Posts Tagged With: Opinion

Martin Luther King Day

On Martin Luther King Day I like to think about how easy it is for people to discriminate against others based on the silliest of features. Humans evolved primarily in tribes, which were close-knit groups of under thirty families. It's fair to assume that most members of the tribe were extraordinarily similar: same language, similar genetic makeup, technological sophistication, skin color, etc. For this and other reasons, we've evolved to have a preference for things that remind us of us - for example, we prefer things that begin with the same letter as our own name. The flip side of our bias for things that are similar to us is that we are biased against unfamiliar things, and people. This bias has had truly tragic consequences over the course of history, and has required heroism from MLK, Rosa Parks, and countless other members of the civil rights movement, to formally overturn. To deal fairly with our colleagues, fellow students, direct reports, (and potential US immigrants) we need to be aware of our bias for similarity and correct for it constantly. If you are looking for excellent writing by MLK, check out his Letter from Birmingham Jail.

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The living funeral

A few months ago I left this comment on Robin Hanson's funeral post on Overcoming Bias:
I understand that the point of funerals is to help people grieve, and to affirm shared values, as you mention above, but my biggest wish for funerals is that more of them were held while people were still alive. They’re not too much different from comedy roasts.
For most people death is a scary event. As far as I know, the patient's mindset is also incredibly important; the tougher and happier the patient is the more likely that they are to throw off the disease. So I always thought it was a waste to wait until after someone dies to hold a funeral and cherish their life; aren't those complements something that the deceased person would like to hear, and would possibly help keep them alive longer? You would have to change the name and the tone; a living funeral would be an event designed to celebrate the fact that the person is still alive and has done so much good for everyone around them. You'd also need some idea of how long the person was going to live, or else people could selfishly arrange one and then continue to live for a long time. Also, because a funeral is mainly to help the surviving family and friends grieve, you would still need to have an event after the person passed away. Based on that comment a reporter from the Wall Street Journal emailed me asking if I knew of any living funerals. I said no, but I think it's an interesting idea. However, I can't think of any society that has an event similar to the one I describe above, which makes me think there's some good reason not to have one that I'm missing.

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New site layout

I updated my site design, finally. Take a look around and tell me what you think. I'm going to take down the "links" posts soon. Hopefully this will make me feel guilty enough to write more.

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When corporations are more ethical than individuals

We were discussing piracy and plagiarism in class today. It's common knowledge that most young people don't consider downloading or copying music from a friend to be stealing. I was going to raise my hand and talk about how the music industry is actually doing fine - it's shifted more now to live shows, merchandise, and commercial licensing. Commercial licensing made me realize that on some issues corporations act much more ethically than individuals; that is, a corporation's larger liability leads them to act more ethically, because the damages are higher. For example, TV companies and commercial makers pay artists to license music during songs; the costs of them playing the songs without permission is much higher. I would also guess that, all other things equal, employees of a centrally owned, national corporation would act more ethically than a mom-and-pop operation in the same line of work. This analysis only really applies to physical crimes like harassment and theft; I believe that employees of big corporations would act more ethically in these areas than individuals, or small firms. There's no individual equivalent to corporate malfeasance, option backdating or share price manipulation.

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Targeting the marginal consumer, not the average consumer

It's hard to find a knowledgeable baseball fan who likes Tim McCarver, Fox's color commentator, who says things that are often visibly wrong, and enjoys making grand pronouncements. Indeed the overwhelming majority of Twitter comments about McCarver are negative. Billy Packer, CBS's longtime basketball color commentator, draws similar complaints from hoops fans. One of my friends set his TV to a seven second delay and then listened to Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper, the beloved Giants local TV commentators who've been forced to the radio for the playoffs. It doesn't make sense for Fox to employ a broadcaster who's hated by everyone, which led me to realize that Fox only cares about the marginal viewer. I'm going to watch the game no matter how bad Tim McCarver is, so Fox doesn't really care what I think about him. However, the person who watches three or four baseball games a year on TV probably likes a guy who says "great play" when an outfielder runs the ball into the infield. Looking around, you start to see this pattern a lot. College websites are targeted entirely at two groups of people: prospective students and alumni/parents, who give money. This means that nearly all college homepages fail to provide useful information for enrolled students. Most website homepages are also targeted at the marginal customer; they force returning users to find a Login button in the corner.
Good products figure out ways to distinguish marginal users from diehard users, so they can give a good experience to both; a website might use cookies to keep returning users logged in, or a college might have a "Portal" it shows to returning students. Which is why I'm hoping Fox will soon stream a second audio channel, for people who are fairly knowledgeable about baseball.

