Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Is the millenial generation really tech savvy

Our email filter traps all emails with zip attachments. I asked a recent college grad who was trying to send me a zip file to rename the extension to txt which generally fools the filter. I could then rename it to zip. However, I received an email from the server saying that the email could not be delivered and its attachment was named ‘’.

For those of us who grew up in the days of DOS and command lines, renaming a file was a no-brainer. Today, slick GUIs that try to hide the mechanics from the user can wreak havoc. Windows explorer defaults to hiding file extensions so that when a user renames a file, the extension is unchanged.

Is the user or the GUI the problem?

Consider also the following:

Not long ago I was using a research database to try to get a PDF of an article published in a journal to which my college's library has a digital subscription. I knew the title of the article, the author's name, the title of the journal, and the issue date. I plugged all those in to the appropriate text boxes, clicked "search" . . . and got hundreds of results. But the one that I wanted wasn't on the first several pages.
I sent an email to a reference librarian describing this event, and he wrote back saying, "Oh, see, you should have entered the journal's ISSN." Really? Exact title of article and journal, exact name of author, exact date of publication -- that's not enough?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The evolution of democracy

The cradle of democracy is evolving to revolution? If this (HT: MR) is what democracy brings then what else can we expect?

In addition to concerns about what would happen to their savings and what sort of social unrest would be stoked if Greece exited the EZ, most Greeks are cynical about how a new, independent central bank would operate. They recall that the central bank in Greece before EMU regularly printed money to line politicians’ pockets and encourage favors. If Greece exits the EZ, they expect that kind of cronyism and corruption would flourish once again.

While product and labor market reforms matter, it is hard to see how by themselves it can lift Greece out of its crisis:

A friend and I met up at a new bookstore and café in the centre of town, which has only been open for a month. The establishment is in the center of an area filled with bars, and the owner decided the neighborhood could use a place for people to convene and talk without having to drink alcohol and listen to loud music. After we sat down, we asked the waitress for a coffee. She thanked us for our order and immediately turned and walked out the front door. My friend explained that the owner of the bookstore/café couldn’t get a license to provide coffee. She had tried to just buy a coffee machine and give the coffee away for free, thinking that lingering patrons would boost book sales.  However, giving away coffee was illegal as well. Instead, the owner had to strike a deal with a bar across the street, whereby they make the coffee and the waitress spends all day shuttling between the bar and the bookstore/café. My friend also explained to me that books could not be purchased at the bookstore, as it was after 18h and it is illegal to sell books in Greece beyond that hour. I was in a bookstore/café that could neither sell books nor make coffee.

The prognosis for the cradle of democracy is bleak:

… Greece has few export industries it could rely on to grow its way out of the crisis even if it devalued its currency. He conceded there is tourism, but argued that any profits from shipping are kept out of the country and green energy is still but a mere pipe dream as an export industry for Greece. Given that Greece is not self-sustaining in agriculture, he suggested that a devaluation accompanied by hyperinflation would result in a starving population, and that the resulting civil unrest would destabilize the entire Balkan region.

Bottom line: It can’t exit the EZ. It can’t grow itself out of a crisis. It has no exports to speak of. It cannot create jobs. Might I also add that it can’t even encourage migration because the rest of Europe is unable to create jobs to absorb the inflow who might have been able to work elsewhere and send Euros back to Greece. 

Is complete collapse of Greece inevitable? If it is try imagining what it would look like - mass emigration to China? Mass murders and suicides? I can't imagine it.

Europe at the crossroads

… measurement problems may be the reason why there are differences among the major statistical bases to estimate the level of GDP per capita and their determinants. For the IMF, the Euro Area does not have a productivity problem since, according to its estimates, hourly productivity is higher in the Euro Area than in the US, and all the differences in per capita GDP are due solely to the lower number of hours worked in the EU. For EUROSTAT, based on its structural indicators, however, a completely different picture emerges, suggesting that 45 percent of the gap in living standards between the Euro Area and the US are due to lower productivity per hour, with the 55 percent due to lower number of hours worked. Finally, the OECD estimates suggest a position that lies roughly between the two previous estimates, …, one-third of the GDP per capita difference with the US is due to lower productivity and two-thirds are due to the lower number of hours worked.

