Monday, August 29, 2011


The academic paper that you've been waiting for! Zombie guru, George A. Romero, teams up with Columbia statistician, Andrew Gelman, as they seek to answer the question that plagues us all:

How many zombies do you know?
Using indirect survey methods to measure alien attacks and outbreaks of the undead.
The zombie menace has so far been studied only qualitatively or through the use of mathematical models without empirical content. We propose to use a new tool in survey research to allow zombies to be studied indirectly without risk to the interviewers.

The text is actually funnier than the abstract, including some great lines. ("But mathematical models [of zombie outbreaks] are not enough. We need data.")

The first zombie film that really hooked me wasn't actually a Romero original, but Zack Snyder's "remake" of Dawn of the Dead. Perhaps the best opening 15 minutes of a film you're likely to see. And if we're talking zombie humour (though I suppose all of Romero's films are tinged with dark laughs throughout), then I'm scoring Shaun of the Dead way above Zombieland.

The Winchester

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Service, interrupted

You may have noticed that blogging's been a bit slow around these parts, lately. Please accept my apologies, but it's a hard thing to rectify given my current circumstances.

Last week I began what was ambitiously labelled a "refresher" pre-course in Maths and Statistics. I feel a more accurate meme would have been "SHOCK AND AWE".

Of course, there's some stuff that I can recall through the hazy fog of undergraduate memories -- how could I forget an inequality named after Chevy Chase?? -- but much of it is entirely new.

You can call me Al?

I don't know whether it's a cause for optimism, but I take cold comfort in the fact that my new classmates all claim to be pretty much in the same boat. [Side note: I once heard a piece of musical folk wisdom to the effect of "Playing the Blues isn't about making yourself feel better... It's about making everyone else feel as bad as you."]

This coming week, I'll have to juggle the second half of this intensive Maths/Stats malarkey alongside the start of my core modules from the first semester: Microeconomics and Econometrics. In addition, I'll starting my TA duties for the Master's econometrics course. My only hope is that the Big Lebowski kills me before the Germans can cut my dick off. At the current rate then, I'm really just aiming to successfully make it through these first few weeks and pass the compulsory exam early next month.

Some more cheery academic news from the past couple days is the "completion" of paper that I have been working on with my supervisor. We've tweaked the theoretical model quite a bit and got the key findings down into a workable, 20-page format. At the moment, the paper is sitting with an external colleague of my supervisor for comments, but hopefully we get to submit it (with whatever changes are recommended) for journal publication early this week. Then, I suppose, the process of response and revision will begin in earnest! Still, nice to get it out the door in it's current form.

In sum: Busy times.

Hopefully I get round to some semi-regular blogging activity in a couple weeks. In the meantime, you folks stay classy.

Quote of the day - Burning Bridges

May the bridges I burn light the way.
- Anon.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cover Thursdays - Instrumetalist edition

And, yes, I did mean to spell it that way.

Just got some time to squeeze this in before a self-imposed deadline... I feel it's high time we had something a little different here at the Corral. "How different?", you ask.

Well, how do some head-banging -- though possibly epileptic -- cellists grab you?

Okay, perhaps you're not impressed. If so, then I'm afraid to say that this next clip, featuring the (multi-talented!) comedian Bill Bailey, may not sway you either:

Well, I chuckled.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Four-Year Plans...

So, my PhD programme began today. We're starting with a preparatory maths and statistics course, before getting into the core modules -- micro, macro, 'metrics and (scientific) methods -- during the year. Well, those plus a couple of electives that I'm interested in taking, but won't mention here because they don't begin with the letter "m". Alliteration uber alles!

All told, it's a four-year programme (yikes!), but with a one-year exchange and 25% work obligation thrown in. So that should hopefully mix things up a bit. (In case you're wondering: Yes, I do feel like this.)

Anyway, after umming and ahhing for a while about the whole PhD palaver, I'm pretty happy with my decision to go this route. At this (very) early stage, I'm not particularly set on a career in academia afterwards -- though I certainly like having the option -- but rather feel the additional qualifications will stand me in good stead for my general career ambitions. Plus, I've been lucky enough with my research scholarship that my earnings won't really suffer in the interim :)

On that note, I only just checked my final Master's results yesterday, including that of my thesis. (I'd previously just assumed that everything was more-or-less okay unless my supervisor contacted me with a "we need to talk" email.) As such, I'm happy to report that everything went smoothly. I've also just about finalised a shortened, adapted version of my thesis that I'm hoping to publish as a co-written journal article. I'll keep you informed...

