Though You Probably Weren’t

Category: Though You Probably Weren’t

Budding Professors

My mentor and now colleague Mark Montgomery of Grinnell College has penned an essay on the social conventions of professors walking around with buds plugged in their ears.

It’s a cliché that people like me, whose computational experience began with punch cards, can feel overwhelmed by the explosion of electronic gadgets. But I find that the difficulties are less technical than emotional and social. Consider, again, my relationship to my beloved iPod. Is it OK for me to “wear” it around campus? Or does it undermine 165 years of institutional dignity for a gray-haired full professor to be seen strolling through the quads with two wires dangling from his head?

The article is in the Chronicle of Higher Education and, judging by the comments, is highly hilarious to our brethren.  What I respect about it  most, though, is that he manages to fit in a brief lesson on the economics of signalling near the end:

Ironically, I find that among the earphone-wearing public (that is, most people under 23), the iPod can actually enhance communication. With students I can use it to set the tone of a conversation before a single word has been uttered. Some examples: (1) One earphone removed and held poised an inch from my ear means I’m about to say: “If you want to discuss your exam grade, come to office hours.” (2) Both earphones removed, allowed to dangle: “Where is the assignment that was due on Monday?” (3) Earphones removed, wires wrapped around the iPod, device tucked in jacket pocket: “Why have I not seen you in class all week?”

Professor Montgomery at Schumptoberfest


For more from the good professor, see the essays at his website.

Professor Montgomery is tentatively slated to speak in our Economics Colloquium this coming year, so we look forward to that, too.  You can check out his research interests and publications here.

Squirreling Away Data

Spackler Data Security?

Is your internet service shoddy?  Do you find that your connection is in and out? Do you think major data centers have the same types of problems?

The answer to that last question appears to be yes.

In a wonderfully titled article, “Guns, Squirrels, and Steel: The Many Ways to Kill a Data Center,” Wired provides a nice rundown of the principal culprits (allusion here).

As the title indicates, squirrels can account for up to 15-20% of cable damage at some data centers. The other culprits include hunters shooting out insulators, lightning strikes, explosions, and thieves — like thieves thieves, not virtual ones.

For those of you unfamiliar with the scourge of squirrels, let me just say that there are significant resources dedicated to fending off these furry little guys, and there is no one right way to do it (see, for example, the classic Outwitting Squirrels: 101 Cunning Stratagems to Reduce Dramatically the Egregious Misappropriation of Seed from Your Birdfeeder by Squirrels).

101 ways.  And that’s just for bird feeders, not!

And the Outwitting Squirrels guide probably doesn’t include this or this, though honestly I haven’t consulted it lately.

Friday Supernova

Who says the liberal arts are in peril?

As you probably know, back about 1300 years ago, in the year 724, there was a mysterious spike in Carbon 14 levels detected in the rings of Japanese cedar trees.  What you probably don’t know is that this spike coincided with an eerie “red crucifix” reported in the skies after sunset.

Well, undergraduate Jonathan Allen knew that and he put two-and-two together and posits that maybe the “red crucifix” may have been a supernova.

See here for the tree-warming story.

Wednesday Warning

Good old rock, nothing beats that

We occasionally will warn you of the many mysteries and potential dangers of robot nation.

Today we consider a simple battle of wits in a game of rock, paper, scissors with a robot opponent.

Back in the day, you could get a fair shake.

But today I refer you to the ever-awesome Kottke website, where we observe a much different outcome.

Here it goes: Rock, paper, scissors,…. shoot, I lost again.


About those Gowns

And now for our annual explanation of those caps and gowns, we return to a post from 2010:

In our continuing attempt to understand the world around us, today we take a look at the traditional graduation cap & gown.

Well, the first thing you need to know is that this dates back nearly 1000 years, and the academy is a notoriously conservative place. In the words of F.M. Conrford, in his advice to young academics, “Nothing should ever be done for the first time.”* The corollary here is that once we get started on something, it’s tough getting us to stop.

