Monday, September 30, 2013

On Mlodinow's "The Drunkard's Walk"

You can be back-handed and say that Mlodinow is a good writer for a scientist, but I won’t do that.  He’s a good writer, period.  He can spin a tale from nothing, or what seems like nothing.  Here, he covers what is potentially a very history of probability and it’s contemporary uses.  The title and the subtitle may over-sell it a bit, but it is a popular book.  It is quick and easy to read, but that doesn’t mean you won’t learn anything.  I for one had no idea the equals sign wasn’t invented until 1556.  I’m just glad I didn’t have math class before then. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

On Flow: Reading Csikszenthihaly

I had seen this book referenced in some other books and I thought I would go to the source. 

It is an interesting book, but the structure and style of the author's sentences make it hard to read at times.  The reading of the book doesn't, well, Flow.  (The joke here being that flow in the sense of the ease of reading and the namesake state of being are probably both separate and the same thing.)

My preconceived notion of what "Flow" is tracked closely with what they call when athletes are "in the zone" and why I have come closest to in practice, where you just turn off your conscious mind and react through muscle memory.  I was pretty close, but my notion was more limited.  For the author, you can have flow at work, which to me seems ludicrous at first blush but is true.  I can think of personal experiences where I was making pizza years ago, and in explaining how well I worked with one coworker, I called it a "dance". I didn't always dance at that job, but when I did, it was beautiful -- time flew and the memory of the shift was a pleasant memory.

You don't always flow though, and that's what concerns me.  The author shows all these people experiencing these states, but I am wanting to know how to create these states.  Reading the book, an d explaining it to my wife, she asked if it was a 'self-help' book with the negative baggage that comes with that phrase.  It is not, but I for one wanted more hint on how to get to there from here. 

One big thing about reading this for me was that it needs updated and expanded (and I'm sure the work has bee furthered).  It is a twenty + year old book and the research it is based on is even older.  I would be interested in seeing the physiological reaction to flow.  Can you throw someone in an fMRI machine and induce the fl,ow state?  If so, we could see in a different manner what a flow state looks like.  

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Hayek's Categorical Error

Hayek was scared, and rightly so if his analysis was right. Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia were nightmares of states that the rest of the world would hope to wake up from. That the Russian people and the Germans eventually woke up does not excuse the excesses of power claimed by both totalitarian dictators.
Hayek, however, was wrong in his analysis.

First off, I want to dispatch and then turn away from the easiest and most superficial criticism of this work. Hayek is a bad writer. The construction of his English is tortured and awkward. Not every writer taking on English can write with the verve and elegance of Conrad or Nabokov. Sadly, even in his field, someone writing centuries before him has a better grip on lucid prose. Adam Smith, a Scotsman, writes in a clearer English to the contemporary reader.

Rhetorically, Hayek's largest problem with his argument is definitional. He dedicated his work `to the Socialists of all parties.' His tongue-in-cheek dedication is meant to yoke together both the Nazi program and Stalin's version of Marxism-Leninism. The work goes through pains to keep this parallel alive, but only goes to show that both of our antagonists in the work are effective dictatorships. The key argument of the work is that the road that both countries took to their respective places were parallel. Hayek goes through pains to support this thesis, tying together some ex-socialist in the Nazi movement as proof of the socialist root of Nazism. He ignores the fact that Nazism developed in the beer-halls of Bavaria as a nationalistic alternative to the internationalist SDP that lost its intellectual and moral high ground by supporting Germany's entry into the capitalist conflagration we know as World War One. The Nazi party and fascist ideology grew and developed not as a logical extension of socialistic ideals, but in conflict with both socialist and communist parties in the late twenties and early thirties.

Hayek's villain becomes not socialism as understood by any socialist, but instead the villain is a planned economy. Ignoring the fact that socialism is an economic, political, and moral system is one thing. Parts of the socialistic system are open to criticism and discussion and debate. However, Hayek's move is intellectually dishonest. If the countries of the Soviet Union and Germany had anything in common it was that they had centrally directed economies. Both countries had separate problems and were not heirs to the post-capitalist utopias in any form. Germany had to rebuild, as did the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had not just the international war to recover from, but also faced internal strife. The tsarist country that became the Soviet Union was still very rural and largely agrarian and thus had to focus a damaging amount of economic focus on industrialization. Neither country was ready for the transition that Marx was able to see happening in mid-nineteenth century England or Germany.