As a general comment, I believe that time away from studies and working in the professional sector certainly helped sharpen my focus coming into postgraduate studies -- as did my travelling stint. I know that some people happily go all the way through from a Bachelor's to a Doctorate, but I'm very pleased to have had those experiences outside of academics in retrospect. FWIW, I'd recommend a similar approach if anyone is seeking advice towards that end. Your perspectives are broader at the same time as your true interests are clearer. And, although the charge is often made unfairly, you're also far less likely to suffer from ivory-tower syndrome, which is the Achilles Heel of many university residents.

Ideas, not people

Beyond the specific subject matter of my previous post, I think that the Paul Samuelson article inadvertently highlights something else of value... especially in the current, polarised economic climate.

Samuelson, of course, was arguably the seminal economist to emerge after the Second World War. A (neo) Keynesian first-and-foremost, he revolutionised the field through the application of a common mathematical language to economic problems (co-opting the approaches found in the physical sciences) and is also held as figurehead of the neoclassical synthesis that came to dominate economic thinking in the latter half of the 20th century.

And, yet, he happily acknowledges a seminal contribution of Friedrich Hayek -- whom many would regard to personify something like the antithesis of Samuelsonian economics -- in an important economic issue; namely the role of decentralised prices in allowing viable economic calculation.

I keep seeing people pitting the likes of Hayek versus Samuelson/Keynes as if it's some stark choice: All of one and none of the other. Similarly, there's a tendency for people to slavishly (deride) defend their (non-) favoured thinker no matter what cost or subject. Now, of course, it certainly is true that there are some very different prescriptions on things like fiscal policy that are not going to be reconcilable... However, it's beyond counter-productive to overlook the fact that there are also some tremendously important areas of commonality.

While I can't speak for every economics programme out there, I've certainly been exposed to (and influenced by) Hayekian insights in my classes and syllabus. And, let's not forget, that's coming from someone studying in the socialist nightmare that is Scandinavia! Dum dum daaaa....

Part 2 here.

Humour aside, I have to smile wryly at suggestions that someone like Hayek has been unduly ignored and marginalised by mainstream economics. That type of explanation just smacks of laziness and a lack of intellectual integrity. The man won a Nobel Prize for goodness sake! Beyond the narrow field of professional economists, he acted as an inspiration for Margaret Thatcher among numerous others, influencing many of the most powerful political  and business leaders of the last two generations.

Just as Samuelson expresses his admiration of Hayek for pinpointing the value of decentralized prices in unlocking the socialist calculation debate, he can comfortably dismiss some of the latter's other prognostications and positions.[*] Finding some redeeming feature in your intellectual opponents isn't a pre-requisite for being a serious thinker, but at least it means you aren't an empty ideologue. By the same token, Hayek, Keynes, Samuelson, or anyone else for that matter, didn't need to be right about everything to contribute many profound insights to economic thought.

It is ideas that matter, not the people behind them.

[*] In case you missed it, the money passage was: Hayek has been persuasive -- not in Whig ideology or in declaring that moderate reform of laissez-faire leads inevitably down the road to totalitarian socialism but -- in arguing that experience suggests that only with heavy dependence on market pricing mechanisms can there be realized quasi-efficient and quasi-progressive organization of societies involving humans as Darwinian history has bequeathed them[...]

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Hayek contra Coase... on property rights?

Say it ain't so!

Well... I guess it ain't technically "so"... but hear me out on this one.

Noah Smith, citing his personal experiences in Japan, writes that irreducible transaction costs place a not insignificant constraint on the gains to be had through privatisation:
[T]he existence of a government-owned "commons" often makes people feel more free, not less. Sure, the commons is financed through taxation, and sure, that means that people generally don't receive benefits exactly equal to what they pay. But the difference can be small, and is often canceled out by the fact that you only pay once rather than a million billion times. [...]Past a certain point, the gains to privatization are outweighed by the sheer weight of transaction cost externalities. (Note that transaction costs also kill the Coase Theorem, another libertarian standby; this is no coincidence.)
Of course, these aren't new points... Even yours truly has been known to say similar such things. From time to time. Ahem.

All that being said, the above is really just an elaborate segue to something else that I read earlier this week: A 1995 paper by the late Paul Samuelson, Some uneasiness with the Coase Theorem.

