Saturday, June 30, 2012

How much do institutions matter

According to Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail (disclaimer - I’m going only by the book blurb and my previous reading of their papers), much of the failure can be attributed to institutions. While there is no doubt that institutions matter, the question is how much do they matter?

Jared Diamond writes a good review:
While institutions are undoubtedly part of the explanation, they leave much unexplained: some of those richer temperate countries are notorious for their histories of bad institutions (think of Algeria, Argentina, Egypt, and Libya), while some of the tropical countries (e.g., Costa Rica and Tanzania) have had relatively more honest governments.

Here are some other thoughts:
Consider the following tropical countries: Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Philippines. Acemoglu et. al.’s previous work would indicates that these tropical locations would have similar rates of mortality from malaria and hence the colonial experiences would be similar in terms of the type of institutions that were set up. Their data set does not have Philippines and Malaysia and Singapore share the same mortality rate although the rate for Indonesia is 10 times the rate for Malaysia. (Why?  David Albouy notes that this is because there was a war in Indonesia.)

My prior would be that these mortality rates from disease would be fairly similar and that the data point for Indonesia is conflated by war - and assuming that they were, then these countries should all have the similar growth experiences. Yet they don’t. The obvious difference is Malaysia vs. Singapore - but the Philippines (colonized first by the Spanish and then the Americans) and Indonesia (by the Dutch) also have had different experiences.

The counterpoint to this would be that it is institutions just not the classification that Acemoglu et. al. assigns (i.e. extractive versus stable) and that would be cultural differences i.e. British vs. Dutch vs. Spanish. Of course this comparison could also mean that the Dutch and Spanish were more extractive in nature compared to the British.

Friday, June 29, 2012

What RCTs can reveal

From the NBER WP:
Up in Smoke: The Influence of Household Behavior on the Long-Run Impact of Improved Cooking Stoves by Rema Hanna, Esther Duflo, Michael Greenstone

It is conventional wisdom that it is possible to reduce exposure to indoor air pollution, improve health outcomes, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions in the rural areas of developing countries through the adoption of improved cooking stoves. This belief is largely supported by observational field studies and engineering or laboratory experiments. However, we provide new evidence, from a randomized control trial conducted in rural Orissa, India (one of the poorest places in India), on the benefits of a commonly used improved stove that laboratory tests showed to reduce indoor air pollution and require less fuel. We track households for up to four years after they received the stove. While we find a meaningful reduction in smoke inhalation in the first year, there is no effect over longer time horizons. We find no evidence of improvements in lung functioning or health and there is no change in fuel consumption (and presumably greenhouse gas emissions). The difference between the laboratory and field findings appear to result from households’ revealed low valuation of the stoves. Households failed to use the stoves regularly or appropriately, did not make the necessary investments to maintain them properly, and usage rates ultimately declined further over time. More broadly, this study underscores the need to test environmental and health technologies in real-world settings where behavior may temper impacts, and to test them over a long enough horizon to understand how this behavioral effect evolves over time.

An incredible amount of work went into this in terms of data collection.
Forcing technological adoption when the population isn’t ready for it will not lead to any measurable impact.

Monday, June 18, 2012

What do computer science majors learn

I’ve been working as a SAS programmer for almost 20 years even though I was not a CS major. (I was a BA and PhD in economics.) Perusing some computer science course websites over the years I have been surprised at the following:
  1. There appears to be very little programming. The main decision an instructor has to make is whether to pick C++ or Java.
  2. There appears to be a lot on algorithms, complexity, P=NP, etc. and applying programming to them.
  3. There appears to be some concentration on applying programming to problem solving not related to algorithms e.g. databases.

From an outsider’s perspective this seems to imply that CS majors learn very little in terms of practical programming in the job market:
  1. Making code efficient and readable is more or less left to company/industry standards. Perhaps this is understandable due to the fact that different industries/companies use different languages.
  2. Software requirements gathering is an art to be learned as you go along even though getting this information is almost an important as coding.
  3. There is very little being taught or introduced in terms of software project management (not the budgeting etc.) but the cycle through which a software product is created - requirements, specifications, prototyping, change management, etc.
  4. Working in teams e.g. eXtreme programming, etc.