Hayek's thesis is rendered moot by this false comparison. `Socialism' is not the villain. Dictatorship and totalitarian systems that repress the people are the enemy of a well-functioning state. Many different political and economic systems have led to serfdom. Hayek's market-based savior is no better. He argues that oppression is inevitable in both a planned economy and a market based one. The market-based economy, to Hayek, is preferable because the oppressor is the market itself, and not some entity that has a face. I fundamentally disagree with him here, as in an open system you have a chance to petition for redress an individual. If a market leaves me to starve, I have no one to look at for succor or blame. This is many times more alienating for me.

The final prescription Hayek advocates is one I and many other leftist can get behind. Although Hayek speaks against international planning, he recognizes the need for international cooperation. For him this is a cooperation of the markets, where governments hand over economic policy and the nation-state is weaker as a result. The confounding part here is that the socialist, Marxist view is internationalist. Nation-states themselves exist to protect bourgeois capital, and borders are at best an ethno-linguistic myth. What Hayek in the end argues against is competing state capitalist countries and advocates for the blurring of those boundaries.

I recommend this book, despite my rating, because it is important for people from all sides of the debate to know every side of the debate. Hayek is important in right-wing libertarian thought, but you should approach with caution if you have not read some of the important theorist he is speaking against; his definition of leftists are at the mercy of his arguments and not necessarily a reflection of any socialist's words or intents.

(Originally posted 6.2.2010 at

Moneyball and the Lucas Critique

I liked numbers and economics, and Lewis is a great storyteller, so this book is recommended for lay readers of both the sporty and nerdy persuasions.

Reading this book, however, made me think of the Lucas critique: “ Given that the structure of an econometric model consists of optimal decision rules of economic agents, and that optimal decision rules vary systematically with changes in the structure of series relevant to the decision maker, it follows that any change in policy will systematically alter the structure of econometric models.”

Basically, there was a very small window where changing the paradigm on what is important in a baseball player and his statistics would give a team an advantage on the field.  Unlike the market twhere you have 250 trading days a year, you only have one draft a year, so there is a chance that the underdog can win.

The Oakland baseball organization had some success with this smarts and analytics over just looking at guys.  But they didn’t win the ultimate prize, and then a more powerful organization came and took the methods and leveraged their money plus the analytics into a championship.  Once this happened, the methods have spread and become utilized much more widely so there is no longer an edge to looking at a player’s defensive WAR because everyone looks at that and it is discussed in the sports pages. 

Break the Circle: Reading "The Power of Habit"

I have first remark, before anything else, at how well this book is written.  Subject matter aside, I read a fair number of books by economists and social scientists and writers writing about those subjects and most are passable.  This book, however, is written by a writer who has full command of the language and his own voice.

The rest is just gravy – which I ate up.  The Power of Habit as a book blurs the line through science and self-help without being too heavy-handed in either direction.  Duhigg breaks down stories about how habits are created and reinforced at both a personal an institutional level, and described people who were able to break negative habit loops and create positive habits of being in their place. 

I offer no specifics here, but I recommend this book, and I do so giving it high praise.  I often read these sorts of books in a vacuum, a dispassionate observer that I imagine myself to be.  This book, has made me rethink some of my own routines, and made me wonder how I can change the payoff from some of my negative customs. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Production is the meaning of life? Reading "The Affluent Society"

Galbraith was a public intellectual of a generation that I missed.  I had previously read his book on the crash of 1929 and enjoyed his clear, concise writing style which sometimes rolled into figurative language when it seemed necessary.  That same writing is on display here, but this is a more troubling document in a couple of ways.  Basically, Galbraith is making the argument that the United States was over-everything: producing, consuming, and working.  In the time he was first writing this, he sounds like the economic consequences of Keynes’ grandchildren had come through, and affluence reigned.  It did, but then, as now it was unevenly distributed.  My key takeaway was a feeling that the minimum income is a thing whose time has long since come, but also that Galbraith would sit so far left of conventional discourse these days that he would be a marginal figure.  He is the man who invented the phrase, in this book, of “Conventional Wisdom,” but sadly his wisdom would not be listened to today.

The second aspect that makes this a “troubling” book to read is that it has gone through multiple editions where there was fairly heavy editing.  I’m used to a new edition just having a amendatory preface and the text staying the same.  I can’t really say how this changes any interpretation of the work, but the edition I have is the 40th anniversary from 1998.  I was expecting a book from 1958, and I was thrown at the first mention of Nixon as president.  I got used to the long time frame that Galbraith used for references, but I wanted a first edition.  I really wanted to have all the editions together to see when and where his thinking shifted, but I was reading this for pleasure and not for any sort of school assignment.  I think it detracted from the work, but only because I was aware of it. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Where I'm coming from: a bit of biography

First appeared here:

I was in college what seems not too long ago (2000-2004). It was a large state university. I had two majors, trending from chemistry to English. I was aware of internships, but it wasn't something everyone did. I knew one guy that I has classes with in Chemistry, and he ended up doing a co-op in engineering. A woman I knew did an "Internship" at the university press for an academic year. One person I knew was somewhat obsessed with them, but she was in "Business," which I didn't see as an actual field of study. Internships were for chumps. And business majors.

