Author: Adam Galambos

Gotcha (to work for me)

I have recently seen two examples of creative ways to get free labor over the internet. I suppose the whole open source movement should be counted in this category, too, but that’s old news. (And there’s probably more to it than I think.) At a workshop two weeks ago, I heard about Fold-It, a “a revolutionary new computer game enabling you to contribute to important scientific research.” Larry Robertson told us about it at Millikin University, in the context of a discussion on the meaning of entrepreneurship. What could be a more creative and low-cost way to get people to think about protein structures?

The other example is not so much about advancing science as about making money. We all know and love those annoying little wavy words we have to decipher to submit web forms. They are referred to as “CAPTCHAs,” which apparently stands for “completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart.” What you may not know is that you are working for someone, say, Google, when you decipher those words. The New York Times has the full story. reCAPTCHA started as a project of Professor von Ahn at Carnegie Mellon, as their website says. That same site, you may notice, starts with www.google.com, which is because Google bought reCAPTCHA in 2009. Through reCAPTCHA, Google is enlisting you and me to decipher words in scanned documents that the image-to-text software had trouble with. Hey, if I can help digitize old books, I’m all for that. I hope I don’t have to pay a ton to read those same words in the right order. I can’t wait to hear more about the next scheme of Professor von Ahn.

LSB Entrepreneurial Ventures Summit

The stream of extraordinarily useful and interesting alumni presentations continues this Saturday with the LSB Entrepreneurial Ventures Summit, to be held from 1pm to 3pm in the Hurvis Room in WCC. Our very special guests will be Susan Palm ’80, Pete Shuster ’81, and Greg Linnemanstons ’80. Click the poster on the left for more information. Come to learn about the fascinating work that three distinguished alumni have done, and maybe even win the prize! Join our guests for lunch at 12:00 in the Parrish-Perille room in Andrew Commons.

LSB Marketing and Advertising Summit

Advertising, Branding, and Marketing Summit 2011
Saturday, April 9, 1:30pm
Warch Center Cinema

Industry leaders from Chicago, New York, San Francisco and elsewhere will be on campus to give students a rare glimpse inside a field that’s creative, dynamic, fast-changing and brimming with opportunities for liberal arts graduates.

> Learn how Lawrence graduates used their college education to land rewarding jobs and climb the ladder.

>  See actual campaigns on the big screen including:

  • Apple
  • AXA Art Insurance
  • Blue Moon
  • Chrysler
  • Dos Equis
  • M&M Pretzels
  • The National Gallery (London)
  • Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup
  • Seasons 52
  • Snickers

> Participate in a hands-on session that solves a creative challenge steeped in a real-world advertising situation.

> Join the panelists for dinner in the Parrish and Perille rooms in Andrew Commons at 6:00pm.

> Ask Lawrence alumni your questions, gain from their real-world experience.

> Enjoy a free Snickers

Who Should AttendHumanities majors, especially Anthropology, Art, Economics, English, Ethnic and Gender Studies, Film Studies, History, Languages, Linguistics, Government, Philosophy, Psychology, Music, Theatre

Click the poster for more information!

Civil(?) Servants, and a handbook for aliens

I recently picked up again one of my favorite books, How to be an Alien by George Mikes. (It’s online, without the wonderful illustrations, here. If you look for it online, don’t be fooled by the inferior “Penguin Readers” version, which is… well, for aliens.)

Mikes was a Hungarian writer who moved to England in 1938. One of the chapters, on Civil Servants, immediately reminded me of some of our discussions in the Schumpeter Roundtable. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (CSD), Schumpeter sometimes idolizes those experts who know how to run things rationally. Contrast that with these words from Mikes: Continue reading Civil(?) Servants, and a handbook for aliens

Cheap! Cheap! Cheap!

Cheap is the title of the “community read” that dozens of students and over a dozen faculty members will be discussing weekly during the first half of next term. Here is the semi-official course advertisement:

A 'Cheap' Shot

Registration is open for the 2011 Community Read! This year we’ll be reading Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, by Ellen Ruppel Shell.  It’s a deep look at the environmental, social, political, economic and human costs of consumerism in the US.  There are nine different sections available, each led by two faculty members from different departments.  The sections are listed as Environmental Studies (ENST) 320 – SEM: CHEAP, which is a 1-unit S/U-only course that will meet for the first half of Spring term.  These are discussion sections, so there are no exams or writing assignments – only lively conversation!***

Professor Gerard is partnering with Professor Maryuri Roca (Chemistry) for a section at 2:30 on Thursdays, and I (Galambos) am co-leading a section at 8:30 on Fridays with Professor Beth De Stasio (Biology). We’d love to have you in our sections.