With that in mind, tackles the regalia question for us:

Standard fashion around 1100 and 1200 A.D. dictated long, flowing robes and hoods for warmth; the greater a person’s wealth, the higher the quality of the fabrics. This attire went out of style around the Renaissance. But sumptuary laws, often designed to prevent people from dressing above their class, kept academics (who were relatively low in the social hierarchy) in simple, unostentatious robes through the 16th century. Thereafter, academics and students at many universities wore robes for tradition’s sake. At Oxford, robes were de rigueur until the 1960s and are still required at graduation and during exams.

And, of course, the Americans played along:

Chicago: My Kind of Gown

When American universities sprang up in the 17th and 18th centuries, they adopted many Oxbridge academic traditions, including robe-wearing…

The use of academic robes in the United States waned at the beginning of the 19th century, and after around 1810, most American colleges and universities used them only at formal academic ceremonies, if at all…. The tradition seemed on the cusp of extinction, but in the second half of the 19th century, there was a—somewhat mysterious—renewed interest in academic regalia.

It’s one thing to ask why we wear them, but entirely another to figure out what to wear. It seems that the students look pretty similar, but the faculty is a mishmash of colors and patterns (see, for example, the University of Chicago regalia to your right). That’s why it’s so nice that the American Council on Education provides this handy dandy academic costume guide (costume!). From that we learn this:

Tassel. A long tassel is to be fastened to the middle point of the top of the cap only and to lie as it will thereon. The tassel should be black or the color appropriate to the subject, with the exception of the doctor’s cap that may have a tassel of gold.

It’s worth noting that the color for the music discipline is pink, which is the answer to one question I got at dinner tonight about why the Con students have pink tassels and the College students wear black.  Well, it doesn’t answer it completely because many disciplines within the college have their own colors (e.g., economics is copper, science is yellow), so I’m going to go with “transaction costs” for the reason why the College side has black tassels.

The guide also elaborates on the history of regalia generally, and the more you read, the more, um, traditional it really is.

See you on stage.

*Nicked from Louis Menand’s excellent The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American Academy. See also, here.

The Marketplace CAFE

Yes, I made it to the national airwaves this past week, thanks for asking (and thanks to Adrienne Hill for the interview).

The topic was the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which have been controversial for a variety of reasons since their inception in the 1970s. The basic idea is simple enough, though: if the federal government mandates greater fuel efficiency, people will use less gas.  Because the CAFE standards are politically viable and gasoline taxes are not, the CAFE standards have withstood the test of time, including a beefier rule promulgated by the Obama Administration in 2009.

This week’s issue arose because gasoline tax revenue is funneled back to fund highways and mass transit. Ergo, if we use less fuel, there will be less tax revenue for highways and mass transit.  That is the conclusion of a Congressional Budget Office report from last week:

An increase of about 5 cents per gallon in the gasoline tax would be required to make up the shortfall in revenue projected as a result of the proposed CAFE standards.

And, so, man bites dog and consuming less fuel could lead to an increase in gasoline taxes, and the net result could be higher prices at the pump (Of course, federal gas taxes last went up during the pre-industrial era.  A primary reason for CAFE standards is that Congress is unwilling to move the gas tax off its $0.186/gallon level).

The report generated a minor media buzz, including this very short report on National Public Radio’s Marketplace program where I provided some unsurprising insight.

My authority on the subject stems from a paper I co-authored back in the day, “The Economics of CAFE Reconsidered: A Response to CAFE Critics and A Case for Fuel Economy Standards,” where we make a case that the CAFE standards are a reasonable complement to stiffer gasoline taxes (we also argue for much stiffer gasoline taxes).  I also have talked to US News and the Financial Times, among others. And I will talk to you, too, if you ask me about it.

For a very nice recent treatment, you might check this recent paper, “Automobile Fuel Economy Standards: Impacts, Efficiency, and Alternatives,” in the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy.