Or so I though.

They were creeping in and I didn't realize it. I had to apply twice to get a job at the student paper. I only got the job the second time because I was friends with the editor of the section I ended up working in. I was paid fifteen dollars a story, period. It wasn't worth it, so I dropped it. I dropped it because I had a job.

I had a job in a restaurant, making pizzas and subs and pasta dishes. It was my real job that was horrible and exploitative and that I only held onto because I understood that potential employers in "real" jobs valued a long and stable work history. I worked my way up to manager where they thought enough of me to pay me six fifty an hour.

I only worked that because I was going to be a poet. My fall-back job was being an English Professor. I ended up going to graduate school, the second year I applied because the first year I didn't get into any of the programs I applied to. I ended up making half of the poverty line teaching and grading underclassmen in their composition abilities. I should have applied for food stamps, but I wasn't savvy enough to think of it.

None of it mattered to most people. It was what you did to get to your future, whatever that may be. You go into debt, you live in moldy basements, you make do. Perlin doesn't get into a critique of capitalism at large, but that is where his book and my personal experience led me to. You push the wage floor to zero; it gets pushed to where you pay for the privlige to work. The Martians looking down shake their heads.

The problem with _Intern Nation_, if there is one, is that it is too limited. Of course those starting out feel that their employment is contingent and precarious. No matter what their official status, at the bottom you try anything to hold on. This happens no matter what your future might be. The market controls us by fear. Internships in a decade have gone from something someone might do to something you have to do. The current economic situation only reinforces this. I have a younger brother and sister still in school. They have many of the same things to do to build a future that I did, only more explicitly. The lines saying "Graduate Teaching Assistant" and "Staff Writer" on my resume say little about me but much about the economic system we have to exist in.

Perlin sees hope in organizing interns. I share his hope, but have trepidation. I tried to organize workers at the restaurant I worked at. I ran for president of the graduate teacher's organization in graduate school. My whole platform was on organizing to increase wages and benefits. I lost the vote to the other ticket two-to-one. The problem I faced was that Perlin's project faces. The workers and the GTAs didn't see themselves as what they were. I am reminded of Sinclair's explanation of why socialism never took root in America: they didn't see their present situation, but were "Temporarily embarrassed millionaires". There was no sense of identity, and that hurts anyone trying to organize based on that particular identity. I don't fault Perlin for Upotianism though. This book starts an important argument in the larger discussion on the role of labor in a capitalistic system.

Buy Gold!

If you plan to take physical delivery of the gold, hold it personaly, and it only takes up about 10% of your savings.

Otherwise, stay the fuck away from that shit.

If the world fails, your foresight won't save you.  And you won't be able to trade it without someone assaying that stuff.  Ergo, you lose.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sticky Prices


Who spilled orange juice all over the prices.


It got all over the wages too.

Windfall spending

My wife asked me today what would happen if I went on TV and won a lot of money on a quiz show that tops out at a million dollars.  She hedged down to a couple hundred thousand.

Would we pay off the mortgage?  I explained that if we had a safe investment that could return more than the interest rate on the house plus inflation -- we'd do that if we were economically "rational".

But then I explained that even though I know this, I would instead pay off a chunk of the mortgage instead. 

Damn present bias. 

Even when you know better, you don't do better.

A thought against the John Bates Clark Medal


Econ is a "science", but of the social kind, no matter how much you math it.

Which means, in a nutshell, that it is about the relationships between people.

Each x on your cartesian plane has a y that is a function of x.


these are relationships between people.

Do you think that anyone under 40 really understands peoople in isolatuion, let alone together?

And we accept a medal for this as a "Nobel" precousor?

Even worse, these are people who have spent a number of years in academia.  That means they are further alienated from actual people who actual act in a market.  

Compressed Timeline


I got the most recent copy of the Journal of Economic Perspectives in the mail this week.

Is anyone interested in reading it?

I am, but everyone stopped talking about it two months ago.

It already feels dated.

I guess I'll just read my friend's book that hasn't been released yet.  I suppose that will be fresh.


What's on twitter?