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Senior thesis thoughts

  • Most students' initial thoughts for a topic are almost laughably broad. One girl in my research methods class announced with a straight face that she wanted to measure the impact of foreign aid on country GDP. I asked whether she'd want to consider evaluating the effects of one project in one location. That said, I guess it's an easy mistake to make if you're not used to reading economic papers, or familiar with how this kind of academic bread gets buttered.
  • The other disturbing trend is that students generally have an opinion or conclusion in mind and then want to find evidence to support it. For example, aforementioned girl wanted to show that foreign aid doesn't have much effect on GDP. This is evidence for the theory that reasoning isn't about logic, it's about arguing. Plus I guess if you're only going to produce one thesis in your life, you might as well try to have it say something about you or your worldview.
  • About half of the senior theses last year were sports-related.
  • I lucked into a topic that's ostensibly about economics, but will let me do more web development and user experience testing. I'd been gathering ideas for about a year though; here they are. Most of them are no good because it would be really hard to collect data to test the hypothesis.
********** One sentence summary: Do students at schools with higher alcohol consumption rates enjoy outsize success later on? Examining the effects of drinking in higher education: drinkers generally earn higher incomes than non-drinkers, but do higher-drinking schools enjoy more business success? Drinking may be a way to signal to others that you're trustworthy; do higher-drinking schools enjoy closer alumni networks, more donations back to the school, etc? Do high drinkers have higher status jobs? ************ Libertarians value personal liberty above all else. Among other things, Haidt et al (2010) have found that libertarians have weaker social ties, lower interdependence, etc. However, these qualities are also associated with higher levels of unhappiness and depression. For instance, Buck Schieffelin has tried to find a depression equivalent among members of a New Guinean tribe, with no success. Group ties there are very strong; a member who experiences loss is taken care of by the tribe. Other evidence includes the fact that American women have become unhappier as they’ve become wealthier and more independent. I investigate whether a more libertarian, economically efficient society would be more unhappy, at the same level of income, or whether a more libertarian minded population would be more unhappy, or both. ************* Various ideas related to depression: The amount of Americans indicating they've had a depressive episode has steadily increased over time, and the age of first depression has steadily decreased. Why has this happened? Depression is a reaction to low social status. I want to examine the possibility of treating depression through raising the patient's status - through an MMORPG, hired actors, confederates, a new social group, or some other means. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games are a place where status is entirely earned through hard work - how many points accumulated, kills, etc. They're also engaging, somewhat addictive and tend to distract people from real life. I'm wondering if we could treat depression by having patients slowly accumulate status and recognition in an MMORPG. Would people accept whole-world simulations, e.g. life in a Matrix-like world, instead of suicide, if the option existed? ************* The placebo effect works because we believe that the pill or therapy we are taking will have an effect, so our brains adjust in response even though there is no healing power in the medicine or therapy itself. What if we believed really strongly (eg had a wise person, a religion, or society, tell us) that our brain could produce various chemicals to increase concentration, reduce pain, increase pleasure, etc? It could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, maybe, if people started to expect that their brains would produce more of the chemical in reaction to believing it. Idea from Iain Banks, Player of Games. *********** One sentence summary: Can we convince irrational high discounters to save more money? Testable Question: Develop a model of saving and evaluate legality of offering. Dataset: Purchasing data on lotteries and their odds - do lottery consumers buy based on the odds. Most people should save more, but current forms of saving (CDs, stocks, bank accounts) are either inaccessible to the poor or don’t provide any short term reward. Furthermore behavior such as gambling doesn’t fit into most academic models of saving. What if we encouraged people to save by saving some of the money they use to gamble with? How it works: You purchase a lottery ticket. X per cent of the money goes into the prize pool with everyone else who bought a ticket and is available for immediate distribution. (100-X) per cent is collected and invested on behalf of the ticket purchaser, say by purchasing a 1-year CD. The (100-X) portion can be collected by the purchaser after one year or two years. The effect is to turn lotteries, a negative-NPV investment, into a savings product. *********** One sentence summary: If prediction markets provided accurate estimates of budgets and time to completion for government projects, would contract bidding and completion estimates become more honest? Testable question: What drives decision making and approval of government projects? How accountable are the officials involved to public scrutiny? Dataset: Series of past government projects, a model predicting how government officials will act in each situation I investigate the possibility of introducing a corruption market - each government official is tradeable and the closer his/her price is to 1, the more likely the official is engaging in corrupt behavior. You can buy and sell corruption tickets - perhaps if the price is above 0.9 for a week the official gets investigated by a board, or some other mechanism. Similarly, investigate creating prediction markets designed to make government more accountable: prediction markets for the final cost of government outlays (transportation projects with ballooning budgets, prediction markets for GDP/employment data revisions, etc.) ******** One sentence summary: Can we take advantage of investors fear of underperforming relative to other investors? Testable Question: Can an investor worried about overall return improve upon current market performance? Does the theory suggest arbitrage opportunities? Dataset: CRSP As Eric Falkenstein points out in his paper "Risk and Return in General: Theory and Evidence," there is virtually zero demonstratable premium for taking on excess risk. Falkenstein's theory is that investors are more concerned for their status vs. other investors than they are concerned about overall return. Thus there should be a difference in people's expectations for the return on various risky assets even though there is little difference in the real return. Could an investor unworried by social status, or the yearly returns of his fund, exploit this expectation gap via arbitrage, by setting up a prediction market for returns, or shorting options on "risky" assets while buying options on "safe" ones. ************ One sentence summary: Test the theory that weak employees stay with firms for the longest because their outside prospects are slim, and the resulting implications for companies that offer pensions, healthcare, etc. Testable Question: How does employee turnover affect a firm's profitability? Dataset: List of employees by time with company, and their productivity. Employees who are with a firm for a long time might be the firm's weakest employees. Weak employees have little motivation to seek other jobs, and no one is trying to hire them. There are a number of interesting hypotheses here - Investigate whether this is harming the long-term stay with one company model, or whether high performers feel compelled to signal strength by switching jobs often. ********** One sentence summary: Improve traffic, pollution, quality of life, potentially wages, by placing a tax on commute time. Testable Question: Can we place a tax on commute time? What would be the effects? Dataset: A model that predicts how people choose their homes (price, location, crime, etc) that will be able to estimate the change in total miles driven from an increase in the price of a longer commute. Also a model of how much a shorter commute is worth to employees. Long commutes are correlated with lower levels of happiness among employees. People seek longer commutes because home prices near the place of employment are generally higher and they can purchase more home for the same price by living further away, even though this has deleterious effects on welfare. I investigate the effects of a tax on high commute time and whether such a policy would be welfare-improving. I predict the following effects: workers will move closer to the workplace, workers will be more satisfied with their lives, workplaces will spread out further, municipalities will face more demand to invest in transportation/reducing the cost of traffic jams, wages could rise, for instance, to adequately compensate someone with a longer commute time. *************************************************************** throwaways *************************************************************** Is there a correlation between gross Internet use and student grades? Are students who are on the Internet too much getting worse grades? We could track students using SurplusMeter, an unobtrusive Internet-tracking data application for the Mac. Do the dreams of high and low status people differ in significant ways? How important are people's sources of information to their idea generation and ultimate success? Examine very successful, average success and low success people to see how they collect information, whether their sources are significantly different from their peer groups. Do we pick colleges to impress our high school friends and jobs to impress our college friends? Persistence is a useful tool but in the short term persistence is low status, because sometimes you might try really hard and still fail, an outcome clearly worse than not trying at all. Measure persistence, suggest ways to raise the status of persistent people, etc, try to find a correlation between avg persistence and success.

