“Blow up the Times Op-Ed page, and start again”

From Alex Pareene at Salon, the tragedy of the New York Times is its terrible opinion section.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not as bad at the Washington Post’s opinion section, but the Times — specifically its slate of regular columnists — is bad. And that badness matters. The president and most of the sane members of Congress care what the Times and its opinion-makers say. The opinions of these columnists have consequences. But most of them don’t write like people who ought to be entrusted with that responsibility.

To which I can only say +1.

The CIA guide to sabotage

From the CIA archives:

This classified booklet described ways to sabotage the US’ World War II enemies. Many of the sabotage instructions guide ordinary citizens, who may not have agree with their country’s wartime policies towards the US, to destabilize their governments by taking disruptive actions…

  1. Managers and Supervisors: To lower morale and production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.

  2. Employees: Work slowly. Think of ways to increase the number of movements needed to do your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one; try to make a small wrench do instead of a big one.

  3. Organizations and Conferences: When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.

Hat tip to SN.

This sounds like the United Nations. Coincidence?

Read the original manual.

The first control trial?

Apparently the first reference to comparing treatment and control groups is in the Book of Daniel in the bible, where King Nebuchadnezzar orders his people to eat only meat and drink only wine (for their health). When some object, he allows them to eat only legumes and drink only water for 10 days, after which he compares their health to the “control” group of meat-eaters. They do better, so he allows them to continue their diet. Note, however, the lack of randomization and hence the possibility of a strong selection effect. The king appears to implicitly understand this, since he does not order everyone to switch to the new diet.

 Via Julian Jamison.

Bleg: In the event you live in Geneva or Brussels or Nairobi

Since our daycare closes for 6 weeks this summer starting (don’t get me started) we are thinking of relocating to Brussels, Geneva, or Nairobi. Jeannie’s organization (IRC) has headquarters there, and I can plug away on papers from anywhere. And (in two of the three) work on my miserable French.

Here’s where the bleg comes in. We’re thinking July 28 to Aug 29 or even Sept 5. I figured there’s a small chance:

  • You live in one of these cities or know people that do
  • You or they might like to swap places. We have a lovely 2-bedroom (3 if you count a den) in Manhattan that can sleep 4-6.
  • Failing that, you have a place to rent a blogger and his lovable brood
  • In any of these cases, you know the perfect babysitter or nanny or daycare in either city (crucial to me plugging away on those papers)

Any other advice or thoughts on the cities welcome.

Unfortunately circumstances tie us to these three cities and so no substitutes. Though if you want to rent an apartment for August in New York, let me know.

I can be emailed at the usual spot.

Why am I an anti-Chapterite?

The most common comment on yesterday’s advice post for assistant professors: “I agree with everything except the tirade against book chapters.”

Let me say why I’m surprised, and ask for clarification.

  • Many people said “book chapters benefit me”. This is true. So does anything we do in our workday. The right question is “as opposed to what?” There is an opportunity cost to a book chapter. If you feel your scarcest resource is time, then shouldn’t you spend time on the projects that have the most net impact on your career and discipline?
  • If the answer is “I do! The marginal cost of a book chapter is lower than sending the same article to a peer reviewed journal, and the marginal benefit is about the same,” then (a) fair enough, but (b) I’m surprised, and (c) I suspect that times are changing. One reason being…
  • Unless you’re willing to buck copyright and post the chapter on your website (few people do) then a book chapter banishes most people from ever reading what you write–even other scholars. This is 2014. If your work isn’t accessible through a click or two on Google, it’s passed by more often than not.
  • Ergo, even if tenure practices in your department means that the private marginal benefit of a book chapter is high, the public one is low.

In sum: I fail to understand how edited volumes are a 21st century venue for knowledge.

On reflection, perhaps the solution is to make edited volumes more like online journals. Once again, however, we bash up against the fact that the academic publishers are still wallowing in 1965.

As an aside, it’s amazing to me that in just a year or two most academic blog conversations have shifted to Twitter. It’s more amazing to me that reasonable discourse actually happens in 140 characters. Of course, anything that stops academics from using 500 words where 30 will do might be a good thing.

Advice for new Assistant Professors

It’s a bit early for me to be giving advice (I’m only on the cusp of non-Assistant status), but I found myself asked for advice the other night by a table full of newly minted PhDs on to their first academic jobs. I also give advice, unasked, to my graduating students.

So, early or not, here’s what I passed on. Mainly of relevance, I suspect, to economists and political scientists.

