Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Once more, with dealing!

If anyone would like to see more extensive coverage of the card trick, including code for the simulation (and several extensions of the original trick), head on over to Tony's metrics blog.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Let them eat status

I am fascinated by this question: What portion of our evolutionary progress is driven by competition from other species, versus one's own species?

Clearly they're both important.  The peacock evolves to fly away from predators, but it also evolves a big showy tail to compete against other peacocks for the peahens' attention.  But often it's not so easy to separate out the forces.  I mean, why are we humans so smart?  Though it may seem like intelligence would be highly useful for outwitting predators, it's been theorized that our brains grew large primarily in competition to outwit each other, to navigate the complexities of human social interactions.

It's easy to look at the dominant civilization our intelligence has built, and conclude that intelligence confers a huge survival advantage over other animals.  But be careful!  Evolution happens largely at the level of the individual, not the collective.  And actually I think that historically the individual's return to intelligence must have been pretty low if we exclude its value in competing with other humans for relative status.  

The thing is, it takes much less intelligence to free-ride off of someone else's knowledge than to come up with it oneself.  The power we wield at any point in time is much more a function of the knowledge we've managed to accumulate as a society than our underlying super-smartness.  We're safe from lions because someone figured out how to make a spear, and now any dummy can copy the procedure.

Here's a simple model:  Imagine that at any point in our evolutionary path, we have some store of knowledge, and some baseline of intelligence that is able to put that knowledge to use.  If you're smarter, you add a little increment to the pot, which everyone subsequently gets to share.  Everyone levels up the same amount relative to the rest of the animals, but you also get additional esteem within human society for being such a smartypants.  

(According to this model, if you're a fan of modern society, then competition for relative status is something to be grateful for!  Without it, we'd have had considerably less reason to grow to our current state.)  

You might say: this model is too simple.  I mean, shouldn't intelligence also enable us to harness the store of knowledge more effectively?  Couldn't it be that once we have a big store of knowledge, being smarter confers a big advantage against the lions?

Sure.  The larger point, though, is this: we have considerably less incentive to be smart than we would if we internalized the full value to humanity of our smartness, a discrepancy which can be conveniently offset by our concerns for relative status.  If people are paid (in status or otherwise) by an amount commensurate with their additional value to society, we evolve as if we cared about social welfare.  It was not always the case that we had markets to handle that payment, and even today, status payments do a reasonable job of springing up whenever markets come up short.

Hmm, that's definitely not the original "larger point" I was planning to make, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  Perhaps we will get back on the original course some other time.

*

Sunday, May 29, 2011

You are here!

In case anyone's a little confused about the whole economonomics thing, I finally got around to adding an About This Blog page.

R matey!

Tony (my R matey) has written a simulation (in R of course) of my card trick from the other day. Go to his post for more detail, but here are some plots:


Pretty neat! You can see that starting from 10 different initial numbers, we quickly converge to just a few paths, and ultimately to the same path. However note that it sometimes takes longer than 1 deck of cards for complete convergence. For this reason, I often do this trick with two decks combined if I can.

But even if not, the odds are pretty decent that I'll guess the right card. On the one hand, you might think that when there are 2 paths remaining, I'm equally likely to be in the correct path as the incorrect path. Well, it's true that on average there are 5 initial numbers leading to each of these two paths, and I'm equally likely to have been in one set as the other set. But actually, whenever it's not split 5-and-5 I have a distinct advantage, because the goal is merely to be in the same path as the other person, and we're both more likely to be in the more likely path. For instance, if it happens that 8 initial numbers lead to 1 path and 2 numbers lead to the other, then the probability that we're in the same path is .8*.8+.2*.2=.68, much better than .5!

*
Speaking of R, you may enjoy this video of a horse named ARRRRR:


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Another card trick

If you liked yesterday's math card trick, you may enjoy this one too, which Jeff Ely just linked over at Cheap Talk.

I enjoy cracking these tricks, and I encourage you to figure this one out before reading further.