Reading Ed Yourdon’s Decline and Fall of the American Programmer, I was surprised at how much the above matters but doesn’t seem to be taught or even introduced. The CS curriculum in college seems to be targeted toward finding the innovative and creative spark that can develop something new whereas the nitty gritty things that many data processing projects require are left to companies to pick up. Companies almost have to retrain CS majors. Perhaps vocational schools and community colleges teach this nitty grity but I doubt it. It is not surprising then that programmers who come out of college seem so unprepared in the real world. Thus  There may be a role for an industry sponsored CS curriculum that targets these details.

There aren’t that many who are going to be the ones to come up with a new algorithm or a new software product but perhaps it is because we think we might be the one who will come up with the next Windows or Java or Facebook that we ignore the boring institutional details. The romance and excitement of two or three guys coding like hell on little to no-sleep, surviving on Red Bull and stale pizza is so ingrained in us that we think that this is the nom. Perhaps this is why most software projects adopt a code like hell approach almost by default.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Teaching programming in middle school

One the things K1 will need next year is a TI-84 calculator. This calculator retails for $140, $99 at Amazon for now without shipping. At a time when many kids have computers (at home) which come with Microsoft Excel as well as a plethora of freely available software such as R, Python, Scilab, etc. (OpenOffice is also a free spreadsheet program.) I wonder about the utility of such a pricey calculator.

The only advantage that I can see is that students are able to bring with them into an exam hall. At a time when programming skills seem to be gaining importance and it is possiblel that even college graduates in economics don’t know how to use Excel, it seems questionable for schools in general to adopt a math curriculum that adheres to the use of such an archaic instrument.

I find it the whole middle school math curriculum where she’s at (it’s the IB math curriculum) decidedly backward. Even when graphs and plots are taught there is very little hands on use of software to explore lines and curves. (Graph paper is fine for the beginning, but after awhile it just gets tedious - and that’s what computers are for.)

How hard is it to teach programming at the middle school level? I have no doubt that the concepts are hard - which is why an early introduction even to Excel and VBA is essential. Alice is one organization that is trying to make programming teachable at the high school level. Storytelling Alice is an option for the middle school level but doesn’t seem to have made much inroads.

In general, I am disappointed not only in the math curriculum but in the way programming instruction is being taught at the high school level.

Update: Duke University has some nice Alice teaching material.

A more reasonable statement of climate change uncertainty

From the same magazine that drew my contempt:

The main uncertainties involve what might happen as carbon-dioxide levels reach 450 ppm and above. In particular, the question is how and when “positive feedback” loops would kick in, so that the hotter things get, the faster they will get even hotter. …
“The reality of it is that in many cases, there may not be any fixed threshold for ‘irreversible’ change,” Michael Mann told me. “What we have with rising CO2 levels in general is a dramatically increasing probability of serious and deleterious change in our climate.” He went down the list: more frequent, severe, and sustained heat waves, like those that affected Russia and the United States this summer; more frequent and destructive hurricanes and floods; more frequent droughts, like the “thousand-year drought” that has devastated Australian agriculture; and altered patterns of the El NiƱo phenomenon, which will change rainfall patterns in the Americas. In other cases, he said, there could be important thresholds. For example, the possibility of dramatic rises in ocean levels, which could affect the habitability of New York, London, Shanghai, Miami, the entire Netherlands, and many other modern conurbations, along with coastal areas in India, Bangladesh, and elsewhere. “It would be nice to know where such thresholds are so we can avoid crossing them,” Mann said. “We can’t know that. What we do know for certain is that with each fraction of a degree of warming, the probability of such potentially catastrophic outcomes goes up.”

