomington. Unfortunately, the wind was gusting from the south up to 30 mph.

I got dropped, which is not unusual. What troubles me is that it was a solo ride. I'm the anti-Jens. He drops his shadow; I get dropped by mine.

And Then There Were None

With Jon Huntsman's departure from the Republican presidential campaign, the number of candidates who believe (or admit to believing) what science is telling us = 0. It appears certain that a vote for a Republican  candidate in next fall's presidential election, whatever else it might represent, will amount to a vote for willful scientific ignorance.

On-line Course in the Basics of Climate Science

Offered by the University of Chicago. Looks so interesting, I might have to sign up for it myself (in the summer). For more information see here.

Alan Krueger on "The Rise and Consequences of Inequality in the United States"

Alan Krueger, the Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Princeton, who currently serves as Chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, has offered the clearest and most compelling explication of the problem of rising income inequality in the US that I have yet to see. Read it all, including the figures here.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

No Joy in Swansea: Swans 3 - Gunners 2

It's always tough traveling to Wales for a match, but the Gunners were not only outworked by Swansea, but outplayed for most of the match. It was the Swans who looked like a contender for a Champion's League spot, while the Gunners looked like a team just hoping to avoid the drop. The result was not a fluke. Arsenal got what they deserved: another result in the loss column.

The Gunners clearly missed Mikel Arteta. In his absence, Jack Ramsey struggled to coordinate the offense from midfield. His passing was unusually wasteful. Meanwhile, there were the usual poor performances from the usual suspects (Walcott's one moment of brilliance for Arsenal's second goal cannot excuse his lack of quality through most of the match; Arshavin, by contrast, didn't even have one moment of brilliance).

Thierry Henry came on for the last quarter of the match, but didn't have the same magical impact he had in the midweek FA Cup tie against Leeds. In fact, he had no impact at all.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was quoted in the press this week to the effect that he did not expect to make any further changes in the squad during the January transfer period. Apparently, he is sufficiently happy with a make-shift defense that allowed three goals today against Swansea. Nor will he sell Andrei Arshavin, though perhaps because he could get nothing for him.

Arsenal are not yet out of contention for the fourth and final Champion's League spot next year, but they are pretty rapidly playing themselves out of contention. Recent poor results at Fulham and Swansea are disturbingly reminiscent of the Arsenal team that started the season at the bottom of the League Table.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Iron (Creepy) Lady

I'm not much of a movie goer, so I can't pretend to be a movie critic. But I went to see The Iron Lady this evening, and was struck by a few things: (1) the theater, in my highly-educated and politically-aware college town, was very sparsely populated for the opening weekend of a much touted new film concerning a major political figure, featuring a great cast (any Liberal distaste for the Conservative Thatcher should have been at least somewhat offset by the fact that she was being portrayed by the Liberal Streep); (2), perhaps partly explaining (1), the entire film was really, really creepy; (3) Meryl Streep, as virtually everyone has noted, was astonishing in the lead role; and (4) several of the scenes were unnecessarily, almost painfully, loud, which seems to be a trend in films (or perhaps I'm just increasingly sensitive to high volumes as I grow older).

Iron Lady is a very affecting, even disturbing, film. But I'm not sure I could recommend it, except as a lesson on how truly great actors are able to completely inhabit characters.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Expediency at Expedia

I was checking out some airfares for a forthcoming trip at Every time I selected a flight, the listed price changed. The "new" price  invariably was higher, by as much as 50%. What's up with that?