For some extremely tasty data, check out Environmental Protection Agency’s Light-Duty Automotive Technology and Fuel Economy Trends.  They’ve been doing this report for years, and I always learn something when I go through the new one.

Ramen Noodles, Bus Rides, and the World Series (?)

As you know (or should know), an “inferior” good is one where as my income increases, the demand for the good decreases. My in class examples of inferior goods are typically things like Ramen noodles, hot dogs, bus rides, and Irish potatoes back in the day.

In a stroke of WT-you-know-what, John Burger and Stephen Walters from Loyola University in Maryland add the World Series to the list.

You can’t be serious?

Indeed. And, here’s the abstract from their paper in Economic Letters:

World Series telecasts are now an inferior good. Income and the time cost of consumption interact so that a ten percent income increase reduces viewership by 1.8 million households. Increased availability of substitutes reduces ratings but increased drama improves them.

Now why would that be? Is it because the proliferation of substitutes over the years (more cable television options in November).

Look for this in Econ 300 next year.

Please Do Not Try this at Home, Especially My Home

In our continuing series on moral hazard I ask you this: what is the opportunity cost &/or reservation price of your off hand?

Consider this:

Thirty-four-year-old Gerald B. Hardin faces six charges, including mail fraud for a 2008 incident in Sumter County where a man’s hand was cut off with a pole saw.

Federal indictments state that Hardin and another person used a saw to intentionally cut off the hand of a third person in an insurance fraud scheme. The indictment says the men submitted claims under a homeowner’s insurance policy and three accidental death and dismemberment polices.

It says the men received more than $670,000.

So the guy with the missing hand must have a reservation price pretty far south of $670,000, as the perpetrators split the ill-gotten booty three ways. You have to hand it to these guys, though, coming up with this sleight-of-hand to outwit their insurance providers.

Well, almost

I have to ad-mitt that the article doesn’t say that it was his off-hand. But, on the other hand, I bet the payout for the dominant hand is higher, but that is just an off-the-cuff conjecture.

Could tiny organisms carried by house cats be creeping into our brains?

Crazy, awesome, completely plausible:

Jaroslav Flegr is no kook. And yet, for years, he suspected his mind had been taken over by parasites that had invaded his brain. So the prolific biologist took his science-fiction hunch into the lab. What he’s now discovering will startle you. Could tiny organisms carried by house cats be creeping into our brains, causing everything from car wrecks to schizophrenia? A biologist’s science- fiction hunch is gaining credence and shaping the emerging science of mind- controlling parasites.

In other words, Reading Period continues

“Get Her Something Expensive and Useless”

It’s that time of year where we bid you Happy Holidays from the Economics profession.

Up first, we have a truly heroic figure, Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogeonomics.*  I don’t know your preferences as well as you do, so whatever I give you is probably sub-optimal, unless you tell me exactly what you want.  And even then, wouldn’t you rather just have the cash anyway?  For those of you intermediate micro students, you know that kids prefer cash over any in-kind equivalent.

Kudos to Professor Waldfogel for willing to be “that guy.”

Speaking of Scrooge, was he really such a bad guy?  Not so, says Steven Landsburg. Let’s give it up for our annual Scrooge endorsement from this classic Slate piece:

In this whole world, there is nobody more generous than the miser–the man who could deplete the world’s resources but chooses not to. The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser spreads his largess far and wide.

If you build a house and refuse to buy a house, the rest of the world is one house richer. If you earn a dollar and refuse to spend a dollar, the rest of the world is one dollar richer–because you produced a dollar’s worth of goods and didn’t consume them.

Ah, I just feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Moving on to The Atlantic, where we have “The Behavioral Economist’s Guide to Buying Presents.” Now this is some truly indispensable advice.  Like Waldfogel above, the money point is to just give money. But, for the true romantics who feel compelled to give a gift, the behavioralists recommend this:

Buying for a guy? Get him a gadget. Buying for a girl? Get her something expensive and useless.

