Monday, July 30, 2007

Econlinks for 30-07-'07

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Quote for week 22nd-28th of July '07

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled- whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others- to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country's affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person's opinions and his apprehension of reality will even be more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

from Harry G. Frankfurt's "On Bullshit"

Previous quote of the week.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Danes and names

I am sure you didn't know about this one. On the site of Denmark Statistics (those guys that record everything about anything that has something to do with Denmark...) you can actually check how many Danes have a certain name, with both first and last name queries allowed, in 2006 and 2007. Unfortunately they did not actually put up a ranking of the most common names in these years (the obvious thing to do!), that would have been very informative. At least I could immediately find out that almost 10,000 Danes are called "Sebastian" (this precise spelling) in 2007, which is much more than I expected. So why don't you verify your intuition with the help of the application above: can you find out which are the most popular Danish names in the last two years? And if you are a Dane, go ahead and check whether you are (still) as unique as you thought you were :-)

Best recent news in the Economics publishing business

Here's what I would call a very welcome idea from the new editor of Economic Inquiry, Preston McAfee:

More insidious, in my view, is the gradual morphing of the referees from evaluators to anonymous co-authors. Referees request increasingly extensive revisions. Usually these represent improvements, but the process takes a lot of time and effort, and the end result is often worse owing to its committee-design. Authors, knowing referees will make them rewrite the paper, are sometimes sloppy with the submission. This feedback loop - submitting a sloppy paper since referees will require rewriting combined with a need to fix all the sloppiness - has led to our current misery. Moreover, the expectation that referees will rewrite papers, combined with sloppy submissions, makes refereeing extraordinarily unpleasant. We - the efficiency-obsessed academic discipline - have the least efficient publication process.

The system is broken.

Consequently, Economic Inquiry is starting an experiment. In this experiment, an author can submit under a 'no revisions' policy. This policy means exactly what it says: if you submit under no revisions, I (or the co-editor) will either accept or reject. What will not happen is a request for a revision.

I will ask referees: 'is it better for Economic Inquiry to publish the paper as is, versus reject it, and why or why not?' This policy returns referees to their role of evaluator. There will still be anonymous reports.

Authors who receive an acceptance would have the option of publishing without changes. If a referee noticed a minor problem and put it in the report, self-respecting authors would fix the problem. But such fixes would not be a condition of publication.

Via Tyler Cowen, on Marginal Revolution. (the post of Cowen also has already some extremely interesting comments)

Update, July 29th: A very interesting paper linked to the topic and discovered by reading the comments to Cowen's post above (and probably influencing the decision of McAfee) is Tsang and Frey's (2006) "The as-is journal review process: Let authors own their ideas". You can download here the final working version- you need a subscription to download the published one.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Celebrate: Checkers is solved!

In today's Science online: wonderful title, wonderful article, wonderful research. Took quite a while, but the victory is sweet indeed...

"If two players face off at checkers and neither makes a wrong move, then the game will inevitably end in a draw. That's the result of a proof executed by hundreds of computers over nearly 2 decades and reported online by Science this week."

You can read the free abstract, but need a subscription to download the pdf (you can download the supporting online material). Caveat lector, however! If you were on the verge of thinking "and now to the final frontier: CHESS", you should hold your horses: solving that will still require a hell lot of time, as the conclusion of the article (pasted below) makes clear. So there is still plenty of scope to play some nice chess games, but from now on checkers is history from my point of view. In particular, this also means that all you fellows who liked and who'd like to challenge me in checkers, knowing you'd always lose from me in chess, need to find some other challenges :-)

The checkers computation pushes the boundary of what can be achieved by search-intensive algorithms. It provides compelling evidence of the power of limited-knowledge approaches to artificial intelligence. Deep search implicitly uncovers knowledge. Furthermore, search algorithms are well poised to take advantage of the dramatic increase in on-chip parallelism that multi-core computing will soon offer. Search-intensive approaches to AI will play an increasingly important role in the evolution of the field.