The Relativity of Economic Values

I'm currently reading Slavomir Rawicz's The Long Walk (Lyon's Press [1956] 2010), a supposedly* true tale of a young Polish calvaryman's escape from a Siberian gulag. I was struck by a scene in which prisoners and their guards, stranded by a blizzard in a Siberian forest on their way to the prison camp, are rescued by members of a local indigenous people, Ostyaks, with sleds pulled by teams of reindeer. Of their rescuers, Rawicz writes:
They coveted from the Army only the empty tins which, by order, were always carefully preserved. Their interest in metalware revealed their primitive background. Metal was scarce but skins and timber were plentiful. So there was a good deal of surreptitious bartering between them and the Army cooks of skins for tins. A sable for an empty meat tin was a bargain for both sides and a lesson for the rest of us in relative values. The tins, they told us, were for use as cooking utensils and would be highly prized by the women when they returned home. 
*Serious doubts persist about (a) whether the story is true and (b), if true, whether it is Rawicz's own story. Fiction or non-fiction, it is an absorbing read. I might add that my wife's grandfather, who was sent to Siberia (from Wilno, now Vilnius) because he refused to be conscripted into Soviet Russia's "Polish Army," did walk out of Siberia back to his home, where, at first, his wife was completely unable to recognize him.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pro Athletes Are Just Different from the Rest of Us

From (40-year-old) Jens Voigt (here):
I could ride from Los Angeles to Denver anytime you ask me and keep a 35kph average. But professional races get decided when we’re riding 50 or 55kph. The ability to produce that kind of power over a shorter time is crucial to make the front group or to get in a breakaway, and that’s what I must have—and what hurts the most to get.
How many of us, regardless of age, could ride from LA to Denver "anytime you ask" at an average of nearly 22 mph?

Do Ordinary Folks Understand How Markets Work?

A prominent jurist once said to a small group (including myself) gathered around a conference table, "Most people don't understand how markets work." I thought about this claim for a moment and responded with a simple question: "Do you really think people don't understand the meaning and implications of a 'Sale' sign in a shop window?"

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Indiana University is Ninth Leading Industrial Emitter of CO2 in State

According to a new, interactive map published by EPA (here), my employer IU ranks ninth among the 21 major emitting facilities in the state of Indiana, pumping out nearly 185,000 MTCO2eq in 2010. Perhaps I should see how we rank compared to other major state universities and compare that ranking with the US News rankings.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Adam Smith's Humanistic Economics

An excellent post at the Philosopher's Beard (here).

Defending Mitt: An Unpleasant Task

Over the past few years, Mitt Romney has tried to monopolize issues, ranging from health care and social security reform to the war in Iraq, by surrounding them. It's not just a matter of flip-flopping or changing his mind about an issue; Romney appears to want to hold onto internally contradictory positions in ways that would, if anyone thought he was sincere about it, challenge the rational actor model. It's as if he believes hypocrisy and self-contradiction are the values most prized by voters in a presidential election. Assuming Romney wins the Republican nomination, the Obama presidential campaign surely will run TV commercials featuring Romney contradicting himself, and Romney's response will  be? He can't deny he said what he said. Perhaps he'll insist that x = -x is not a contradiction at all, but a sensible, conservative approach to policy-making.

Having said all that, Romney does not deserve all the flak he is taking for admitting that he likes to be able to fire people who do not do a good job. Yes, I know, he said it in such a way as to create the opportunity for a wicked-sounding sound-bite. And the previously principled Jon Huntsman, among others, have been exploiting that opportunity mercilessly. But the fact of the matter is that we all like to be able to fire people who do a lousy job for us. We like to fire cable TV companies and cell phone companies that overcharge and provide poor service; we like to fire handy men who cause more problems than they fix; and we especially like to fire politicians who we consider venal, corrupt, stupid, immoral or otherwise lacking in character or ability.

Perhaps it was unwise politically for Romney to talk about firing anyone given the relatively high unemployment rate, but shame on the other hypocrits who, by criticizing Romney's statement, imply that everyone, not matter how incompetent, deserves a job, including as President of the United States.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Prodigal Son Returns

Thierry Henry looks familiar enough in an Arsenal jersey, but the number 12 on his back will take a bit of getting used to. When he came on as a second-half substitute, the Emirates crowd went wild. Imagine their reaction, just ten minutes later, when he scored the game's only goal. Song played him through with a fine pass, which Henry controlled brilliantly with his first touch, while opening his body up to slot the ball home across the goalkeeper into the far side of the net with his second touch. Brilliant. Arsenal went on to beat Leeds in the third round of the FA Cup 1-0.