Thursday, June 14, 2012

When skepticism is stupid

Among intelligent nonexperts who have weighed in on climate change, Freeman Dyson has become, now that Michael Crichton is dead, perhaps our most prominent global-warming skeptic. Charlie Rose began his interview with questions about the climate. Dyson answered that he remained very skeptical about the dangers of global warming. He did not believe the pronouncements of the experts. He did not claim to be an expert himself, so he would not argue the details with anybody; he had not given much time to the issue and did not pretend to know the real answers, but what he knew for sure was that the global-warming experts did not know the answers, either.

Dyson did not deny that the world was getting warmer. What he doubted was the models of the climatologists, and the grave consequences they predicted, and the supposition that global warming is bad. “I went to Greenland myself, where the warming is most extreme,” he said. “And it’s quite spectacular, of course, what you see in Greenland. But what is also true is, the people there love it. The people there hope it continues. It makes their lives a lot more pleasant.”

Dyson argued that melting ice and the resulting sea-level rise is no cause for alarm. He said that the release of increasing volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is a very good thing, as it makes plants grow better. The important thing to remember, he said, is that the planet is warming mainly in places that are cold, and at night rather than during the day, so that the phenomenon is essentially making the climate more even, rather than just making everything hotter.

“Have we been kind to the planet?” Rose asked at one point.

“Yes. I would say, on the whole, yes.”

When Rose expressed surprise at this answer, the physicist backtracked slightly.

“No, the fact is, of course, we’ve done a lot of damage to the planet, but we also repair the damage. I grew up in England, and England was far more filthy then than it is now. We had the industrial revolution first, so England was much more polluted than the United States ever has been, and England now is quite comparatively clean. You can go to London and your collar doesn’t get black in one day.”

The question that phrases itself now, in the minds of many, is: how could someone as smart as Freeman Dyson be so dumb?

This is from the Atlantic. Read the rest for a perspective on what the author thinks. The author points out that Dyson is wrong in the claims that he makes on carbon dioxide being good for plants, as well as the fact that the planet is better off. No disagreement from me here. However, he makes no pronouncements on whether it is good to inject some skepticism of models of sea level rises.

The author’s tone reminds me of the time of the run-up to the Iraq war. The experts declared that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Any disagreement with the experts and the Bush regime was prima facie evidence of disloyalty and stupidity. The author appeals to the same one percent doctrine of Dick Cheney. If there is even one percent probability that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction we should invade Iraq and render the country impotent. In the author’s case, we should expend all our resources on reversing the effects of climate change especially when there is a one percent chance of catastrophe. Anyone who disagrees with this statement is putting the world in mortal danger through his stupidity.

For all the diatribe against financial models and its failures as well as its role in the collapse of the economy, it would seem that we should be viewing expert models of climate change with a healthy grain of skepticism - yet any skepticism is labeled as dumb as though skepticism cannot possibly be allowed in the discussion.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Subjects and skills

Noah Smith’s post (HT: MR) on what students actually gain from college is a reminder that not all acquired skills are necessarily related to subject matter or academics. His list is the following:

1) Motivation,
2) Perspective, and
3) Human networks

I’m not in full agreement with his analysis except perhaps for #3 but it served as a reminder that in my post that learning classical music seems to take all the fun out of learning music - it’s not necessarily about the music. M claims that learning the notes and to play teachers perseverance and discipline. Someone else claimed that if nothing, all the recitals that one has to go through teaches confidence through public appearances.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Petula Dvorak, Jerry Sandusky and me

I can imagine only standing by and watching - part of the conspiracy of silence. It is easy to think that I would have done the ‘right thing’ but it’s hard for me to know what I would have done.

The article in the New York Times about sexual abuse at the Horace Mann School reminded me of how easy it is to turn away from something that is unfolding right before your eyes. In a reminder that real victim of all kinds of crime is trust, the author has this quote:

“It’s counterintuitive, but sexual abuse emotionally binds the child closer to the person who has harmed him, setting him up for a life plagued by suspicion and confusion, because he will never be sure who he can really trust. And in my experience, this is by far the worst consequence of sexual abuse.”