What are the measurement problems? Some but not all are due to the use of hedonic pricing in constructing price indices especially in the US where it is applied to ICT and cars and durable goods. Another is the fact that the US uses a higher depreciation for capital in the first year while the EU uses the same rate of depreciation every year.

This is from Europe at the Crossroad by Guillermo de la Dehesa, a summary of various OECD and IMF reports. Less insightful than expected.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Malaysian Life

With apologies to This American Life and Lat.
  1. Some pictures of Malaysian life from MalaysiaFinance. As some of the comments indicate, the road names are probably faked. Some of these, well - you just have to be Malaysian to get it. The one that I found very funny was “Salesgirl” which translated to “Penjual gadis” which actually means seller of women. Fortunately, Google translate does better - translating “salesgirl” to “gadis jualan”.
  2. Memories of a kampung girl
  3. Discrimination - Malaysian style. Under Search Rooms - Click on the drop down box that says “Any Preference” to see the racial preferences of the renters.

Social implications of social network

Managed to squeeze in some time to enjoy this show. Zuckerberg comes off as mean, petty and vindictive and in some ways I probably would have been disappointed if he hadn’t been. After all, you don’t get to be great by playing nice.

To me, the central issue in the movie was whether Zuckerberg stole an idea. Without a doubt he did - he said so as much (in so far as the movie reflected reality) - “I didn’t use any of the code!” Well, no - he was hired to write the code but ran off with the idea instead.

Is it illegal to steal an idea? No.  Is it ethical? In social sciences especially at the PhD level where anyone with an idea and a computer can now generate a thesis it is not unusual to see players in the fields trade accusations of stealing ideas. Likewise, any good coder can take an idea and turn it into a product just as any good graduate student or researcher can take an idea and turn it into a research paper. A person with an idea but without the skills flails just as much as a person with the skills but without the idea. Moreover, it isn’t a sure thing that a person with both skills and idea (stolen or otherwise) can generate a good or commercially or academically successful product.

Facebook was and perhaps still is not guaranteed to be a commercial success although it has without doubt become an investment success for the founders and early believers. In this movie I saw how ideas can become like a lottery for those with both skills and idea just as skilled inventors with patents can turn the intellectual property and legal system into a lottery by generating patents either to see if anything sticks or to be able sue someone for patent violation.

My discomfort lies in the appearance to me that there is very little to distinguish between what Zuckerberg did to the many patents out there that can be modified upon and turned into successful products. For instance, someone could look at the different patents out there and possibly turn one of the languishing ones into a better product. Even though he did not use any of the elements in the patent he could still be liable for patent infringement. Note that this isn’t the same as independent inventions. It could be something like an R&D race or leapfrogging of technology or even a simple improvement. For instance, could James Watt today have improved on the existing steam engine and not run afoul of IP laws?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Is the supply of MP3s infinitely elastic?

This came up when Sony raised the prices of Whitney Houston’s records. Economists used to attribute sudden price hikes as an increase demand responding to a relatively inelastic short-run supply curve. They make this argument to justify price increases in gasoline during hurricanes or other disasters. They have also made this argument to argue that prices of roses increase during Valentine’s for the same reason.

While the same argument can apply to CDs, how or why should it apply to downloads? it shouldn’t.

Sony has apologized for bumping up the price of two Whitney Houston records in the United Kingdom immediately following the singer's death on Saturday. "Whitney Houston product was mistakenly mispriced on the U.K. iTunes store on Sunday," said a statement issued by Sony. "When discovered, the mistake was immediately corrected. We apologize for any offense caused."

“Mispriced” my ass.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What's wrong with buying CDs online

Alexis Madrigal seems to be dissing those who still buy CDs - his main beef - buying CDs online:

I do not understand them at all. Perhaps they are audiophiles who value the tiny difference between CD-quality and near-CD quality. Or perhaps they have dial-up modems that make downloading music difficult.