If only Henry could teach Theo Walcott (and Gervinho, if he weren't away on national duty) how to be clinical in front of goal.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

2012 Off to a Good Cycling Start

108 miles in the first eight days of the new year, including 4 outdoor and 3 indoor rides. Puts me in a good frame of mind for the start of the new semester tomorrow.

I enjoyed the flats of Bottom Rd today. It's just too bad I had to climb hills to get there and back out again.

Friday, January 6, 2012

2 Days, 5 Hills

Between cold temps, icy roads, and short hours of daylight, outdoor rides in early January are rare enough in Central and South-central Indiana; outdoor rides on consecutive days in early January are rarer still - as rare as the warm spell we've had the last couple of days. Who cares that the wind was gusting up to 20 mph both days? With temps in the low-50s yesterday and 60 today, and plenty of sunshine both days, I was surprised not to see more cyclists on the road (notwithstanding the fact that thousands of students are still out of town). How nice to have this weather this week, when I could take advantage of it, rather than next week, when I'll be stuck in classes, committee meetings, etc. (BTW, for those of you who might be skeptical of the "academic lifestyle," this doesn't mean I'm not working this week, or working less hard, only that I have more flexible work hours during the winter "break.")    

Yesterday was a one-hour ride featuring climbs up Old Meyers, Earl Young, and Firehouse hills (in that order), and training stress score (TSS) of 92. Today, the ride was twenty minutes and 7 miles longer, with climbs up Earl Young and Old Meyers (in that order), and a TSS of 124. Total climbing for the two days: almost exactly 3000 feet. Not too bad for a large (putting it nicely) old guy (who is trying to become somewhat less large). 

Did Wittgenstein Read Diderot?

Wittgenstein: "Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent" (Tractatus, 1922).

Diderot: "True philosophy would find itself considerably briefer if all philosophers would be willing, like me, to abstain from speaking of what is manifestly incomprehensible" (Encyclopedia, "To Act").

I am far from an expert on matters of philosophy, especially across different historical eras. But, as noted in a previous posting (here), the Wittgenstein quote has always appeared to me to be nothing more than a confounding tautology. The Diderot quote, by contrast, strikes me as sensible (and in his historical context, of course, religiously subversive). Perhaps Wittgenstein meant to say something similar to what Diderot asserted (more clearly)?

By the way, I found the Diderot quote in Arthur M. Wilson's excellent, eponymously entitled 1972 biography (p. 139).

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Can Economists and Environmentalists Get Along?

Over at Legal Planet (here), Dan Farber observes that economists have learned a lot over the past couple of decades about how to deal with environmental problems in their models, and argues that environmentalists need to embrace the positive utility of economics for their cause and appreciate that trade-offs are sometimes necessary. In support of this argument, Dan enlists a neat graphic (reproduced below) from a Gallup Poll, showing an unmistakable shift in attitudes of Americans, who now favor economic development even if it requires a marginal reduction in environmental quality.

Without disagreeing in any way with Dan's larger point, I think this graph provides only weak evidence of a shift in public priorities, away from environmental protection and toward economic growth. First there is the question of whether the crossing of the lines after 2007 is a temporary phenomenon - an artifact of currently weak economic conditions - rather than a more robust change in preferences. Prior to the global economic depression of 2008, from which we are only slowly recovering, a significant majority (55% to 37%) thought that environmental protection should be prioritized over economic growth. That the lines crossed during a steep economic downturn is easy enough to understand, given that environmental protection, beyond minimal standards of air and water quality, is in the nature of a luxury good (as the "Environmental Kuznets Curve" suggests).