Based on some book reviews (here’s one), I will have a lot to say about this book, but I promise I’ll try to shut up most of the time. I know one chapter beats up on IKEA pretty badly, and I’m just not sure how I will handle that… Let me just say that other than a couple of chairs, perhaps, all our furniture comes from that wonderful, CHEAP, tastefully Northern European design paradise.

***An earlier version of this post said the book would be available at the Gift Shop.   It turns out that this is not true.  We sincerely apologize for the mix-up.

Internships

Though the time to look for the best internships has passed, many may still be looking for something for this summer. A new website, Intern Match, says that

By focusing on attracting a high volume of smaller organizations, InternMatch will greatly increase the number of opportunities and diversity of choice available to students. The InternMatch Platform will also act as a one-stop-shop for finding/applying for opportunities, communicating with organizations, and building a professional profile that will showcase interests, talent and experience.

Students who want to volunteer will find that InternMatch allows them to combine community impact with career-building. Internships for nonprofits allow socially-conscious students to maximize social impact, build their resumes, and gain critical real world experience.

Worth a try, if you are in the market for an internship.

Porter, Reich on the Future of Capitalism

One thing about capitalism that’s pretty certain is that it’s changing. Capitalism a hundred years ago looked very different from capitalism today, and capitalism looks different in different countries. The field of comparative economic systems was born out of the socialism vs. capitalism debate, and, for that reason, those of us interested in that field should be thankful for that debate. At the same time, the socialism vs. capitalism debate has done and is doing much harm to intelligent discussion of economic systems. Those of us reading Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy this term know that Schumpeter thought socialism could follow capitalism naturally, in Marxian fashion, but it really wouldn’t look very different from the super-big-business capitalism that would exist at that time.

Michael Porter

Today’s OnPoint on NPR featured two distinguished guests who were discussing the future of capitalism. Business guru and Harvard professor Michael Porter (remember the 5-forces analysis?) talked about his recent article in the Harvard Business Review on the new capitalism, based on Shared Value, in which firms recognize that the way to be truly profitable is to align their goals with societies and to do good while doing well. But not in that outdated Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) way, relegating to a CSR department the task of undoing the harm done by the core business, but by integrating the doing good part into the core business mission. Porter argued that the best companies are doing this already, and that capitalism will be made better not through more regulation and more government, but, au contraire, by businesses moving to the “shared value” model.

Reich on the future of capitalism

Robert Reich, author of Supercapitalism, was the other guest, and he was not buying any of that feel-good talk. He couldn’t help but remember the many examples he personally saw of companies investing a lot into what was clearly bad for society but good for profit. His book on the future of capitalism, Supercapitalism, agrees with Porter in finding the CSR model wanting, but thinks that the future lies in separating capitalism from democracy as much as possible. These were questions Schumpeter struggled with in his book. It is easy (apparently, for some) to dismiss those musings from 1942 as idle speculation, but these contemporary contributions and debates remind us that we still know little about how economic and political systems work, that knowing more would still be extremely important, and that capitalism is changing in perhaps fundamental ways even as we continue to talk about a model of a market economy that never really existed. Porter’s view seems to be going in the direction of moving government and business closer to each other. Reich thinks the way to progress is through separating those two as much as possible.

New Course

A new course possibly of interest to many of you will be offered next term. It was not on the books when you registered, so we are trying to let you know about it:

History 376: International Development in Historical Perspective

History of economic development theory, policy, and practice throughout the world since 1945. Particular focus will be given to the evolution of orthodoxy in this field, from modernization theory through dependency theory to neoliberalism, considering the performance and criticism of each. Case studies include African, Asian, and Latin American countries.

Taught on TR 12:30, the course requires sophomore standing and has no other prerequisites.  It is taught by Michael Mahoney, a specialist on the history of Africa who taught at Yale for a decade (including this course).

