Thursday, February 25, 2010

Atlanta and ASSA grand finale

Right, almost two months since my visit to Atlanta, hence high time to wrap up and conclude.

Briefly on Atlanta itself: ultimately not that appealing a city. In fact, probably the least interesting city I have visited in USA so far (caveat lector: I have deliberately avoided stuff a priori known to be dull), bar San Antonio, Texas (which might have changed since my trip there in '04, but I doubt it). It does have an attractive small city center though, and a couple of decent bars and restaurants. Oh, and not to forget, the Aquarium is definitely worth a visit (even if what they claim, ie. that they are the largest aquarium in the world, was true in 2005 at the time of their opening...), despite that the Beluga whales are/were? on holiday, and the whole place is a tad too commercial for my taste (much more so than the New York Aquarium, say, which is not that large or exciting, but looks definitely better organized, in particular lacking that nonsensical, pushy, overly-populistic, inside marketing). The "gentle giants", the whale sharks, are amazing, you could watch them for hours (did not have time for a dive with them, but that would have probably been the best thing to do in Atlanta) and so are a bunch of species I saw for the first time live, including the huge Japanese spider crabs etc. The one big regret: I did not have time to visit the CNN Center in Atlanta (on the other hand, I am glad I did not queue up for the Coca-Cola Museum).

Back to the Atlanta restaurant stage: the best experience by far was Top Flr, with amazingly low prices for that quality (e.g., an extremely tasty scallops dish, with citrus braised endive, ginger, lemon grass reduction, and horseradish celery salad, at 15 dollars; pair that with a nice Austrian Pinot Gris-- or, but they had run out of it at the time, a subtle French Viognier--, at less than 40 dollars per bottle), and a remarkable environment in general (note: the cab got lost on the way--allegedly, a max 7 min drive--, with Google Maps, and normal maps, and all technical devices in use; after about 30 minutes we realized the problem was very much the cab driver, not the location of Top Flr). Bacchanalia was also up there, quality-wise (the veal sweetbreads, with "braised local baby collard greens", was just out of this world), and service-wise (e.g., the sommelier had some super interesting tips to substitute wines we asked for, which they did not have; btw, what's up with that Viognier-- and nota bene, I did not say Condrieu-viognier; that is unfortunately missing anytime, anywhere-- absent from all Atlanta places that advertise to normally have it on the wine menu), but somehow below the expectations I had for such an exquisite place (I can only have extremely high expectations from a place supposed to be the best of its kind in Atlanta). Anyway, if you happen to be around, these two places are certainly worth checking out. Moreover, you might be able to find some top quality dishes in some absolutely unassuming places; that was a pleasant surprise.

Further highlights from the ASSA @ Atlanta:

  • Hal Varian's, on computer-intermediated transactions, and the history of technical innovation and implications in general, was by far the best keynote (the 2010 Richard T. Ely lecture) of the whole AEA conference. Varian knows how to bridge the academic and the more general audience sides better than anybody else; he is natural when it comes to joking, without forcing himself whatsoever; and he has always something very interesting to say. To keep to some of the funny things he mentioned (unfortunately could not yet trace slides/ talk summary anywhere online), one of them was the fading importance and influence of HiPPOs (Highly Paid Person Opinions) in IT and beyond; he also thought he coined himself the label "micromultinational", before he googled it and found many precedents; and he shared with us the conviction that 'if you torture the data enough, it will eventually give up everything' (now you know what Google is up to).
  • Robert Shiller gave this year's joint AEA/AFA talk: very provocative, and quite original, particularly his arguments for issuing GDP shares, or so-called "trills", which he had also written about a couple of days before, in the NYTimes (that idea is really not that crazy as it looks at first, trust me). The not so clear/bright? part: he also made repeated allusions to all previous and current "amateur economists", who have no clue about how the financial market works, although avoided being any more concrete; some macro/finance people in the large panel behind him were not smiling at all.
  • The very much awaited session on "New Directions in the Economic Analysis of Human Capital" was not as exciting as it announced itself: Gary Becker, the one who was supposed to chair it, was missing, while some discussants were either not there or did not say anything (since they shared all their comments with the authors before the session?!): organization, what can I say... But there were at least two very good presentations, one by Gabriella Conti (paper joint with Heckman and Urzua) on "Education and Health", and the other one by William Hubbard (paper joint with Becker and Murphy) on "The Market for College Graduates and the Worldwide Boom in Higher Education of Women". Plus, I have a great picture of Josh Angrist and Jim Heckman sharing one podium. That is a most rare occasion, I can tell you :-).
  • Finally, Avinash Dixit's talk at the Nobel Laureate Luncheon honoring Paul Krugman was very nice and as funny as one can imagine: there is probably nobody who could introduce and summarize better Krugman's work, including and emphasizing his pioneering (1978!) work on "The theory of Interstellar Trade"-- which Krugman later announced that it might finally be published in Economic Inquiry. Which is truly great news, since this would be then one of the two funniest papers ever published, in the entire history of Economics academe (the other one being the 1983 AER paper of Preston McAfee, "American Economic Growth and the Voyage of Columbus"-- download here a non-gated version; with thanks to Tor for the tip) . You should definitely read them both-- it will convince you that people do have a lot of fun, next to doing great research, in Economics. Since we're mentioning Krugman: here's a pretty well written, recent, bio article (cats included); and we couldn't do without his musical super fans, of course: e.g., listen to/see this or this.


Dr Pi said...

Not much Physics in Krugman's interstellar trade, but it is very amusing indeed. I wonder how come he had time for writing that. Did it count for his tenure ? :)

Sebi Buhai said...

That's the thing, having time for fun, while doing great research work. Isn't it? I wouldn't even conceive of one without the other :-).