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Theory of conversation, part 2

Last week I noted Scott Adams' thoughts on how to make good conversation. Making conversation is a skill that I need to work on. Good
  • Tell a story, if you are a good story teller, or funny
  • Create something from nothing; it's hard to describe this category, but think about standing in a nondescript environment but I'm thinking of inventing a nickname/story, accuse someone of something, being funny without telling jokes, saying something in a funny/cocky way, etc. Often this is where the most memorable in-jokes and stories are made. I'm extremely not-good in this area. Pickup artists are extremely strong in this area.
  • Along the same lines, conversations about risky or sexual topics
  • Gossip, if you're careful not to shit where you eat
  • Asking the other person to describe an accomplishment or event, because people like talking about themselves and it's a way to raise their status
  • Give a compliment, if you are not too obvious about it
  • Outline choices you've made and the reasons for doing so
  • Describe why you spend your time the way you do
  • Describe productivity hacks
  • Describe a problem and then collaborate on a solution
  • Checking your email or answering your phone while we're talking. This drives me nuts.
  • Asking yes/no questions
  • Terse factual questions
  • Silence/Having nothing to say - depends on how well you know the person, situation but generally you should have some stuff to talk about.
  • Speaking during a momentous occasion, like standing on a mountain watching the sun set.
  • Commenting on how awkward silence is
  • Apologizing - just don't do it
  • Continually bringing up a past failing to signal to the other person how apologetic you are - again, just don't do it
  • Trying to be funny if you are not funny
  • Telling a bad story. Most things that don't involve staring at your computer can become good stories if you tell them well enough but I'd estimate about 2% of the population possesses this skill.
  • "You had to be there" events, as Adams says
  • A youtube video, unless you can actually watch it in a quiet room
  • Hijack the conversation to talk about yourself
  • Interfere with an on-going conversation between funny people
  • Gossip, if you are shitting where you are eating and provoking your partner to wonder what you say about her behind her back.