America Unhappier, Death and Divorce Make People Sad

Professor Gerard recently wrote about the views of Schumpeter and Stigler on Intellectuals. In the paper he cites, Stigler wonders why Intellectuals hate economics, and considers the possibility that our extremely technical field and extremely poor communication style might have something to do with it:

Less than a century ago a treatise on economics began with a sentence such as, “Economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life.” Today it will often begin: “This un- avoidably lengthy treatise is devoted to an examination of an economy in which the sec- ond derivatives of the utility function possess a finite number of discontinuities. To keep the problem manageable, I assume that each individual consumes only two goods, and dies after one Robertsonian week. Only elementary mathematical tools such as topology will be employed, incessantly.” (Stigler: The Intellectual and the Market Place)

A paper I looked at recently reminded me of another reason why many Intellectuals look askance at us economists: the long and solid tradition of “economic imperialism.” That is, the tendency of a number of economists to think that our economist’s toolbox can be (and should be!) used to explain just about anything that reasonably falls under the heading “social science.” The paper I referred to is Well-Being Over Time in Britain and the USA by David Blanchflower, and the abstract includes this:

Money buys happiness. People care also about relative income. Wellbeing is U-shaped in age. The paper estimates the dollar values of events like unemployment and divorce. They are large. A lasting marriage (compared to widow-hood as a ‘natural’ experiment), for example, is estimated to be worth $100,000 a year.

I agree that research on happiness is very much relevant to economics, but I can just see a psychologist or a sociologist or a humanist read that and not know whether to laugh or to cry. (And what’s up with talking like Tarzan?) Blanchflower looks at survey data (essentially asking people whether they are happy or not) over the past few decades and then runs a bunch of regressions. There is nothing wrong with that, except for a dozen issues that cast doubt on the conclusions and that have probably been the subjects of extensive research in psychology, sociology, history, and maybe even economics. Without passing judgment on Blanchflower (about whom I know nothing), I am pretty confident in saying that a number of papers in economists have been guilty of applying economic tools to broader problems without bothering to understand the broader literature (you know, what those “soft” social scientists write).

Book on Inequality Makes The Economist Sick

In response to my post on The Spirit Level, Oscar Koberling pointed out in an email that the most recent issue (pronounce that with an “s”, not “ishue”) of The Economist includes a Special Report on “The Few” (not the proud, but the rich). One article in that Report beats up pretty effectively on The Spirit Level. Thanks for the tip!

Several articles in the Report are interesting. One of them is on higher education, and it points out that “[i]n some of the hardest disciplines most postgrads at American universities are foreign: 65% in computing and economics, 56% in physics and 55% in maths…”

Inequality makes everyone sick

Last time we met for the Schumpeter Roundtable tutorial, we discussed Schumpeter’s point that perhaps the greatest strength of capitalism is that it provides precise, prompt, exact and effective incentives in the promise of great riches and the threat of great destitution. He would know, having been on both ends of that spectrum (well, almost). That sort of system has inequality built into it—inequality that serves an important purpose, some would say. A discussion on inequality and progress ensued, with spiritual, moral, economic, and technological dimensions, eventually leading one participant to remark that “going to Best Buy is a spiritual journey!” But there is, of course, a serious question: Is inequality good for a society (in the long run)? Or, to put it in terms of a trade-off, how much inequality is best? Tonight Tom Ashbrook on NPR spoke with UK Professors Pickett and Wilkinson, authors of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. The book is based on research that shows, the authors claim, that more equal societies always do better in a number of ways, including overall population health. They argue that more equal societies are even more innovative, contrary to what Schumpeter might say about the importance of incentives in driving progress. As Professor Gerard has pointed out, economists do think about inequality and its consequences, and this book may add evidence to one or both sides. One member of the Schumpeter Roundtable argued that there is so much inequality in the US today, that most people are too discouraged to try hard to reach the top. This book seems to support that argument. Contrast that with Adam Smith’s view that the great driving force of economic development is the extraordinary effort of “[t]he poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition,” struggling to attain riches in the (erroneous) belief that money can buy happiness.

Class Struggle is Intensifying

I have finally started reading Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy by Joseph Schumpeter. And now I simply can’t put it down. This has not happened to me with an economics book since I read The Road to Serfdom by Hayek. Schumpeter’s work is pure gold, prescient, wise, analytically crystal clear, and beautifully written (yes, every so often one must reread a paragraph-long sentence). I can’t wait to discuss the details in our CS&D reading groups.

The second part of the book is on capitalism, and Schumpeter make some arguments that seem decidedly Marxian, resembling conclusions that Marx “reached.” Which is probably why Schumpeter found it important to start the book with a first part on Marx’s work. Schumpeter’s critique of Marx is balanced, even generous, but penetrating. I have read before that Schumpeter succeeded best by far in putting Marx’s work in perspective, and now I can see how. (Not that I have much expertise on Marx.)  Yes, Schumpeter says, I reach some similar conclusions, but make no mistake, dear reader: there is a world of difference between how Marx got there and how Schumpeter did. And there is a world of difference between the implications of Marx’s “analysis” and Schumpeter’s.