With checkers done, the obvious question is whether chess is solvable. Checkers has roughly the square root of the number of positions in chess (somewhere in the 10^40- 10^50 range). Given the effort required to solve checkers, chess will remain unsolved for a long time, barring the invention of new technology. The disk-flipping game of Othello is the next popular game that is likely to be solved, but it will require considerably more resources than were needed to solve checkers.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Highly recommended: 'Intelectualii publici- mod de intrebuintare'

Ultimul capitol din cartea lui Adrian Gavrilescu, "Noii precupeti. Intelectualii publici din Romania de dupa 1989" (carte despre care am mai scris aici si aici) e un sumar-epilog excelent al unui studiu deosebit de interesant si, din cate stiu, unic in peisaj autohton. Desi perfectibila-- in particular, autorul ar fi putut analiza formal motivatia (the incentive), si aici inclusiv formarea, dinamica si eterogenitatea (eg. in functie de generatie, background socio-economic etc.) acesteia, a intelectualului public (eventual, in devenire) in cadrul unui model teoretic simplu ale carui predictii ar fi putut fi testate contra realitatii (economia fiind stiinta sociala primordiala de unde autorul s-ar fi putut inspira in sensul acesta); o a doua problema majora ar fi ca studiul este incomplet, fapt probabil justificat, in parte, prin lipsa informatiilor directe ale autorului in domenii de activitate cu care acesta este mai putin familiar; in sfarsit, si legat de primele doua dileme, autorul este, pe alocuri, 'subiectiv la vedere' (desi, a priori, am increderea ca e vorba de un act involuntar) -- lucrarea ramane un reper pentru toti cei interesati intr-o radiografie calificata si aproximativ onesta a 'mediilor intelectuale publice' din Romania de dupa 1989. Un plus din punct de vedere personal e registrul ironic adoptat in buna parte din lucrare, dar in particular in sectiunea finala a acesteia- as spune ca se potriveste ca o manusa temei abordate.

Recomandand deci aceasta carte tuturor celor ce vor sa invete (si, la latitudinea lor, sa altereze sau sa aprofundeze :-)) le mode d'emploi al intelectualului public mioritic, redau mai jos cateva fragmente reprezentative din capitolul final (omitand, din lipsa de timp, diacriticele si notele de subsol).

Romania traieste deocamdata deriva termenului de intelectual, caci spatiul public e inca prizonierul definitiei agreate in perioada comunista, desi contextul politic s-a schimbat. Nici un sondaj public si nici o cercetare sociologica sau lingvistica nu si-au propus sa investigheze sensurile cuvantului "intelectual" sau ale formulei "intelectual public". Totusi, in ciuda perpetuarii definitiei vetuste a "intelectualului", multe personaje publice indeplinesc conditia esentiala pentru a fi catalogate ca "intelectuali publici": se exprima consecvent pe o serie de teme de interes general intr-un limbaj accesibil multor categorii sociale. Comentarea unor asemenea teme nu-i mai cere intelectualului public sa functioneze exclusiv in schema "traditionala"- aceea care il obliga sa "opereze un transfer de competenta si notorietate de la opera sa (literara, filosofica, artistica) in domeniul politic". Azi, intelectualul public s-a "profesionalizat" devenind celebru nu prin opera sa, ci prin sansa de-a i se fi acordat accesul la mediatizare". (pag. 226)


Capitolele anterioare au furnizat cateva dintre trasaturile actualilor intelectuali romani care controleaza sectoarele vietii intelectuale, astfel incat un portret-robot ar contine urmatoarele: barbat, avand in general peste 45 de ani, cu studii superioare si experienta extinsa de lucru in perioada comunista, cu o prezenta mediatica pregnanta, ocupand posturi de conducere in presa, in domeniul editorial sau in universitati si avand simpatii de dreapta sau de stanga. Modalitatile de ascensiune intelectuala difera in functie de teritoriul de electiune si de varsta.

In spatiul universitar, un tanar candidat la titlul de intelectual public ar trebui sa se alature rapid unui profesor deprins sa-si "vanda" imaginea. De regula, o jumatate de norma didactica, un articol publicat intr-o revista de specialitate, colaborarea la unele proiecte asigura o oarecare stabilitate si speranta unei promovari la intervale rezonabile. Vin apoi castigurile publice, notorietatea, aderenta la un anume "grup" si recompensele acordate pentru aceasta. In termeni eleganti se spune ca un asemenea tanar incepe ca "asistent universitar" sau in calitate de "colaborator", in timp ce in limbajul colocvial tanarul e un "tutar", adica persoana care sustine interesele prorectorului ei, anihiland orice tentativa de negare a valorii umane si profesionale a acestuia. Rudenia, prietenia si intimitatea "ard" etapele susmentionate si reprezinta cheia cea mai buna pentru o cariera de succes. Impostura academica- manifestata prin publicarea unor lucrari de slaba calitate- sau avansarea in grad didactic gratie apartenentei la diverse coterii sunt mijloace sigure pentru a ajunge in varful ierarhiei. Dupa ce tanarul a dobandit un statut academic, ocrotitorul sau nu trebuie abandonat, ci flatat cu aceeasi perseverenta si cultivat- altfel, nu e sigur ca maestrul ii pastreaza un loc in grupul lui.