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Why do directors end movies ambiguously?

Last night I watched A Serious Man, which ends with lots of loose ends that haven't been tied up. I was startled and annoyed at the ending. Why do filmmakers do it? 1) If you know you're not going to resolve the film's ending, as a director your incentives change. You can make it as complicated and then just leave everything for the viewer to figure out. 2) The filmmakers know how the story would end but just aren't telling us, which is condescending. 3) It's possible that I just don't like it because I'm not expecting it and if my expectations change I will like it more. 4) Not having the movie end is a device to allow filmgoers to signal their artyness, and also shut off the movie to the large majority of the population.

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Coaches at the World Cup: Conservative and stuck in their ways

I’ve blogged before about how football coaches are risk-hating morons. The World Cup’s made me realize that soccer coaches can be moronic, too. Here are 4 examples of coaching stupidity.

1. Failing to adjust to high altitude conditions
Johannesburg is 5,500 feet above sea level. Pretoria, Polokwane and Rustenburg are all roughly 4000 feet above sea level. High altitude means that the oxygen in the air is more thinly spread, making it harder to recover and harder to sustain sprints than when you’re playing at sea level. It also takes time for the body to adjust to these conditions, which is part of the reason Mexico is so good when they play in the Azteca; it’s 6000 feet above sea level and visiting teams only have a few days to adjust before they have to play. Bolivia are horrible, but beat Brazil and Argentina in qualifying at their home stadium of La Paz, 11,000 feet above sea level.

Coaches knew about the altitude, and they knew what stadiums they were going to be playing in, including the US, who played every game at high altitude. Yet many still conducted their training camps at sea level, including the US, who held theirs in Princeton, despite the seeming availability of Colorado Springs (10,000 feet above), where every US Olympic athlete trains. To their credit, they arrived two weeks early, unlike some teams, who waited for a few days before their first game to show up in South Africa and undoubtedly suffered.

Another wasted high-altitude opportunity: Because of the altitude goalies were kicking the ball 20 yards further than at sea level. This meant that they were routinely landing the ball around the opponent’s penalty box. Why on earth did no one treat every single punt and goal kick as a scoring opportunity? Why were forwards routinely underestimating the distance the ball would travel, letting the opposing keeper gather it? When your goalie collects the ball, put six guys on the opponent’s penalty box, chuck the ball in there and who knows what could happen. The only reason the ball was previously going into midfield was because goalies couldn’t punt the ball further.

2. Horrible tactics
Coaches have been making horrible tactical decisions all tournament. It’s possible that they have been doing so in previous tournaments, but now thanks to sites like Zonal Marking, we can get the full measure of their incompetence. Germany are good, but they’re not good enough on paper to be beating other teams by 3 and 4 goals. But every team they’ve beaten for 4 has displayed tactical rigidity/incompetence, either failing to pick up Ozil, or packing the middle and leaving the wing backs open.

In the club game, if you don’t have a left-footed fullback, you go out and buy one. If your country doesn’t have one, you have to adjust and play different tactics. There have been more varied lineups in the World Cup than in club soccer and the majority of coaches haven’t been able to adjust. To his credit, Bob Bradley was one of the few who made tactical adjustments and whose teams looked much better in the second half than the first.

3. Not being aggressive enough
Going into the final group game, Algeria could have advanced, but needed to win by two goals. From a strategic perspective, they were completely indifferent between winning 1-0, tying 3-3 and losing 10-0. As an underdog needing a low-probability outcome, they should have employed a high-variability strategy – throwing players forward, committing everyone to the attack. Instead, they chose to pack it in, ensuring that they went home. Only in the 91st minute did they show any sort of tactical boldness, sending enough players forward to be vulnerable at the back. Of course this led to the US counterattack and goal, but you have to gamble to score, and as I mentioned above they should have been indifferent between a tie and a loss.