In typically pithy fashion, Samuelson hits on several issues surrounding the Coase Theorem that have come up in the blogosphere. Such as:
- What exactly qualifies this as an original "theorem"?: Many disciples cheerfully agree: There is no Coase Theorem. (Cf. Env-Econ.)
- The problem of distorted incentives in establishing an efficient allocation of resources: "If I go the road of buying off those who would burglarize me, I soon evoke a new supply of threatening burglars." (Cf. Matt Rognlie.)

His biggest concerns, however, are reserved for the Coaseian tendency to collapse -- and then conveniently file away -- important strategic considerations under the umbrella of (zero) transaction costs. Of course, information asymmetries between bargaining parties are an intrinsic characteristic of unequal property rights distribution, thus severely inhibiting the possibly of achieving Pareto optimal outcomes.[*] More fundamentally, though, Samuelson argues that bilateral bargaining agreements such as Coase envisaged between, say, a land owner and free-roaming ranchers, suffer from the same inherent inefficiencies as standard duopolies / bilateral monopolies. That is, they are beset by various (game-theoretic) strategic considerations that undermine the negotiating process:

What really interested me amidst all of this was Samuelson's invocation of Hayek to highlight the crux of his argument. Here's some of the meat:
The Coase-Samuelson generation were brought up witnessing the great debate between von Mises and Lerner-Lange concerning the feasibility of socialist rational pricing to produce Utopia. (That was a reprise of earlier Pareto-Barone-Wieser-Taylor debates.) Many contemporaries believed Lerner-Lange triumphed in the debate. I came to believe that Friedrich Hayek was the true victor.
Under static conditions where all is known or knowable (to whom?), whatever optimal states laissez-faire might occasion, so could some computer solution or some algorithms of play the game of competition also achieve. But in the real world all is changing, even in the time it takes me to write this sentence. Hayek has been persuasive -- not in Whig ideology or in declaring that moderate reform of laissez-faire leads inevitably down the road to totalitarian socialism but -- in arguing that experience suggests that only with heavy dependence on  market pricing mechanisms can there be realized quasi-efficient and quasi-progressive organization of societies involving humans as Darwinian history has bequeathed them[...]

My point is that the same thing applies to legal assignment of property rights. [...]We can contrive [in public utility economics] a variety of alternative property rights that would make for Pareto-Optimality. [...]But in the time it takes me to write this paragraph, exogenous change and dynamic endogenous change will cause the data of the problem to change in such a way as to entail a different set of property rights. If the Social Contract makes all earlier property rights capable of being abrogated to adjust to new Pareto-Optimal needs, we are in the old quagmire of moral hazard, inverse externalities, and so forth. No doubt wise Twenty-First-Century Hayeks or Lerners will come forward to give persuasive counsel on how a Mixed Economy will want to compromise among divergent instrumentalities so as to optimize various definitions of social and individual welfares.
To try to capture all that which contributes to deadweight loss under the verbal rubric of "transactions costs" weakens a useful concept without gaining understanding of incompleteness of markets, asymmetries of information, and insusceptibilities of various technologies to decentralized pricing algorithms.
Anyway, read the article to get a better understanding of the context. It's only six pages long and cuts to the core of some of the persistent scepticism surrounding the Coase Theorem. (Not that Ronald Coase himself wasn't aware of the practical limitations of his approach, as I have tried to explain previously.) And, when you're done with that, you can read a comment on Samuelson's article -- in partial defence of Coase -- by another esteemed economist, Oliver Willamson, here.

UPDATE: Continuing with my famous economist links fest, Deirdre McCloskey weighs in loquaciously on the matter here.

[*] Recall that the original formulation of Coase's argument held that zero transaction costs effectively meant perfect information among all parties.

Friday, August 12, 2011


Two things that I learnt about Ikea (and public transport) yesterday:

1) Flat packed furniture may be much easier to move about than the ready-built stuff, but it is still rather cumbersome to transport your new apartment furnishings on the bus. Also, other passengers tend to frown upon such behaviour... especially when your new lounge unit is taking up all available seats. If disapproving looks from (standing) elderly women don't get you down, then the walk uphill to your apartment -- with said furniture on your back -- just might.