The gadget I get.**  The expensive and useless? That’s from Geoffrey Miller’s, The Mating Mind.  Here’s a brief explanation of courtship:

The wastefulness of courtship is what makes it romantic. The wasteful dancing, the wasteful gift-giving, the wasteful conversation, the wasteful laughter, the wasteful foreplay, the wasteful adventures.  From the viewpoint of “survival of the fittest” the waste looks mad and pointless and maladaptive… However, from the viewpoint of fitness indicator theory, this waste is the most efficient and reliable way to discover someone’s fitness. Where you see conspicuous waste in nature, sexual choice has often been at work.

This presents something of a conundrum because “expensive and useless” seems to be at odds with Waldfogel’s hyper-utilitarian cold, hard cash suggestion.

So if you want to hedge your bets, give her Euro!

* The book is a follow up to the classic, “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas.”  Clearly, the book title Scroogonomics can be chalked up to the value-added of the publishing house.

**Conceptually, that is. I generally get ties and socks.

Black Friday View from Briggs 2nd

Mess with Gull and you get the Beak

I just looked out my window and saw a flock of seagulls (no, not that Flock of Seagulls) antagonizing one of the resident bald eagles.

I guess this isn’t all that unusual from the seagulls. Did you know:

Herring gulls dive-bomb predatory birds at a steep angle from above and behind, as they make a piercing shriek – “kaiow!”.

Some gulls also defecate or even vomit on the predator for good measure.

 My emphasis, as if any was needed.  Ick.

Click the pic for the full story and a bigger picture.

Via MR.

The Appletown Coffee Experience

Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King gives a big thumbs up to downtown Appleton:

What a good coffee town Appleton, Wisc., is. In a two-block stretch of downtown on College Avenue (I once had night-before-the-game dinner with Bears linebacker Ron Rivera in an Italian place on this street), there are local espresso places — the trendy and modern Copper Rock, the homey and filled-with-locals Brewed Awakenings — and if those aren’t good enough for you, there’s a Starbucks on the corner. I can’t imagine there’s a better downtown coffee experience in a medium-sized, middle America city.

No mention of Gerardo’s stash on Briggs 2nd.

HT to our wonderful alumni network.

There is no such thing as a law in Economics?

In an anecdote recounted in some economics books, Vilfredo Pareto is giving a presentation, only to be interrupted repeatedly by an indignant Gustav von Schmoller with this provocative question: “But are there laws in economics?” The next day, Pareto, dressed like a beggar, approached Schmoller in the street. We turn to Organizations and Markets for the rest of the story:

“Please, sir,” Pareto said, “can you tell me where I can find a restaurant where you can eat for nothing?” “My dear man,” replied von Schmoller, “there are no such restaurants, but there is a place around the corner where you can have a good meal very cheaply.” “Ah,” said Pareto, laughing triumphantly, “so there are laws in economics!”

Could this be the origin of the famous “law” about free lunches? Not likely, based on a quick look at Wikipedia. The history there, confirmed by Google searches of contemporary books, does raise a different question, though: Had Pareto and Schmoller been at a conference in New Orleans rather than Geneva, would they have had to revise their notions of certain economic laws? Because in that case, Schmoller’s answer would have had to be something like: “Why, in just about any public house you can eat for nothing this time of day! Try the one around the corner, they serve oyster stew! All you need to do is buy a drink for fifteen cents.” If the drinks are not overpriced at 15 cents, is the lunch still free? Some sources suggest that the whole “free lunch” custom was, in fact, a relief program, a socially necessary outcome of high unemployment and poverty. This would merit (and require) more than a superficial Google search, so I’ll leave it as an exercise to the interested reader.