*

OK, here goes. For the record, this was a "1-viewing" trick in my book, whereas yesterday's took me much longer to figure out. (But, you know, I do a lot of this stuff, at least compared to other non-magicians). Today's trick turns on exactly two things. First, you should not be fooled by all the cutting and reassembling of the deck at the beginning of the trick. If you pay attention, the number of cards under each of the 3 aces in the reassembled deck is not altered by the show of cutting and reassembling. (The sequence of moves is equivalent to putting one ace on top of each pile and then stacking the piles). So in fact the position of the aces in the deck is completely and unambiguously determined.

Now that we know the position of the aces in the deck, we could iterate on paper and show that they will survive the up-down-up-down procedure. But that's arithmetic, not problem solving. As problem solvers, we complete our analysis by noting that the up-down-up-down sequence is completely deterministic. It will always result in 3 undiscarded cards, always corresponding to the same positions in the original deck. So to get the 3 aces at the end, all we have to do is put them in the right places at the beginning, whatever those places may be. Since the placement was arbitrary -- set by the magician at the outset -- this dissolves all mystery and completely solves the problem.

*

Theory versus empirics, once more. The guy in the video evidently knows that this sequence of moves works empirically, but says he has no idea of the underlying theory. He is baffled. And while he can still do the trick, he had to learn a bunch of "arbitrary" steps just right (particularly in the cutting and reassembly). On the other hand, forcing the steps to be consistent with an underlying theory significantly reduces the dimensionality of the information that must be known in order to reproduce the trick. Personally I can't imagine learning how to do this trick in advance of understanding how it works.

I suppose it's an obvious point, in its many forms. Even when an exam seems to test rote memorization -- say by requiring students to reproduce proofs they've seen before -- it is far easier to "memorize" things when you understand the underlying logic. So it can still separate people out on the basis of their understanding. (Of course there can also be a pooling equilibrium where everyone gets everything right, and so forth).

Friday, May 27, 2011

Empirics is naked without theory

Yesterday we saw that if you make your way through Wikipedia by repeatedly clicking the first (unitalicized or parenthetical) link of the current article, you will probably end up stuck in this cycle:
{philosophy, existence, senses, physiological, science, knowledge, facts, information, sequence, mathematics, quantity, property, modern philosophy, philosophy}

Today Kevin Stock provides some stats on Wikipedia links:

I wanted to know exactly how many articles would lead to Philosophy. Thanks to Wikipedia for providing complete archives I was able to parse through the latest complete dump which just finished this morning and generate stats on where most pages eventually lead, which is here as the percentage of pages which reach the given page (note that the pages tied at 93.39% form a loop):

93.39% Sense
93.39% Philosophy
93.39% Perception
93.39% Panpsychism
93.39% Mind
93.39% Existence
93.39% Consciousness
93.39% Awareness
89.60% Modern philosophy
89.60% Property (philosophy)
89.17% Quantity
89.15% Mathematics
84.78% Sequence
84.78% Information
83.72% Fact
83.72% Knowledge
78.66% Science
62.09% Natural science
32.73% Physics
28.74% Biology
23.98% Extant taxon
23.97% Human
19.05% Observable
19.05% Event
19.05% Causality
19.05% Interaction
19.05% Community
18.93% Academia
18.82% List of academic disciplines
17.72% Social sciences
15.18% State (polity)
10.08% Language

Interesting, Kevin!

*
By the way, these percentages would seem to be an empirical question. But here we see the value of theory vis-a-vis empirics. Because, we have a solid (in fact, ironclad) theory that says any article in the same loop as Philosophy must be arrived at from the same percentage of articles. Yet he estimates that Mathematics and Philosophy, for example, are not arrived at from the same number of articles. So (unless the link structure changed between the time of my post and his data), something is slightly wrong with his code.

We want our empirical estimates to satisfy the restrictions imposed by the theory. And when they don't, we know something's wrong in the data or code. And then we know to look harder at our data and code. What's more, the particular nature of the violation can give us a good idea of where to look.

(Of course more generally there is a give and take between theory and empirics. In economics the theories are never so ironclad...)


Q-tip: Paul Ho!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

All roads lead to science

We learn some Wikipedia trivia from the Alt-text of a recent xkcd:
If you take any article, click on the first link in the article text not in parentheses or italics, and then repeat, you will eventually end up at "Philosophy".
Try it! It seems to work pretty well.