2) Ikea's greatest achievement is not that it provides affordable furniture and home luxuries to the masses. Rather, it is helping a generation of emasculated, desk-bound males feel something like the practical men that their grandfathers were. I haven't felt this "handy" since I was champion Lego builder of my neighbourhood circa 1988.

Can the trolley come too?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Cover Thursdays - 90s throwback edition

Super quick post as I'm off to catch a plane shortly, but here's a little something to take you back a decade or so:

1) The awesome Karen O leads her Yeah Yeah Yeahs bandmates in a heartfelt rendition of Sonic Youth's "Diamond Sea".

2) GR reminds me of this suitably quirky Crash Test Dummies version of "Androgynous", originally by (tragically under-appreciated) The Replacements.

Stay classy folks and I'll see you all a couple days once my internet is successfully set up.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Red House Painters - Have You Forgotten

Talking about the Vanilla Sky soundtrack, here's a great example of a "nearly perfect" song. I'm not sure where the problem lies exactly, but it's just missing that extra something that would make it one for the ages. (My instincts tell me it's the chorus and some sloppy lyrics in the middle...) Still, well worth a listen:

NOTE: Yes, I realise that these clips are not from Vanilla Sky. They're from À la folie... pas du tout (He loves me... he loves me not). However, it was about the only video that I could find on YouTube that had the correct version of the song, which didn't involve tortured little emo sayings flashing across the screen.

Changing Faces

I've just come back from London, where I was staying with one of my best friends from school. He is a professional rugby player and currently plies his trade with Saracens, the 2010/2011 English Premiership champions.

Saracens have earned plaudits -- as well as attracted a degree of professional acrimony and jealousy -- for giving the two-fingered salute to the old boys running the English RFU shaking things up in English rugby circles. There's much to be said about the extremely professional, yet largely alternative route that they've taken to summit the world's richest rugby league. Such issues are largely beyond the scope of anything that I want to mention here, however, save for the fact that the club really emphasizes personal development outside of simply playing sport. They do this by strongly encouraging players to take on tertiary education, organizing special events for them to attend, and inviting guest speakers to deliver interesting and inspiring stories at the club.

I went along as a guest to one such session this weekend, which was led by James Partridge, founder of Changing Faces. As the name implies, Changing Faces is a charity that "supports and represents people who have disfigurements to the face, hand or body from any cause".

James' own life was forever altered after being involved in a severe care accident in his late teens:
On the Ides of March 1971 (15.3.71), I looked in a mirror for the first time after my accident 3 months previously – and from knowing myself as a good-looking 18-year-old guy with prospects, I came face-to-face with a disaster area which, it was very hard not to think, could only hold a very tarnished and unhappy self. 
The photo tells only a part of the story because (a) it is black-and-white, and (b) it was taken two months after my day of reckoning when my face was still bloody scabs, vivid redness, and ghastly distortion. 
Look carefully and you may see the tell-tale signs of doubt, grief and pessimism – I felt all of these as I scanned across that face and I just could not imagine how I could ever get my life back – any kind of life, frankly… 
Five years of brilliant 1970s surgery created the face I now wear with pride but it was what went on outside hospital as I struggled to become a fully-included citizen and not an outsider, a horror-movie villain nor a just a lifelong patient, that really counted for me.
Interacting with everyone at the club, James was never less than charming and confident. Alongside a genuine interest in other people, it's amazing what a difference those qualities make towards disarming any knee-jerk reactions to his "strange face" (as he put it). There was no need for avoidance of eye contact, unnatural sympathy, and so forth, simply because he appeared so comfortable with himself and effectively managed the expectations of others.

James as he is today

Listening to his story, I was also reminded of Vanilla Sky. In addition to a great soundtrack, I admired the film for seriously tackling the issue of how our physical appearance is intrinsically linked to our happiness; a subject that is too often passed off as frivolous and vainglorious, when of course it isn't. I'm used to interacting with the world in a certain way and much of that is contingent on the way that I look. In fact, I'd venture that we all trade on our looks to some extent and, as Oscar Wilde observed, beauty is its own form of genius.

Unfortunately, in Vanilla Sky Hollywood sensitivities ultimately won the battle: A disfigured Tom Cruise sees all his problems solved via cryogenic freezing and a visit to an advanced plastic surgeon's office at some unspecified point in the future. (Talk about realistic expectations!) In contrast, the people at Changing Faces offer some real insight into how those with disfigurements can overcome the challenges of integrating into a society obsessed with looks.