“English Too Easy for Hungarians”

That is the title of a WSJ blog piece that describes the latest efforts of the Hungarian government to save the country. I think they are finally on to something. English, they say, is so easy that one can hardly avoid learning it. So, why waste those precious early years on something trivial? Learn French instead, or some other proper language. It seems to me that there are several plausible reasons why they couldn’t go wrong with this policy. 1) The historical record is clear: Any country where English is spoken or was introduced as a language has suffered economically. 2) Clearly, wasting one’s younger years learning an easy language has a negative effect on one’s thinking. I can’t think of a single famous mathematician or scientist or philosopher whose native tongue was/is English. 3) Why learn English, when everybody in the world is doing it? In this new, globalized world, differentiation is the name of the game.

I couldn’t agree more that English is very easy. Not only do all native speakers achieve stunning eloquence by age 12, but even Hungarians master the language by… some age. At least the 10% of the population who speak it… sort of. As this video demonstrates, our (still relatively young) Prime Minister Viktor Orbán can spontaneously switch to English to respond to a question at a press conference. I am glad he didn’t waste his time perfecting his English, but focused on his pre-primeminister studies instead.

Russian used to be very popular compulsory in schools (even in my younger years). I am sure we could still find quite a few Russian teachers who were suddenly out of work 20 years ago. It’s a complicated language, requiring many hours of focused mental effort, and hardly anyone else in Europe speaks it (west of us…). Putting those Russian teachers back to work could be a win-win for everyone.

And they’re off… 2011 Commencement

The flowing robes, the grace... striking

We say farewell to our seniors with a repost from last year.

In our continuing attempt to understand the world around us, today we will talk about the tradition of wearing cap & gowns for graduation ceremonies.

Well, the first thing you need to know is that this dates back nearly 1000 years, and the academy is a notoriously conservative place. In the words of F.M. Conrford, in his advice to young academics, “Nothing should ever be done for the first time.”* The corollary is that once we get started on something, it’s tough getting us to stop.

With that in mind, tackles the regalia question for us:

Standard fashion around 1100 and 1200 A.D. dictated long, flowing robes and hoods for warmth; the greater a person’s wealth, the higher the quality of the fabrics. This attire went out of style around the Renaissance. But sumptuary laws, often designed to prevent people from dressing above their class, kept academics (who were relatively low in the social hierarchy) in simple, unostentatious robes through the 16th century. Thereafter, academics and students at many universities wore robes for tradition’s sake. At Oxford, robes were de rigueur until the 1960s and are still required at graduation and during exams.

And, of course, the Americans played along:

When American universities sprang up in the 17th and 18th centuries, they adopted many Oxbridge academic traditions, including robe-wearing… Continue reading And they’re off… 2011 Commencement

Are you smarter than an 8th grader (from Moscow)?

There is more...

You can find out by giving these problems a try. For comparison, here is an 8th grade contest from Math League, which I am not familiar with at all.It definitely wins in the cool pictures category. I suppose you wouldn’t want 8th graders to get bored while solving math problems in a competition. (There is a nontrivial risk of boredom, actually.) To be fair, one can find much better math competition problems in the US, like this one, called Abacus. By a remarkable coincidence, “[t]he program is based on a printed journal for gifted students, originating in Hungary over 100 years ago.”

Math 300 Final Exam Help

Question: Prove that any sequence of the word “buffalo” of length n>1 is a valid English language sentence.

Proof (via Brad DeLong’s comments)

First, let n be odd. We start with n=3: “Buffalo buffalo buffalo”; that is, some buffalo do buffalo buffalo, i.e., some buffalo are buffaloed by buffalo. But of course the buffalo who are buffaloing may themselves be buffaloed by buffalo, so just as some cats that watch mice are chased by dogs, or as we say, cats dogs chase watch mice, buffalo that buffalo buffalo themselves buffalo buffalo, and we can say that buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo. Anytime we have the noun buffalo, we can add the relative clause “who are buffaloed by buffalo”, or better, instead of the noun phrase “buffalo who are buffaloed by buffalo”, we may say simply “buffalo that buffalo buffalo”, then add the rest of the sentence, yielding “Buffalo that buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo”, or even better, “Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo”. To a sentence consisting of n (odd) occurrences of the word, we can produce a sentence of n+2 occurrences.