Actually though, the natural thing to look for is not a particular article you "end up" at, but rather the loops you get stuck in -- "ergodic sets" -- when you follow this transition rule. A more complete statement would be that you'll eventually end up in the loop,
{philosophy, existence, senses, physiological, science, knowledge, facts, information, sequence, mathematics, quantity, property, modern philosophy, philosophy}
Once we're in this loop, all of the entries are obviously on equal footing; you don't "end up" at a particular one, you just go around and around. But an interesting question you could ask is where entry into the loop is likely to occur. And in my admittedly limited sampling, I found that most of the time we come to Science first (thereafter being trapped in an endless loop that, yes, happens to contain Philosophy). Starting from attemptedly-random entries like "lint roller," "bottled water," "james joyce", "schadenfreude," "Rubik's cube," "dancing," "magic eye," "47," my count was:


philosophy: 1
existence: 1
science: 8
mathematics: 1

If science is indeed the typical entry point, then note that if we were to shake things up a little at wikipedia so that this particular loop changed, the new loop would still contain science, but may or may not contain philosophy.

By the way, unsurprisingly this is not the only loop. Starting with "running," I discovered a 2-element loop between "trait" and "phenotypic character." There are surely many others.

*

This finding actually reminded me of one of my favorite card tricks, which I like because it makes a really nice and simple mathematical point. Of course it would be best if you saw it, but it's not so hard to explain:
  • I put a deck of cards down face up on the table. Meanwhile you think of a secret number between 1 and 10 -- for exposition let's say you pick 4.
  • One by one, I discard cards from the top of the deck. When we get to the 4th card -- and let's call it your special card -- you look at the number. For exposition, let's say your special card happens to be a 7. Then 7 secretly becomes your new number. Note that I don't know your special card.
  • I keep flipping cards, and 7 cards later, you have a new special card and number yet again. Note that I still don't know your special card.
  • This process continues -- me flipping cards at a constant rate, you secretly updating your special card and counting up to the next one -- until I decide to stop.
But I don't just stop on any card. I stop on your current special card. Which I'm not supposed to know.

Usually people are rather mystified by this, although maybe you can figure out how this trick is done (in fact I encourage you to try before continuing!), especially given what we've been talking about. In the interest of full disclosure, the trick doesn't work every time, but it does work most of the time, and the probability of it working goes to 1 as we make the deck of cards bigger.

*

Well then, here's how I do it. When you pick your secret number, I pick a secret number of my own. And while you're busy keeping track of your special cards, I'm keeping track of my special cards too. In fact I'm playing the same game as you. And while we have different starting points, and while our sequences of special cards are probably going to be wildly different at first, the simple and retrospectively obvious fact is that if at any point we should land on the same special card, our sequences will be the same for the rest of the deck. Our sequences only have to overlap at some point in order to end up in the same place. By the end of the deck, I have a pretty good chance of knowing your special card, because it is my special card too.

Oh and what if -- instead of ending at the 52nd card -- we restored the deck to its original state and continued the count, indefinitely? And what if each card had the name of another card written in the corner, which became our new special card (instead of counting up to the next one)? The same basic reasoning will still apply, and in fact this is qualitatively like the case of the Wikipedia links. But here the links are still random. Add even a modest amount of actual logic governing which cards link to other cards, and it's not at all surprising that we would usually end up in the same place. Add even more structure and the convergence will happen fast, even for a deck as large as Wikipedia.

Added (5/28/2011): I feel compelled to caution you against taking the analogy between the card trick and the Wikipedia links too seriously, which in retrospect I think I oversold. I would need to do more experiments and theorizing on both cards and Wikipedia, but it appears that the expected number of loops is quite sensitive to the particular transition rule chosen. If, for instance, you repeatedly click the second link on Wikipedia, you will likely find yourself quickly trapped in one of many insignificant loops.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Gift goats (HINT: Look them in the mouth!)

Caltech economist Jean Ensminger has spent many years studying African economies from inside and out. I met her when I visited Caltech a couple years ago, and she told me one really memorable story.