Moreover, even if the graph is emblematic of a longer-term change in attitudes, the survey questions on which it is based are premised on a common category mistake that conceptually severs environmental protection from economic growth as if they are not part of the same social welfare function. In other words, the reason environmentalists need to pay more attention to, and be more accepting of, economics is not so much because people prefer economic growth to environmental protection but because environmental protection is an essential component of "real economic growth," as defined by Sir John Hicks 65 years ago (see his 1946 book Value and Capital), and is most effectively advocated as such.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Worry Less about Methane and More about CO2

According to this informative post at

Can We Now Go Back to Ignoring Iowa?

Now that Rick Santorum has (reportedly) come within 8 votes of winning the Iowa Caucuses, can we finally stop paying attention to them as if they have any real national significance?

On a slightly more serious note, in contrast to CNN's claim that the Iowa results are a "big win" for Santorum, I view Mitt Romney as the big winner. For months, one challenger after another has taken leads over Romney in Iowa polls, only to fall by the wayside. It is, in a sense, an upset that Romney prevailed at all, by however slim a margin. He beat the toughest competitor in the field: the anyone-but-Mitt candidate.

The implication from the Iowa result is that for all of the (well-founded) suspicions of Romney's conservative credentials and his flip-flopping on issues, which will expose him to withering attacks in a general election campaign against President Obama, Romney remains the strongest Republican contender in an admittedly weak field. Even in a state like Iowa, with lots of "values voters" (a pernicious label that implies other voters are unprincipled), the practical desire to nominate an electable presidential candidate narrowly overrode other values. I actually find this reassuring, though I remain very troubled by the high level of support for Santorum, who is not only unelectable but ideologically rigid and intellectually several cards short of a full deck.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The (Poor) Quality of Officiating in the Premier League

It's not easy being a referee. So many rules to remember; so much happening all over a very large playing field; players more or less constantly holding, handling, pushing, shoving, tackling, diving, and especially complaining; and just two assistants running the sidelines to help manage the match. Given the scale and importance of the job they have to do, it's no wonder referees make mistakes from time to time. But the rate and importance of referee error seem to be increasing. In fact, the overall level of officiating appears very poor. My evidence is only anecdotal, but I watch a lot of Premier League matches (five or six matches a week on average) and I witness appallingly bad decisions - decisions that actually or potentially affect outcomes - in nearly every match. The model of a single referee with assistants on either sideline is simply not good enough for the modern, very fast, game.

What is to be done? Well, perhaps the FA could follow the National Hockey League's example and put a second referee on the pitch, each with responsibility for half the field. In addition to improving the positioning of the refs, it would provide another set of eyes (on the field, rather than the side) to help with crucial decisions, including bad tackles, penalties, dives, etc.

Putting another ref on the field would not solve all the problems - there is no perfectly functioning rule-enforcement  system either on the playing field or in the courts of law - but substantial marginal improvements are available and are urgently needed to protect the integrity of the game.

David Brooks Tells a Scary Halloween Story

In his column in today's New York Times (here), David Brooks doesn't exactly celebrate the ignorance, insularity, and intolerance of the "largest block of the electorate," "the white working class ... with high school degrees and maybe some college." He merely takes it as a given, but in a way that strikes me as deplorably reductionist. And he portrays Rick Santorum as that block's  hero or at least its representative among Republican presidential candidates. His argument seems to be that, if only the "elites" would get out of the way, someone like Santorum could win this election in a landslide. If Brooks is right about that - and, needless to say, I hope and believe he is not - we should all fret for the future of our republic.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Fulham 2 - Arsenal 1

I didn't get to see the game, but the result is very disappointing, especially as Chelsea won at Wolves, putting them back into fourth place, one point ahead of the Gunners. Admittedly, three games in less than a week will challenge any side, but Arsenal only managed to take four points from the three games, which just isn't good enough. Neither is it good enough to score one goal per game. Robin van Persie plainly needs help up front, but Walcott and Gervinho (who will leave soon for the African Cup of Nations) seem unable to hit the net. Thierry Henry will provide some temporary assistance, but the rumored move for German-Polish striker Lucas Podolski would also be welcome.