Thus for any odd n, a sequence of n occurrences is a sentence.

But just as a dog that chases cats is a dog that chases, buffalo that buffalo some buffalo are buffalo that buffalo, so from one of our sequences of an odd number of occurrences, we can lop off the final direct object, producing a sequence of an even number of occurrences that is a grammatical sentence. For any n>1, odd or even, a sequence of n occurrences of “buffalo” is a grammatical English sentence!


Measurement Error

Edwin Heathcote of the Financial Times asks, why is it that cities voted “most liveable” are not cities where people actually want to go live?

The most recent surveys, from Monocle magazine, Forbes, Mercer and The Economist, concur: Vancouver, Vienna, Zurich, Geneva, Copenhagen and Munich dominate the top. What, you might ask, no New York? No London? No LA or HK? None of the cities that people seem to actually want to emigrate to, to set up businesses in? To be in? None of the wealthiest, flashiest, fastest or most beautiful cities? Nope. Americans in particular seem to get wound up by the lack of US cities in the top tier. The one that does make it is Pittsburgh. Which winds them up even more.

So I moved away from the most liveable city to be with you guys?  Yikes.

via Marginal Revolution.

The Trembling Hand and the Toilet Seat

Some people say that game theorists are afraid to tackle the tough questions.   I wonder what those people are saying now?

The Social Norm of Leaving the Toilet Seat Down: A Game Theoretic Analysis

By Hammad Siddiqi

The issue of whether the toilet seat should be left up or down after use seemingly generates a lot of passion among the parties concerned, however, scientific inquiries into the matter are almost non-existent…. In this paper, we internalize the cost of yelling and model the conflict as a non-cooperative game between two species, males and females.We find that the social norm of leaving the toilet seat down is inefficient. However, to our dismay, we also find that the social norm of always leaving the toilet seat down after use is not only a Nash equilibrium in pure strategies but is also trembling-hand perfect. So, we can complain all we like, but this norm is not likely to go away.

Of course, that’s hardly the last word on the subject.  Indeed, this piece with a starkly different conclusion found its way into Economic Inquiry.

By Jay Pil Choi

This paper develops an economic analysis of the toilet seat etiquette. I investigate whether there is any efficiency justification for the presumption that men should leave the toilet seat down after use. I find that the down rule is inefficient unless there is a large asymmetry in the inconvenience costs of shifting the position of the toilet seat across genders. I show that the selfish or the status quo rule that leaves the toilet seat in the position used dominates the down rule in a wide range of parameter spaces including the case where the inconvenience costs are the same.

I guess there’s nothing left to do but wait for the econometric analysis.


The Chicago Reader has a short piece on my brother, who wrangled the Mayorship from the incumbent in the Champaign election yesterday.  And wrangled is certainly the right word, as he has been campaigning tirelessly for the past six months.

Former Rocker Don Gerard Elected Mayor of Champaign

Don Gerard, a longtime fixture in Champaign-Urbana’s indie-rock scene, was elected mayor of Champaign yesterday. I haven’t seen or spoken to him in many years, but I remember Gerard, who played drums and bass in countless bands beginning in the mid-80s, as enthusiastic, energetic, and expertly sarcastic. His aesthetic sensibilities leaned toward punk and roots music, but his best-known group, the Moon Seven Times, was a 4AD-worshiping, goth-leaning outfit. He also played in the Farmboys, a band fronted by recording engineer Adam Schmitt; the Bowery Boys, fronted by Chicagoan Leroy Bach (Uptighty, Five Style, Wilco); and Steve Pride & His Blood Kin, which also included Jay Bennett. For a time he lived in the Champaign rock palace known as the Ten Shitty Guy House, which at one time or another housed members of the Didjits and Titanic Love Affair.

I must say, this is a bit surreal.