I particularly enjoyed Schumpeter’s analogy between Marxism and religion. I have read others who make the same point, but Schumpeter makes it so much better. Marxism is not just a theory of economic change, but a theory of the world. And so it gives followers a lens through which they can see and interpret everything. The Witness is a Hungarian cult movie from the sixties on the Soviet system. In one scene, the head of the state secret police says, “whether you eat baked potatoes or pork roast, the class struggle is intensifying!” People quoted this phrase for decades to come in an ironical voice in comments on the political and economic situation. Yes, it is possible to see everything as a manifestation of class struggle. And once you see everything that way, it is difficult to think outside that system. Though I grew up in the last stages of goulash communism, I was to some extent exposed to that world view, partly in a very personal way. My great-uncle was a true believer in Marxism well before it was fashionable in Hungary. In fact, his own father was in and out of jail in the 1920s for being a communist. (At that time, right-wing Hungary’s police stations had copies of a thick black book—a list of undesirable, suspicious people to watch out for. My great-uncle’s father was listed as guilty of being a Communist and a Jew.) My uncle, after he came back from Auschwitz, got to work in helping build the communist future. He taught Marxism in evening classes to those who needed to be “educated.” And even though he lived through the many failures of that system, he remained a believer to some extent till the end of his life. Yes, Marxism offers a theory of why things are bad, who’s to blame, and hope for inevitable salvation.

EconTea!

Yes, it’s back! After the long break, aren’t we all starved for cookie, coffee, tea, and conversation? Well, I know I am, so I am bringing the cookies. And in an effort to make the holiday season last till Valentine’s Day at least, I am bringing some genuine, imported German holiday cake (“Stollenkuchen” for those who know). Come join us on Monday, at 4:21, in Briggs 217!

Mazel tov!

If you don’t find abstract mathematics palatable, try this one. Thanks to George Hart, Chief of Content at The Museum of Mathematics, we finally have proof: it is possible to slice your bagel into two and produce two linked, unbroken halves of this delicacy of Jewish origin (its name comes from Yiddish “beygel”).  The proof is constructive.

From George Hart

The layperson might take a quick look and say “Hey, that’s a Möbius strip shaped bagel!” Of course, it obviously isn’t, as it has a cream cheese side and a non-cream cheese side. But Mr. Hart does pose the Möbius bagel problem as a possible extension. My guess is that poor young George’s mathematical growth was seriously impeded by remarks such as “How many times have I told you not to play with your food?!” I definitely see an entrepreneurial opportunity here: just imagine how many math conferences would pay big bucks for catering that features Möbius bagels, dodecahedron-noodle soup, a spaghetti-knot challenge, and many Klein bottles of wine. I am soooo tagging this entry “Food for thought…”

[HT to Jeff Ely at Cheap Talk]

Puzzelah

Listening to the latest Car Talk, I was happy to hear a variant of the muddy children puzzle as this week’s “puzzelah.” Here it goes, straight from Ray:

The warden admits three prisoners into his chambers. He tells them, “One of you fellas is going to have a chance to get out. Here’s the deal.

“I’m going to blindfold all of you, then I’m going to put hats on your heads. I have three white hats and two black hats. Each of you is going to get a hat. You have to figure out which color hat you have to get released.”

He blindfolds them and puts a hat on each prisoner. They’re led out of the room in single file. When the blindfolds are removed, the guy in the back can see the two people in front of him, the guy in the middle can see the one guy in front of him, and the guy in front can see nobody.

They walk around the prison, stopping outside the warden’s office. The warden says to the fellow in back, who can see the two people in front of him, and their hats, “Can you tell me what color your hat is?”

Don’t forget, there are three white hats and two black hats available. The fellow in back says nothing. He doesn’t know.

The fellow in the middle is asked the same question. He is unable to answer.

The guy in the very front, who can see no hats, knows. He says, “I can identify the color of my hat.”

How does he know?

Those of you who have taken Advanced Game Theory will be done with this before I can finish this sentence. And if you haven’t taken that course yet and enjoy this sort of thing, you should definitely take Advanced Game Theory (Econ 410) this coming Spring, where we ponder some similar puzzles (and, yes, I do know that the course title has “& Applications” in it). All this goes under the heading Interactive Epistemology, and it is generally as complicated as it sounds. But also very important, as the surprising answer to this puzzle will no doubt show you.