Snyder on Pinker

In Foreign Affairs (here), Timothy Snyder offers a sound and fair-minded critique of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking 2011).

Hat tip: Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution.

Lord Sacks on the Necessity of Religion

In the current issue of Standpoint magazine (here), England's Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks argues that, regardless of the truths taught by science, religion remains necessary to give meaning to the world and our lives in it. His argument appears to be borne out by the persistence of religious belief in a modern world dominated by science. Time and time again religious doctrines have been challenged by science, but no matter how much we learn about the universe and how it works, religious faith persists (in some places more than in others).

I have just a few points to make in response to Lord Sacks' arguments. First, his argument that belief in a god is necessary for utilitarian purposes - to give meaning to our lives in an otherwise meaningless universe - is at odds with virtually all religious belief systems which demand belief in god regardless of its utility. Second, he acknowledges that there are non-religious sources of meaning, and does not establish that a belief in god, or any particular god(s), is necessary to create that meaning. Third, he does not explain how positing a god (any god) establishes anything more than a (mythical) starting point for a system of ethics that, in any case, is created by humans themselves. If ethical/religious systems are created by humans for their own purposes - to give meaning to their lives and to order societies - then the existence of non-existence of a god hardly seems a necessary step. Fourth, he ignores (as Pascal did) the conflicts between inconsistent and mutually intolerant ethical systems established pursuant to beliefs in different gods, and all the trouble that has arisen throughout human history as a consequence.

Finally, and most interestingly from my perspective, the arguments Lord Sacks made seem fully consistent with arguments made more than 300 years ago by Benedict Spinoza, which led to his expulsion from the (relatively liberal) Jewish community of Amsterdam and his condemnation, even by liberal Christian theologians, as an "atheist" (which he was not) and even "Satan on earth." That Lord Sacks can make such theistic or deistic claims today and remain Chief Rabbi is an indication of just how far religion doctrine itself has been forced to conform to different ethical norms, including norms of tolerance of other belief systems, generated predominantly by secular forces.

In the end, Lord Sacks is quite right that scientific knowledge alone cannot give meaning to our lives and order society so that we might live together peaceably. It hardly follows, however, that some supernatural being (especially the impetuous, jealous, and mean-spirited one of the Old Testament) must therefore exist to cajole, entice, and threaten us into right behavior in human society.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Colts Win the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes

By losing at Jacksonville today (despite playing hard), the Colts have secured the first pick in the 2012 draft, which will undoubtedly be quarterback Andrew Luck of Stanford. Contrary to many pundits who believe that Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck cannot co-exist on the same team, I believe the situation is ideal for both. Manning is 37, and even if he comes back fully healthy next season, he can be expected to play only two or three more years at best. And he is the perfect guy to coach up Luck to play in the NFL. Meanwhile, even if Luck is anxious to become a starter, he has to recognize that the opportunity to learn from the best can only be great for what is a very promising and probably lengthy career. Especially given all the holes the Colts still have to plug on the offensive line, it will be in Luck's self-interest to watch from the sidelines next season (at least).

A Great Weekend for the Gunners

Sunderland provided the perfect ending to a great weekend for Arsenal by beating Man City 1-0 on the penultimate kick of the match. The top four teams (Man City, Man U, Tottenham, and Chelsea) all lost, allowing the Gunners back into the top four and putting them within 3 points of 3d, and nine points of the co-leaders.

Meanwhile, Wenger has confirmed that former Arsenal talisman Theirry Henry will be rejoining the team on a two-month loan to add some offensive firepower. In addition, Wenger has indicated that the injury suffered by Thomas Vermaelen in yesterday's game (a calf strain) will require him to dip into the market for a defender. And news reports indicate that Arsenal will make an offer for German International striker Lucas Podolski, who together with Henry would help take some scoring pressure off of Robin van Persie's shoulders.

Happy New Year to Everyone

However good (or not) your 2011, I hope your 2012 is better.

My chief resolution for 2011: not to move house again. (That should be an easy one to keep.)