The story concerns a goat restocking program; donations were supposed to buy goats for poor villagers, to build their herd up to a self-sustaining size. Instead of going directly there, though, the money first went to a board of village members, who were to use their local knowledge to purchase the goats. And here's the breakdown of what they actually did:

Most of the money went straight into their pockets.

Most of the remaining money went into the pockets of high-ranking village members who were not on the board.

The remaining money did go to the poor villagers. In particular it went to buying them sick (and thus discounted) goats...

...which then got the original goats sick...

...and then there were no goats.

*

If I remember correctly, she estimates that upwards of 90% of charitable donations going into Africa end up in the wrong hands. But please check your condemnation at the door; these "privileged" board members are still the second-farthest thing from rich fatcats, and what would you have them do with their windfall? We can whine all day about how people should behave, or we can accept how they do behave and design institutions that take proper account of that behavior...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Catch and release

The Supreme Court is making California release a bunch of prisoners in order to ease the overcrowding in their prisons:
Conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons are so bad that they violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday, ordering the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates.
It appears this is about 20-25% of the current inmate population (!)

Economists have used just this sort of natural experiment before, as loyal economonomist Exogenous Combustion points out:

In the long term do we expect more free-ranging California criminals to come out of (a) the prisons, (b) the woodwork, or (c) other states?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

More Crosswordnomics

I said before:
If you're wondering, the NYT also pays the most for their puzzles, namely $200 for a daily puzzle and $1000 for a Sunday. Not necessarily a good hourly wage, but pretty good for a hobby that most of us would be doing for free anyway...
Loyal economonomist Exogenous Combustion wants to know if the pay is any more than an honorarium, a token payment for our services. Seeing as many people would do it for free (or even pay), and given the New York Times' position of dominance in the crossword world, we might expect that to be the end of the story...but actually, there's some interesting dynamics behind the pricing.

First of all, there actually has been some competition on the newspaper end. Indeed, a few years ago the New York Sun initiated a price war! Here's a quote from Peter Gordon, then-crossword-editor at the Sun:
The Times was paying $75 for a daily when The Sun started. We started at $90. The Times went to $90. The Sun went to $95. The Times went to $100. The Sun went to $101. The Times went to $135. The Sun went to $136. Then The Times went to $200, and I couldn’t match that...
When it launched in 2002, the Sun was an upstart paper attempting to challenge the Times on its own turf, and Peter Gordon was, for his part, building up a daily puzzle that truly rivaled the Times in quality. When the Times raised its price to $100, within hours Peter Gordon sent out a message that the Sun was now paying $101. Some months later, Will Shortz (NYT crossword editor) succeeded in compelling the slow-moving Times to raise their price to $135. Instantly Gordon announced $136! ("We're #1!" "No we're #1!" "No we are!") Eventually the Times countered with a huge increase to $200. ("No seriously, don't mess with the @#%$#@* New York Times!")

Unfortunately the Sun's hard copy form (and its crossword) folded in 2008, but the pay increases it triggered remain (I love me some downward-sticky wages). The NYT crossword is once again without any real competitor, but those 6 years of competition raise lots of interesting questions about the industry dynamic.

For one, they both clearly wanted to be the paper that paid the most. The Sun placed high value on charging even a trivial amount more. The Times placed a high value on charging a significant amount more. Why? And was the Sun was ever truly challenging the Times, just by paying slightly more for their puzzles? (The answer is both yes and no...stay tuned). Would the situation have played out any differently if they knew the Sun would fold after a few years?

What would be the optimal price strategy if you were the NYT? If you were Will Shortz? Hey, whose side are Will Shortz and Peter Gordon on, anyway? Where does the money come from (the answer is not the same for both of them), and is it cheaper at the margin to pay Shortz in higher wages or happier employees?

More to come.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Haikunomic 07: Salute the Sargent!