Also, when you’re down a goal, you have two considerations: A) scoring, and B) giving up a second goal and probably the game. A always dominates B, especially as the game winds down, but coaches will wait until the 90th minute to bring on a striker for a defender, throw players forward, or otherwise give themselves a chance to win. I’m amazed that teams aren’t trying crazy formations and waiting to bring the defenders/goalkeeper forward until the very last minutes. In this world cup, no teams have yet scored on an empty net, I don’t think, because the goalkeeper was trying to get forward into the attack. Risk losing in the 80th because you gambled and lost, instead of playing conservatively and losing because you only gave yourself three minutes to try and score.

4. Not having your goalkeeper wear bright colors
In one study, players were twenty percent more likely to miss penalty kicks when the goalkeeper was wearing red. It’s well known that people will focus on brightly colored moving objects. When an attacker has to focus on the movement of the ball, navigate through ranks of defenders, he might get one tenth of a second to look at the goal. In that brief snapshot, if you’re the defense, you’d love for the striker to aim at the brightly colored object – the goalkeeper. And yet, during the crucial elimination game against Ghana, Tim Howard was wearing – of all colors – BLACK. Which would have been fine if Ghana was really bad at soccer, or if this wasn’t the World Cup. When the stakes are this high and you’re passing up opportunities like this to improve your odds, you’re a moron.

5. High coaching turnover
Looking for a reason African teams underperformed at the World Cup? Nigeria and Ivory Coast replaced their managers within three months of the World Cup, and Cameroon and South Africa changed coaches less than a year before the tournament started. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re not familiar with the personnel, the culture, or the people who hired you, you’re going to find it extremely difficult to succeed. In their classic book Hard Facts, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton cite a study showing that it took about 15 years for studio heads to find the sweet spot on the job, and that virtually no one had instant success. Granted, running a soccer team is easier than a multibillion dollar company, but the principle applies. Football associations read too much into a game or tournament’s results – the US and Ghana were essentially neck and neck through 90 minutes, but the result is that one team had a wonderful tournament and the other didn’t meet expectations. Great coaches from medium teams might have a really tough group, lose two games and have an above-average tournament. There’s too much noise in the space of three or four games to get a feel for a coach, but they’re all expected to resign if they go out early.

Chalk another one up for the status quo bias. My hunch is that referee performance has improved more than coaching tactical performance at the World Cup; a coach from 1970 in the modern era would do better with his team than a ref from 1970 would do with his performance. An inept coach can still win against other inept coaches, but everyone notices when referees blow it.

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BART thoughts

  • People have been asking me why I don't drive, which shows that they haven't considered the question. In dollar terms it's not that much more expensive than driving ($11 vs. $8 or so), and when I take BART I gain an hour and twenty minutes of Internet-free reading time. If my time's worth $17 an hour, then I'm gaining around $22 every day by riding BART. Plus I just don't have that many good podcasts and I hate sitting in traffic. I don't think people seriously consider the effects of having someone else drive you places; it frees up all of that time you would have spent behind the wheel. This is a reason for government-subsidized public transit that I hadn't considered before.
  • BART riders are amazingly literate; pretty much everyone reads books, newspapers or Kindle. The rest play games on a smartphone or text. Forget about asking whether Google will save newspapers, ask whether BART will. It's a great place to pick up girls.
  • If I make a website with really bad usability, like you can't even figure out where the "Add to Cart" button is or learn what the product does, then it'll hurt my bottom line, because users won't spend time trying to figure out how to use it, they'll just use a different website to get their shopping done. If the government makes something with bad usability, so that you're confused about what is and isn't legal, their profits go up, not down, because they get to fine everyone that didn't figure it out. This is onerous and gives the government totally perverse incentives; adding a usability-clarifying sign might cost them $200,000 in revenue. Avoid lock-in whenever you can.
  • When I'm parking I have a simple heuristic that gets me the best spot, every time: I go up and then park in the first available spot. Minimizing driving time is smarter than minimizing walking time. Plus it takes the stress out of trying to find a spot that's closest to the stairs. So from now on, simple rule; park in the first spot you see.
  • Also, always buy your ticket for the next day, or next week, when you're leaving BART at night. You're less stressed then than in the morning, and there's no crowd around the ticket machines.
Last but not least, never run for trains.

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