Pentru cei de varsta mijlocie, salutare sunt convertirea competentei profesionale acumulate inainte de 1990 si/sau modificarea domeniilor de interes, astfel incat sa acopere arii de studiu cat mai "actuale", de preferinta opuse celor abordate in comunism. Recomandabila este si tacerea asupra unor articole sau carti mediocre publicate pana in decembrie 1989, din care ar putea reiesi colaborarea de tip propagandistic cu regimul totalitar. Daca unii "rauvoitori" insista asupra subiectului, se poate aplica procedura de minimalizare a colaborationismului. Fundamentala este mentinerea "spiritului de corp", imposibila fara identificarea unor colegialitati utile sustinerii reciproce, crearii unor reputatii robuste si combaterii adversarilor. Publicarea de volume este un avantaj decisiv, caci a fi prezent in librarii- indiferent cu ce, chiar si cu antologii de articole de presa sau cursuri universitare copiate dupa lucrari straine- constituie o proba a fertilitatii ideilor. De o mare utilitate este si recunoasterea externa, manifestata prin invitatii la congrese internationale, seminarii, burse de studiu, materiale publicate in jurnale prestigioase. Nici un universitar ce viseaza la catapultarea sa in spatiul public nu trebuie sa-si domoleasca pretentia de a deveni un reper stiintific, un model, un inovator, un "creator de scoala". Ideal este ca in jurul acestei revendicari sa graviteze cat mai multi colegi sau, si mai bine, tineri universitari in cautare de capital simbolic si de protectie.
(pag. 227-229)


Prin apropierea de "marele public", intelectualii publici au castigat atat in plan financiar, cat si simbolic. A scrie pentru mii de persoane este mult mai avantajos decat a vorbi pentru cateva zeci, inghesuite intr-un amfiteatru si, de regula, obligate sa cumpere cartea sau cursul din care reciti. A beneficia de sustinerea propriilor cititori, ascultatori sau telespectatori inseamna a te bucura de un capital simbolic redutabil in competitia cu alti intelectuali. In ce se poate converti acest capital? In functii la reviste si edituri (coordonatori de colectie), in contracte de moderatori pentru emisiunile de televiziune, in accesul la sponsorizari provenite din mediul de afaceri, in titluri academice si premii.

Pactul intelectualilor cu publicul le-a dat acestora sansa ascensiunii, caci cultura destinata majoritatii a devenit mult mai profitabila decat mesajele emise catre elite. Un argument in acest sens il constituie statutul actual al revistelor intelectuale de pionierat lansate dupa decembrie 1989, care se zbat astazi in lipsuri materiale, avand tiraje confidentiale si un evident blocaj tematic. Fondatorii acestor publicatii si cei ce au colaborat la ele cu regularitate si-au epuizat semnaturile abordand cu aceeasi dexteritate subiecte politice, sociale, economice, culturale si contribuind astfel la un declin previzibil. Ingrijorati de publicul lor din ce in ce mai redus si sesizand pericolul colapsului, intelectualii publici au trecut intre timp la editarea altor reviste sau au lansat alte proiecte. Pentru unii, diversificarea ofertei culturale si apetitul pentru "ceea ce-i place societatii" au constituit cheia supravietuirii, iar pentru altii, sursa bunastarii. (pag. 239-240)