A guest haiku by semi-loyal economonomist Kris:

European Unemployment Dilemma?

low unemployment
welfare states and turbulence
high unemployment

*
This is a tribute to a paper by Lars Ljungqvist and Tom Sargent, The European Unemployment Dilemma. The idea is this: Workers start at low-paying jobs and work their way up within the industry. When an industry collapses, a whole bunch of highly paid veterans must start over in low-paying jobs in a new industry. In Europe, where unemployment benefits are more strongly tied to one's former wages, these veterans have a much weaker incentive to get new jobs. Why get a new, low-paying job when you could sit around collecting a welfare payment that's indexed to your original high wage? This welfare structure is not well-suited to the type of unemployment that occurs when an industry collapses. And so, when industry collapsed everywhere, the unemployment rates in Europe versus the rest of OECD -- originally quite close together -- diverged in a serious way, and stayed there. (See Figure 1 of the paper).
In any case, you didn't need me to say any of that because the haiku already got it across perfectly, right? I must say this is a surprisingly good haiku (for Kris).

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Blind spot alert!

After my Blind spots post from a few days ago, I heard some interesting thoughts from a few people. I was calling for a list of blind spots of each social science, so that people could quickly gauge how trustworthy the results from other fields were. This suggestion, from Justin, is better than a passive list:
I can imagine a browser extension that literally has a checklist of common errors/blind spots, and members who read a piece of journalism or read an academic article can check off what they think the problems are, then other people browsing the web can see what the possible errors are with the article...
I think this (or something like it) would be great. For these reasons:
  1. For present purposes, it could be a lot better than reading the comments section of an article (should one exist). The whole point is to be able to tell, at a glance, the trusthworthiness of the results. By collecting data from people in an organized, standardized way, we can construct simple measures that aggregate that information into something useful.
  2. It seems this would not require any participation on the part of the news site or blog, which is pretty important. First, that means it's universal, rather than contingent on any given site adopting it; people can use it everywhere, and so they'll be more willing to use it anywhere. Second, as semi-loyal economonomist Kris reminds me, a huge amount of distortion (be it willful or inept) happens between the scientist's paper and the reporter's article about it. Not sure reporters would be too glad to have people calling them out all the time.
  3. Enough people will want to participate. (yes? no?) Any high-volume news site draws thousands of readers, many of whom have strong opinions on a given article. Especially if there's no comments section, some of them may feel compelled to register their concerns using our mechanism.
  4. It's not a simple problem, but I think we could rig it up so that we actually extract useful information from people. Of course people are going to have strong personal biases, but even just a simple measure like having an option to check off your profession would go a long way to helping us make sense of the data. If you were interested in what the economists thought of a certain article, you could configure it to show their opinions. And I don't think other people would be compelled to pretend they're economists.
I would also want to know whether the opinion came from someone who was actually familiar with the work firsthand; again, easily solicitable, and not necessarily something people'd be tempted to lie about.

The structure of the information collection mechanism would be crucial. Right now I'm vaguely imagining something between a checklist and a comments section. Admittedly a long way from designing a perfect mechanism, but already I think the idea has promise. What do you think? Would you use this? What would you want from such a mechanism?

(Sadly, we can't just invoke the Revelation Principle and call it a day...)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hail!

As some of you may have noticed, Economonomics is a very popular blog. Thousands of readers visit this site, even if we just restrict our focus to the last 12 hours. I mean, look at this:


Gosh, what to do with all this popularity? Well, benevolent soul that I am, I will use it to direct some traffic to a lesser known but truly deserving site, namely Greg Mankiw's Blog. I heard his plea for help, and I am answering the call. Please visit, everyone. May the Mankiw one day have the audience he deserves.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Haikunomic 06: NGM Grand


Chapter 1 of my
favorite haiku -- I learned Ten
Principles from you.

Chapter 2 of my
favorite haiku -- how can I
thank you, Greg Mankiw?


*
This marks the beginning of a new focus for the Economonomics haiku series, where we will be bottling the very essence of noted economists into tiny little haikus. Greg Mankiw was an easy first choice because, like the spare haiku, he practices remarkable self-restraint in an often turbulent blogosphere where it must at least be tempting to respond in kind to one's detractors.

By the way, according to my rough back of the envelope calculation, I would need to be paid $17,365 for this haiku, in order to make the same amount of revenue as Greg Mankiw's Principles on a per-word basis, which has sold over a million copies (and is currently going for $190 at Amazon). This is a tall order. But since my haiku is literally self-recommending (you did click those links, didn't you?) while Mankiw's textbook is at best figuratively self-recommending, I think I may have the edge. On the other hand, I predict he will adapt in the face of this heightened competition. The 7th edition is sure to have a "Recommended for Further Reading" page, and I can already imagine what it will look like.