What would I have done if I had witnessed something inappropriate as some had seen Jerry Sandusky do? Would I have thought - ‘Hey! That’s borderline sexual abuse. I have to stop this guy.’ Or would I have gone the route of Joe Paterno - report it and then assume that I had done my duty.

It was therefore difficult to read about this local crime and ask whether I might have done the right thing if I had been there. Here’s Petula Dvorak:

Geniuses working at the Apple store in Bethesda heard bone-chilling screams, grunts and thuds coming from the Lululemon Athletica shop next door to them one night last March. The manager even got another employee to walk over to the wall and listen for a while, just to assure her that, no, she wasn’t just hearing things.

In case you want to think they demurred, red-faced, after realizing what they’d heard was after-hours loveplay or iron-yoga poses, the Apple store manager testified that unnatural human sounds were accompanied by a woman saying: “God help me. Please help me,” and “Talk to me. Don’t do this.”

Still not sure something bizarre is going on?

The Apple store manager, Jana Svrzo, told police: “I heard someone say, ‘Stop, stop, stop.’ And then, ‘Oh God, stop.’ ”

Hmm. What to do when you hear something like this?

If it were the reasonable, civilized society we believe that we occupy, the store employees would call 911 and tell the dispatcher that, maybe they’re being silly, but they are hearing something unusual next door that police might want to check it out.

Instead what they did was nothing. Nothing at all.

The noises on the night of March 11 came from a horrific killing. Svrzo and her co-worker were listening to Jayna Murray, who worked at Lululemon, suffer 322 wounds. The sounds were hammer, knife, wrench, rope and metal bars making contact with a human being.

Or consider this item:

The kidnapping and death of Barbara J. “Bobbie” Bosworth from the Springfield Mall in 2008 was one of the most horrific crimes in this region in recent memory. An innocent woman walking to her car on a Saturday afternoon was abducted at gunpoint, driven to Prince William County, forced into a convenience store to buy beer for her teenage attackers, and then killed when they crashed her car into a tree.

Customers in the PDQ Mart in Woodbridge said they pleaded with the store manager to call 911, or let them use his phone to call 911, because Bosworth was clearly in trouble. But during the 14 minutes Bosworth and the two teens were there, the store manager refused. The lawyer for the PDQ Mart did not return a call seeking comment.

What about this? 

A man pulls at a woman’s arm, calling loudly for her to come with him. She says ‘No!’ just as loudly. He tells her to do as he says. They’re both in their 20s or perhaps early 30s. Does a stranger walking by intervene?

I kept on walking.

It’s time to be afraid of not doing the right thing. It’s time to also believe that doing the wrong thing for the right reason is okay. At a time when we are more disconnected than ever from one another it is another reason to be in touch - even for total strangers.

Unfortunately in a society that lacks trust any attempt to do the right thing is met with mistrust - mistrust of motives, or fear of retaliation and lawsuits. This is the kind of society that we live in. Economists and sociologists laud the fact that countries that have the oxymoronic sounding ‘trust-enforcing’ institutions grow faster. But this same institution can turn around and slap you with a lawsuit just as quickly even though you may doing something (wrong?) for the right reason.

What is trust? The lesson is from BSG:
Lt. Sharon 'Athena' Agathon: How do you know? I mean, how do you really know that you can trust me?
Admiral William Adama: I don't. That's what trust is.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Some productivity pictures

I don’t quite know how to interpret the data on multifactor productivity. Data is from Census and I cherry picked the lines to plot:

Compared to agriculture and durable manufacturing, construction productivity had been falling even before the 2008 recession. I thought that perhaps it had fallen post recession. The picture for durable manufacturing is one I would have expected - a downturn in a recession.

The trend is up for these service industries although transportation was the only industry to experience a fall in MFP.