  1. Learn to say no to new projects. Opportunities will start crossing your desk faster than you expect. It’s tempting to take the first ones, even though they’re likely the worst. There’s a big opportunity cost here: every project you take on now crowds out a potentially better one in a year or two.
  2. Have a higher bar for projects with big exit costs. It’s one thing to start a historical data collection project or a new theoretical model. You can always stick it in a file drawer if it goes poorly. But if you commit to a field experiment or a project with an eminent person, you are stuck with it to the bitter end. Make sure they are worth it.
  3. Book chapters and reviews are a waste of time. David Romer told us this in my first macroeconomics class, and I have come to agree. Few people read these, especially when they are buried in a $200 book no library buys. Unless you’re invited to do a Handbook chapter or an especially high profile book, it’s almost always better to put your article in a field journal. If it doesn’t merit publication in a decent field journal, probably it’s crowding out something more important to you and the world.
  4. Get your dissertation papers or book out. I see so many people too busy starting new projects to finish the old ones. This is the kiss of tenure death. Send menuscipts out soon after the job market, and make revisions your first priority when they come back.
  5. Seek out mentorship. Ask your dissertation committee and colleagues in your new department to read your abstracts and introduction, and strategize about framing, titles, and generally how to sell your work to a general audience. This is an art that takes years to learn, and personal advice can make a big difference in where you publish your early work.

A word of caution: almost all professional advice is either “here’s the mistakes I made” or “how to be more like me” in disguise. In this instance, it’s more of the former than latter.

For someone with real experience, you should read Greg Mankiw’s advice. I agree with all, except for “do not start a blog”, as “that will only establish your lack of seriousness as a scholar”. This may have been good advice in 2007 (when I defied the advice to start this website). Maybe it is good advice still and I don’t realize it yet. But here’s my estimate of the impacts so far:

  • Blogging has made me a better writer
  • It has meant I and my papers are much better known and cited by colleagues than otherwise
  • Opportunities cross my desk more often than otherwise
  • And, maybe most of all, I hold this blog almost directly responsible for several million dollars in research and program funding so far (paying for a lot of serious scholarly stuff). This number is exaggerated by the fact that I typically need to raise large sums for interventions as well as the research, but the basic point holds–for me blogging has (unexpectedly) paid back a hundredfold in scholarly work.

Yes there are costs and risks, but I think social media is too important for young academics to ignore. Accordingly:

  1. If you want to tweet or blog under your research name, be serious. Let your research interests influence your blogging. Become a professional resource for people in your subfield. Be constructive and thoughtful not critical, and never use social media to attack colleagues. This will be a public good that pays back privately.

Colleagues: please add your advice below.

“he flourished his sword, I pulled out my gun and shot him, and then we went back to England”

Harrison Ford does an “Ask me anything”

We were shooting in Tunisia, and the script had a scene in which I fight a swordsman, an expert swordsman, it was meant to be the ultimate duel between sword and whip. And I was suffering from dysentery, really, found it inconvenient to be out of my trailer for more than 10 minutes at a time.

We’d done a brief rehearsal of the scene the night before we were meant to shoot it, and both Steve and I realized it would take 2 or 3 days to shoot this. And it was the last thing we were meant to shoot in Tunisia before we left to shoot in England. And the scene before this in the film included a whip fight against 5 bad guys that were trying to kidnap Marian, so I thought it was a bit redundant.

I was puzzling how to get out of this 3 days of shooting, so when I got to set I proposed to Steven that we just shoot the son a bitch and Steve said “I was thinking that as well.”

So he drew his sword, the poor guy was a wonderful British stuntman who had practiced his sword skills for months in order to do this job, and was quite surprised by the idea that we would dispatch him in 5 minutes. But he flourished his sword, I pulled out my gun and shot him, and then we went back to England.

Things all academics fear?

That somebody powerful might actually use their research. From the NY Times, an example from a warlord in South Sudan:

Mr. Machar is plotting the offensive on the oil fields from a hide-out in Upper Nile State. It is a quiet outpost, save the incessant chirping of birds, and the former vice president keeps company with a small team of bodyguards. He has a satellite phone and a shiny touch-screen tablet in a battered brown case, and in his free time he is working through a paperback copy of “Why Nations Fail.”

I don’t lie awake at night worried someone important will read my research papers. I mean, who would? But I do live in terror that someone important will one day take my idle blog posts seriously.

Papers I liked

All strike me as important new papers in the political economy of development (and also conflict).

  1. Democracy reduces ethnic favoritism in Kenya
  2. The nondemocratic hangover faced by new democracies: local officials
  3. A theory of warfare using network analysis (applied to the “Great War of Africa”)
  4. Poverty rises crime rates in India (you’d be surprised how little prior evidence there is for this claim)
  5. Is political power centralized and personalized in Africa? The “no” argument

Shipping marvels, Turkish infighting, and Ugandan skullduggery

Imagine the Empire State Building. Now imagine tipping it on its side, nudging it into the Hudson, and putting out to sea. That was the scale of thing I contemplated one day in late November, as I gaped at the immense navy hull of CMA CGM Christophe Colomb, one of the world’s largest container ships, which stretched above and out of sight on either side of me, on a quayside in Hong Kong.