As always, you can click the "haikunomic" tag at the top right to see past Economonomics haikus. And future haikus, too, if that's where you're hailing from. (What's it like, by the way?)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Blind spots?

What are the blind spots of each social science?

We usually can't tell from a popular press summary of someone's work whether they've done it competently, whether they've avoided the laundry list of pitfalls we can think of as we read the article. Since we don't usually have the time to track down every article and see for ourselves, we are left to make snap judgments about the likely reliability of the author. For better or worse, when the author is in another field, they typically get saddled with the general perceived competency of the rest of their field.

For example, a typical news article about an economist's research will contain causal claims: "She finds that a rise in X causes Y to go up." But the newspaper description of the actual evidence supporting this causal claim almost always discusses correlation, nothing more: "In the data, a rise in X is linked to a rise in Y." There's nothing there to tell us whether or not the economist has her head screwed on right (after all, that discussion would usually be too complicated for a newspaper). Nevertheless, she is an economist, so we can be pretty sure she isn't flatly confused about the difference between correlation and causation. We can be pretty sure that if we read the paper, we'll find a lot of space devoted to teasing causation out of the data. That's not to say we'd ultimately find the argument successful, just that we don't reject the results outright on the grounds that this silly economist has confused correlation with causation.

But of course, that is a perspective on economists, from within economics. What I would like to see is a lengthy list of the blind spots of each social science. Maybe it would wake people up within a field, but at the moment I am more interested in people knowing how much they can trust results from other fields. I want to know what I should be comfortable assuming about psychologists, when I read about their studies in the news and elsewhere...and I want to know without having to go read a ton of psychology. Someone who can do that better than I, has already done the reading, and I would like them to share their insights.

Anyone know of a good source? I am looking for perspectives on all social sciences from all other social sciences. It's possible that if you asked the question "What are the blind spots of each social science" in the right place, it would have a good chance of taking off in the blogosphere...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

One step two step red step blue step

Joe is a reasonable person. Joe does not have time to learn a bunch of economics. Hey, that's okay; no one has time to do everything. So what does Joe do when he wants to have an opinion on an economic issue? He asks an economist, of course! Joe is short on time, so it makes a lot of sense to let the economists specialize in economics, and consult them for their economic opinions when necessary.

But here's a question: which economists to listen to? They are coming to different conclusions, and for today let's say that's because they start with different notions of what's important. For example, liberal economists may care more about "fairness" (however defined), while conservative economists might care more about "efficiency." So who does Joe listen to?

Naturally, Joe picks an economist who's at about the same place as him on the liberal-conservative spectrum. Just for concreteness, let's say that Joe's preferred economist is the decidedly liberal Paul Krugman.

Now, unbeknownst to Joe, it happens that if you actually do bother to go study some economics yourself, you will tend to come out more conservative (on economic issues) than you began. So actually, if Paul Krugman's opinions are what Joe substitutes for studying economics himself (and forming his own opinions), and if Paul and Joe are at the same point on the liberal-conservative spectrum, we have a problem. Joe should be listening to someone who's more conservative than Joe himself is.

In some sense this is just a silly, alternative way of saying: If you are informed today that learning economics would probably make you more economically conservative, you should become more conservative right now, today. And then pick an economist in the spectrum who really truly matches up with your new level of conservativeness. But that doesn't happen, I think we can all agree. So alternatively we can prescribe the following course of action for noneconomists who like to have opinions on the economic issues in the news:
  1. Line up the economist writers on the liberal-conservative spectrum
  2. Pick the one you like the best
  3. Take a step to the right. Read that guy instead.
Actually it would be really useful to see a study that captured the trends in more detail. (How many steps do you take, and in what direction? It surely depends on where you started out)

To put it one final way, the prediction is that most of the people who feel like they're really on Paul Krugman's wavelength would not end up agreeing so strongly if they actually learned everything he learned. As they absorbed more of his knowledge, the wavelengths would actually drift apart instead of getting closer...