These service industries have not seen any overall trend in the improvement in productivity. Even the much maligned or vaunted finance industry seems to only have experienced marginal gains.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why were manufacturing jobs a ticket to the middle class but service jobs are not?

The loss of manufacturing jobs as a ticket to the middle class has been a constant lament not just lately but since the 1980s when the economic supremacy of the United States was threatened by Japan. An Economist survey of manufacturing (gated) showed that while this decline was temporarily arrested in the late 90s the share of workers in manufacturing has continued on a downward slide since 2000. (Chart reproduced below.)

Moreover, earnings in the manufacturing sector also tends to be higher. See reproduced chart from the Economist below.

What has been missing from the discussion has been the role service jobs play as a road to the middle class (if any). One exception is this presentation at an FRBSF conference. Kathryn Shaw, et. al. explore the possibility that employment provided by “Modern Retail” defined as high growth retail stores could provide a way for workers to gain higher future earnings. These stores include Abercrombie, Staples, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Cotsco, Starbucks and others. They emphasize that while wages are low, unlike traditional manufacturing, these stores provide opportunities in terms of promotion from within - unlike traditional manufacturing and small retail firms. They also identify medium sized retail establishments as those that are likely to match the returns to education provided by the traditional manufacturing sector. (Two of their slides are below.)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Inspiring science

One of the  often heard lamentations is the state of STEM in the US - that this country is not producing enough STEM graduates. (A previous post here.) The following chart shows the percentage of science and engineering degrees as a percentage of all bachelor degrees over time. From a high of 36% in the late 60s, the percentage has fallen to about 31% by 2008. (Data is from the NSF and was not available for 1999.)

It is unclear how meaningful the 4-5% decline is but the trend might be cause for worry. It may also be a coincidence but the percentage peaked around the time of the Apollo missions. The space race was capturing the imaginations of the public and there was perhaps a palpable sense that going into engineering and science really meant something. There has never been another era like that - even the successes of Apple and Google have not matched the same level excitement. The dot-com bubble merely demonstrated that you didn’t really need a STEM degree to get rich - an internet domain with .com was sufficient - as long as you cashed out before the bubble popped. (In all fairness, the proportion of S&E degrees began climbing in the 90s just prior to this bubble.)

As the NYT makes clear, majoring in S&E is hard. And it is no help that students feel pressured to get an A in a hard course. One finger to point to is the S&E curriculum itself. Perhaps because or in spite of distribution requirements, S&E departments feel pressured to separate the wheat from the chaff quickly. One way to do this is to have hard first-year classes so that the less able flunk out. Even though these students may be interested in S&E but are either unprepared or easily distracted, they are dumped by the education treadmill to find something else to do. The signal from the curriculum is - don’t even bother - you’re not going to cut it.

Ironically S&E should be a field that embraces failures. By sending a black and white signal like the above it advances the notion that S&E have clear-cut answers to everything. Has the field forgotten that advancement in science depends perhaps as much on patience, perseverance and trial error as ability?

Drug discovery is one field where there are more dead ends than there are successes (and perhaps there should be a better way.) For the most part, Thomas Edison was self-taught and a tinkerer. It took several years of experimentation with different materials before the optical waveguide reached commercial viability.

One of kids favorite shows is Design Squad. If any show captures the excitement and frustrations of actually building something, this show does it and does it exceptionally well. The kids are well prepared with all kinds of shop skills - welding, sheet-metal work, design - and are mentored by MIT graduate Nate Ball. Even with a lot of guidance, failure is always an option but with each failure come important lessons.

S&E in essence has forgotten its roots. The curriculum perhaps needs to be redesigned. Peer teaching and other mentoring approaches need to be introduced. No doubt about it in my mind. But even with this there will never be the level of interest in S&E as there was in the past. Sadly, the only kind of engineering that students are interested in these days are the financial kind.

And an even sadder statement from Jeff Hammerbacher, former research scientist at Facebook:  "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," ... "That sucks."