Modul de exprimare a intelectualilor publici din Romania pare sa fie din ce in ce mai tributar sentimentului de apartenenta la grup. Limitarea surselor de finantare face ca independenta sa nu mai fie profitabila, in timp ce sigura se vadeste aderenta la o microcomunitate intelectuala. Pozitia marginala echivaleaza cu a fi ignorat, a nu primi oferte de functii, a nu fi solicitat sa publici, a nu beneficia de atentia colegilor. Pe de alta parte, nevoia de a-i exclude pe altii de la profit alimenteaza adversitatile. Antipatiile nu mai sunt un atribut personal- ele au devenit contagioase si se pot si mosteni. A intra intr-un grupuscul presupune a-ti asuma nu doar ideologia lui, ci si inamicii pe care si i-a facut si a lucra la distrugerea lor. Tribunele intelectuale- revistele, editurile, asociatiile profesionale, catedrele universitare, emisiunile de radio si televiziune- sunt adaptate unei arhitecturi destinate confruntarii. De regula, conflictele incep de la dialoguri minore sau luari de pozitii tatonante, pamflete sau refuzul unui grup de a accepta o figura esentiala pentru cealalta formatiune intelectuala. Urmeaza replicile in reviste, cu ecouri sau continuari in cateva editii. In ultima vreme, delimitarea de concurenti este insuficienta- acestia trebuie obstructionati, izolati si, daca se poate, eliminati. (pag. 242)


Violenta fiind o constanta a spatiului public romanesc, nu e exclus ca scena autohtona sa sufere modificari radicale. La un moment dat, transeele pot sa se bagatelizeze, iar norul de praf al razboaielor sa le devina tuturor prea inecacios. Mai profitabila pare sa fie deja recuperarea abilitatilor negustoresti. Instinctele razboinice se arata a fi usor de inlocuit cu cele comerciale, iar conflictele, cu tranzactii in beneficiul tuturor. Pe fondul unei prese din ce in ce mai vulnerabile la presiunile marilor trusturi, care "cumpara" de zor ultimele idei disponibile pe piata, precum si jurnalisti altfel contestatari, dar care si-au facut calculele, e posibil sa asistam la regrupari, reconcilieri, redistribuiri de sume si reimpartirea zonelor de influenta. In definitiv, o angajare prea serioasa in conflicte risca sa fie, de la un punct incolo, contraproductiva. Targul devine preferabil. Pe o asemenea piata intelectuala, mai bine precupet decat victima a insistentei in a perpetua adversitati. (pag. 245)

Quote of the week 8th to 14th of July '07

Am I God after all, made the universe, we dreamed it up together
or got tumbled out of the Chute onto the Planet, looking for progenitors?
I know I'm not God, are you? Don't be silly.
God? God? Everybody's God? Don't be silly.

excerpt from Allen Ginsberg's "God"

Previous quote of the week.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Cherchez la (les) femme(s)

This recent article in "Psychology Today" is not a bad research summary, despite that it has been written by social scientists other than economists :-). A user's manual on the evolutionary perspective applied to human nature, targeting a very general audience (and therefore, perhaps unavoidably, plagued by sensationalism; fortunately, the compromise does not appear to be critical). While I'd have some issues with some of the theory advanced to explain (particularly when claiming full explanatory power) the facts presented, the facts remain: and some of them are extremely interesting (eg. titles 5 and 6 below were news even to yours truly...)! Check below the headlines of the 'politically incorrect' decalogue Psychology Today chose to thrill its readers with. This intro functioned well as appetizer with me, hence I've already pre-ordered the book on which it is based (& I trust my appetite won't fade away with the main courses)
  1. Men like blond bombshells (and women want to look like them)
  2. Humans are naturally polygamous
  3. Most women benefit from polygyny, while most men benefit from monogamy
  4. Most suicide bombers are Muslim
  5. Having sons reduces the likelihood of divorce
  6. Beautiful people have more daughters
  7. What Bill Gates and Paul McCartney have in common with criminals
  8. The midlife crisis is a myth—sort of
  9. It's natural for politicians to risk everything for an affair (but only if they're male)
  10. Men sexually harass women because they are not sexist

And here's one excerpt (under title 9 above) meant to further incite your curiosity; notwithstanding the fact that this is in no way a ceteris paribus 'analysis' and that Darwinism is literally stretched to extremes herein, I'd say it still uncovers part of the general truth; but do ask Bill if you want somebody with significant expertise in the area :-)

The question many asked in 1998—"Why on earth would the most powerful man in the world jeopardize his job for an affair with a young woman?"—is, from a Darwinian perspective, a silly one. Betzig's answer would be: "Why not?" Men strive to attain political power, consciously or unconsciously, in order to have reproductive access to a larger number of women. Reproductive access to women is the goal, political office but one means. To ask why the President of the United States would have a sexual encounter with a young woman is like asking why someone who worked very hard to earn a large sum of money would then spend it.

What distinguishes Bill Clinton is not that he had extramarital affairs while in office—others have, more will; it would be a Darwinian puzzle if they did not—what distinguishes him is the fact that he got caught.