Saturday, May 7, 2011

EconOMNOMNOMics

I'm making my way through Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking right now (a classic, sort of an encyclopedia of food science), and I came across this fascinating passage:
Pale though it is, the egg white has surprising depths. Of course it supplies the developing embryo with essential water and protein. But biochemical studies have revealed that the albumen proteins are not mere baby food. At least four of the proteins block the action of digestive enzymes. At least three bind tightly to vitamins, which prevents them from being useful to other creatures, and one does the same for iron, an essential mineral for bacteria and animals alike. One protein inhibits the reproduction of viruses, and another digests the cell walls of bacteria. In sum, the egg white is first of all a chemical shield against infection and predation, forged during millions of years of battling between the nourishing egg and a world of hungry microbes and animals...Cooked -- to neutralize the protective antinutritional proteins -- the egg is one of the most nutritious foods we have. (Raw, it causes laboratory animals to lose weight)...
...Designed as it was to protect itself for the duration of the chick's development, the egg is unique among our raw animal foods in its ability to remain edible for weeks.
In the evolutionary arms race there are a few strategies to keep from being eaten, besides hiding or being able to defend yourself. You can bundle your nutrients together with (a) poison or (b) foul-tasting chemicals. Or, apparently, you can (c) lock up your nutrients so that others can't use them.

One of these things is not like the other...

Actually, I would single out option (b). Targeting the tastes of others, versus diminishing your underlying nutritional value to them, is sort of a different strategy. [In fact, the mighty egg is in a sense poisonous: Unsurprisingly, the same proteins that bind its own nutrients tightly are equally eager to suck up the nutrients in our own bodies, should we ingest them. According to wikipedia, people who eat raw egg whites on a regular basis will invariably begin to suffer from biotin deficiency as a protein in the egg binds their biotin. Sounds rather like the workings of a poison to me...]

Why is this at all related to economics? I am coming to realize that evolutionary game theory is a nice angle on the nebulous problem of equilibrium selection. In some sense we are all playing a big game with evolving tastes, and the underlying technology (nutritional content of the world, you might say? what we can get out of the resources that are in front of us) is changing too. Where are we going? Important to think about the differences between tastes and technology, in terms of how they evolve.

(A nebulous post, for admittedly nebulous thoughts).

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Crosswordnomics

I have a puzzle out today (Sunday) in the New York Times, so I am thinking about crosswords.

Puzzles at the NYT (and many other papers that run their own crosswords) are entirely supplied through submissions by people like me (which is to say, anyone can submit a puzzle). If lucky, submissions are accepted, and then edited by Will Shortz for publication.

You may have noticed we're in an equilibrium where people are obsessed with the New York Times crossword puzzle. It has the best reputation, so many of the best puzzles are submitted there first, which propagates the reputation. People are willing to pay a premium for these puzzles, and indeed the NYT is effectively the only paper that can charge for access to its crossword puzzles -- specifically $40/yr. Plenty of people like puzzles enough to pay for them, but almost no one wants to solve more than 1 puzzle a day, so the other papers are really just out of luck.

Unfortunately this means I can't just link to my puzzle or post it here. That would be illegal. So if you're interested just shoot me an email. Of course it would be illegal for me to give away the puzzle even by email; I am definitely not overtly suggesting I would ever take part in such illegal activities. [Economonomics Pop Quiz: How do the letter and spirit of the law compare in this instance? Under what conditions would it make sense to pay a worker partly in free copies of a product that the employer can in fact produce at zero marginal cost?]

If you are just interested in coverage, you can go here (SPOILER ALERT):
or here for the completed puzzle:


If you're wondering, the NYT also pays the most for their puzzles, namely $200 for a daily puzzle and $1000 for a Sunday. Not necessarily a good hourly wage, but pretty good for a hobby that most of us would be doing for free anyway. Certainly one of the few hobbies I've had that (more than) pays for itself. Actually, some crossword constructors are pretty bothered by the fact that we only get such a tiny fraction of the revenue generated from the millions of people who solve our puzzles. On this there's plenty to say -- perhaps another time.