A surprisingly fascinating article on shipping.

Also interesting in that NYRB issue are articles on internal battles in Turkey (good for the ignorant, like me) and a rather frightening article on assassination of opposition figures in Uganda. The latter is more insinuation than evidence, though. Hard to believe the NYRB would have published something without much depth or evidence if it were about an American or European politician,

Vegetarians are more cancerous, allergic, and insane?

Our results revealed that a vegetarian diet is related to a lower BMI and less frequent alcohol consumption. Moreover, our results showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life.

A new study in PLOS One. It matches 1320 Austrians of different diets according to their age, sex, and socioeconomic status. This is a rather crappy matching strategy, just waiting for an irate vegetarian economist to tear it apart. I suspect the true results are quite different. Nonetheless, food for thought. [Insert groan here]

 

Links I liked

  1. “A recent study has shown that if American parents read one more long-form think piece about parenting they will go fucking ape shit.”
  2. LOLthesis: Summing up your thesis in one sentence
  3. What was presented at the Pacific Development Conference
  4. Are representative observational studies better or worse than unrepresentative experiments?
  5. Harvard discovers three library books bound in human skin. Hypothesis: these are the only three students in Harvard history to receive less than a B+ average.
  6. Why the Netflix Instant movie selection is so crappy, explained

Links I liked

  1. Russ Roberts interviews Jeff Sachs, and it gets both interesting and a little scrappy. I found the discussion and comments fascinating. But maybe it’s all inside baseball and I’ve lost perspective.
  2. Will Monopoly change game rules to how we actually play? (I had no idea the auction option existed)
  3. Jimmy Carter assumes the NSA reads his email, and only sends important correspondence by post. A year ago he would have been paranoid. Today he is prescient.

 

The silliness of the science of sleep

A review of one of the new sleep books says it’s “for sleep strivers,” which is, when you step back from it, one of the most insane phrases ever written.

A great article in the NY Times Magazine.

My boyfriend, a South African, was completely disgusted. “You Americans don’t know how to rest,” he said. “You rest only to work better.”

 

Bleg: Someone please explain to me why I should accept that the annexation of Crimea is a terrible thing

I’m ignorant of many facts, and am completely willing to be persuaded. But here’s my train of thought and source of skepticism:

  • I supported the independence movements in South Sudan and Kosovo. I think that there are cases where self-determination (which could include voluntary annexation) is a reasonable option. Especially if it can be decided through the most democratic and due process possible under the circumstances.
  • If I understand correctly, Crimea was historically a part of Russia, and an autocrat transferred Crimea to Ukraine a half century ago, and so the people who live there have some basis to protest being part of Ukraine today, if they do so.
  • The referendum was a farce, of course. But the world was so quick to condemn Russia’s moves and a process for self-determination that it’s hard to believe a transparent, democratic referendum with due process and a real choice between staying and going would have been possible. Some people undoubtedly proposed such a process, but it would it seem like a credible pledge if you are Crimea or Russia?
  • Also, is it the case that, if there were a democratic and due process, many people would predict roughly the same outcome?
  • So right away this looks to me like a complicated issue that people who supported Kosovo and South Sudan ought to be conflicted about. Or anyone who lives in the US, who annexed Texas long ago.
  • Lo and behold, the vast majority of articles and op-eds appear confident, indignant, and untroubled. They know who is right and who is wrong. This should always make you suspicious.
  • I can’t escape the feeling that, if Crimea were part of Russia, and a democratic Ukraine just gave Crimea its independence, most of the people denouncing Russia now would be celebrating Ukraine for the same actions.
  • In sum: if you are friendly to Russia you like the move, and if you are not you dislike it. It looks to me more like a simple case of us versus them rather than the tricky path to the least bad answer. At the end of the day, we trumpet international law when others break it but not when we or our allies break it.

I wonder if the tepid response by the Obama administration is testament to the fact that they, unlike the pundits, are likewise conflicted about whether this is so bad it’s worth an economic and diplomatic battle.

Let my education commence?

Study: “Touching men’s boxer shorts makes women crave monetary awards”

My nomination for the Ig Nobel prize:

Similar to the effect found in men, the first study demonstrates that touching a pair of boxer shorts leads to a craving for monetary rewards in women.

In the second study it is shown that touching a pair of boxers makes women less loss averse for both money and food.

The third study explicitly focuses on the relative effectiveness of tactile versus visual sexual cues in altering women’s economic decisions, and reveals that women’s willingness-to-pay for economic rewards increases only when the sexual cue is tactile.

We suggest that touching (vs. seeing) sexually laden stimuli prompts pre-programmed consummatory Pavlovian responses that promote approaching economic rewards.

Paper here.

I am having conflicting feelings about science at the moment.