I just bought two Adele CDs - the prices of each were the same as the price of the album download. I neither have DSL nor dial-up modem. But he may still be right - I may be behind in the times - favoring old technology over new technology because now I have to spend time ripping them. And yes - I have yet to buy MP3s.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A statement toward the understanding of economists

Betsey Stevenson elucidates on what makes some economists successful:

“My confidence had been so eroded that I was the one saying, ‘Well, maybe this ...’ But you can’t exist in economics that way,” she said. “It’s not a profession that rewards modesty in any way.”

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Revolution STEM

One line of attack on college education has been on what students have majored in while in college. In particular, this line of attack is that students have not made the ‘right’ choice in their major, making ‘softer’ choices rather than the sciences. There is no doubt that majoring in sciences is hard. Nor is there a reason to believe that we should abolish majors with high unemployment rates.

Virginia Postrel takes on those who trumpet STEM fields as the solution to the woes of our society. She may be on to something - think about all the revolutions that have come and gone in the past. Whom have the ruling regime feared most? I would not be too far off if I said that philosophers, artists, writers, musicians are the ones who inspire the population most and whom authoritarian regimes fear the most.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Things I don’t understand

  1. The Great Gatsby Curve: Looks like a straight line to me.
  2. Tablet: How did the iPad and similar devices end up being labeled a tablet? To me, this had always been a tablet. Or this.

Technology and our discontents

The NYT article/series on the iEconomy and Apple in particular more than anything else illustrates the tension in our society. It could be the wake up call for the industry in the same way that shoe and clothing manufacturers like Nike, Gap and others as well as its consumers were made aware of the human price of consuming these goods.

The tension is that we want great stuff and we want them cheap. From the NYT article (emphasis mine):

Some former Apple executives say there is an unresolved tension within the company: executives want to improve conditions within factories, but that dedication falters when it conflicts with crucial supplier relationships or the fast delivery of new products. Tuesday, Apple reported one of the most lucrative quarters of any corporation in history, with $13.06 billion in profits on $46.3 billion in sales. Its sales would have been even higher, executives said, if overseas factories had been able to produce more.

Executives at other corporations report similar internal pressures. This system may not be pretty, they argue, but a radical overhaul would slow innovation. Customers want amazing new electronics delivered every year.        

Is this really the case? I may be willing to invest/spend a little more on a gadget if I knew it won’t be defunct the moment I walked out the door. But the moment a cheaper alternative appears … And economists would marvel at this statement because they would say that this is how market forces are supposed to work. If firms could make a cheaper product, they would - and then they would also try to persuade us to buy it - by advertising. Wal-Mart, Target and various discount outlets all try differentiate themselves and their products with low-prices as pointed out in this NPR story.

Moreover as the NPR story shows, despite the publicity on Gap and Nike it isn’t clear that large gains have been made on the aggregate in terms of making working conditions better. There are many manufacturers and many brands and labels that we pick up off the shelf that are probably made under harsher working conditions -than those in Gap or Apple factories.

The comments from Chinese readers of the article were more nuanced than I expected. They did not rail against Apple or the West or capitalism but acknowledged that it was a difficult problem. One hoped for an acceleration of industrialization so that China moved up the value added supply chain so that the next country to supply low-cost workers would be those in Africa.

It seems ironic that in order to make cheap and even spectacular electronics we are relying on work conditions that can be described (by me) as Dickensian. Is it possible then that improvements in technology and the advance of the world production possibility frontier is made possible by more by intensive use of labor than the application of new technologies? If the tablet is not an advancement of the PPF then is it merely a toy and if it is a toy then it should be produced in toy factory like conditions?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Learning foreign languages

An interesting and stimulating essay by Larry Summers sparked a debate on the value of learning a second language. I’m undecided on the value of a 2nd and even a 3rd language. Both K1 and K2 are learning French (and have been since kindergarten) and recently K1 took up Mandarin Chinese in 6th grade. Supporters of a second language claim all kinds of benefits - from improved test scores to being more attractive to the opposite sex. One of the reasons that Summers may have said that is because technological advances may have made foreign language acquisition moot. Unfortunately, it has not - as Google Translate so aptly demonstrated while trying to speak Italian.