The neuroscience of corporations

by on October 19, 2015 at 12:18 am in Economics, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

In research published last year in the journal Social Neuroscience, Mark Plitt at Baylor College of Medicine and colleagues presented some of their 40 subjects with vignettes of actions taken by humans or corporations that were either prosocial (e.g., donating money), neutral (e.g., buying a printer) or antisocial (e.g., breaking the law). As a control, the other subjects got Wikipedia descriptions of randomly chosen nouns. What were people’s responses to human and corporate actions?

There was a small negative skew about corporations—their prosocial acts elicited less positive emotions, and their neutral or antisocial acts elicited more negative emotions than did the equivalents by humans.

There is more from the WSJ here, via Samir Varma.  By the way, file under “speculative.”

The author is Tonio Andrade, and the subtitle is China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History.  This is an excellent book, full of history, science, and political economy, think of it as a parallel history of the evolution of guns across China and Europe, with an eye toward explaining larger state structures.  Some of the things I learned or learned in a new way were:

1. The “competing states” argument for the rise of Europe is in some ways overvalued, as it neglects some critical time periods of competition across states in Chinese history.

2. Walls and guns co-evolved, in both China and Europe.  And in earlier times, China had much bigger and stronger walls.  That may have lowered the rate of return on investing in guns.

3. By 1510 or 1520, European guns already were better than Chinese guns.  But through the following centuries, the Chinese were more aware of the need to catch up than is often realized.

4. Guns and gunpowder co-evolved, and when it comes to gunpowder some historians argue Europe had a second-mover advantage.  Yet the exact source of European superiority in this regard is murky.

5. Korea developed one of the most effective musket-based armies of the seventeenth century.

6. The British development of “cylinder powder” in the late eighteenth century was a major advance over Chinese techniques at the time, and represented a final and decisive relative advance for the West.

Recommended, due out in January.

*The Invention of Science*

by on October 16, 2015 at 12:36 am in Books, Education, History, Medicine, Science | Permalink

That is the new, magisterial and explicitly Whiggish book by David Wootton, with the subtitle A New History of Scientific Revolution.

I wish there were a single word for the designator “deep, clear, and quite well written, though it will not snag the attention of the casual reader of popular science books because it requires knowledge of the extant literature on the history of science.”  Here is one excerpt, less specific than most of the book:

My argument so far is that the seventeenth-century mathematization of the world was long in preparation.  Perspective painting, ballistics and fortification, cartography and navigation prepared the ground for Galileo, Descartes and Newton.  The new metaphysics of the seventeenth century, which treated space as abstract and infinite, and location and movement as relative, was grounded in the new mathematical sciences of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and if we want to trace the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution we will need to go back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, to double-entry bookkeeping, to Alberti and Regiomontanus.  The Scientific Revolution was, first and foremost, a revolt by the mathematicians against the authority of the philosophers.

769 pp., recommended — for some of you.

I had to order my copy from UK, in the US it comes out in December and can be pre-ordered.

The self-tracking pill

by on October 15, 2015 at 1:30 pm in Medicine, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

Some morning in the future, you take a pill — maybe something for depression or cholesterol. You take it every morning.

Buried inside the pill is a sand-sized grain, one millimeter square and a third of a millimeter thick, made from copper, magnesium, and silicon. When the pill reaches your stomach, your stomach acids form a circuit with the copper and magnesium, powering up a microchip. Soon, the entire contraption will dissolve, but in the five minutes before that happens, the chip taps out a steady rhythm of electrical pulses, barely audible over the body’s background hum.

The signal travels as far as a patch stuck to your skin near the navel, which verifies the signal, then transmits it wirelessly to your smartphone, which passes it along to your doctor. There’s now a verifiable record that the pill reached your stomach.

This is the vision of Proteus, a new drug-device accepted for review by the Food and Drug Administration last month. The company says it’s the first in a new generation of smart drugs, a new source of data for patients and doctors alike. But bioethicists worry that the same data could be used to control patients, infringing on the intensely personal right to refuse medication and giving insurers new power over patients’ lives. As the device moves closer to market, it raises a serious question: Is tracking medicine worth the risk?

That is from Russell Brandom.

The interrogator is Timothy N. Ogden, here is one bit from Deaton:

Something I read the other day that I didn’t know, David Greenberg and Mark Shroder, who have a book, The Digest of Social Experiments, claim that 75 percent of the experiments they looked at in 1999, of which there were hundreds, is an experiment done by rich people on poor people. Since then, there have been many more experiments, relatively, launched in the developing world, so that percentage can only have gotten worse.  I find that very troubling.

If the implicit theory of policy change underlying RCTs is paternalism, which is what I fear, I’m very much against it.

The conversation is interesting throughout.  Tim indicates:

This is a chapter from the forthcoming book Experimental Conversations, to be published by MIT Press in 2016. The book collects interviews with academic and policy leaders on the use of randomized evaluations and field experiments in development economics. To be notified when the book is released, please sign up here.

The book will contain an interview with me as well.

Should there not be more research on this apparently simple yet elusive question?  Here is a new paper by Acezel, Palfi, and Kekecs:

This paper argues that studying why and when people call certain actions stupid should be the interest of psychological investigations not just because it is a frequent everyday behavior, but also because it is a robust behavioral reflection of the rationalistic expectations to which people adjust their own behavior and expect others to. The relationship of intelligence and intelligent behavior has been the topic of recent debates, yet understanding why we call certain actions stupid irrespective of their cognitive abilities requires the understanding of what people mean when they call an action stupid. To study these questions empirically, we analyzed real-life examples where people called an action stupid. A collection of such stories was categorized by raters along a list of psychological concepts to explore what the causes are that people attribute to the stupid actions observed. We found that people use the label stupid for three separate types of situation: (1) violations of maintaining a balance between confidence and abilities; (2) failures of attention; and (3) lack of control. The level of observed stupidity was always amplified by higher responsibility being attributed to the actor and by the severity of the consequences of the action. These results bring us closer to understanding people’s conception of unintelligent behavior while emphasizing the broader psychological perspectives of studying the attribute of stupid in everyday life.

What do you think people, a smart paper or a stupid paper?

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

Deaton on Deaton

by on October 13, 2015 at 1:43 pm in Data Source, Economics, Science | Permalink

It was during my time at Bristol that John Muellbauer and I worked together on our book. The computer facilities at Bristol were terrible — the computer was a mile away, on top of a hill, so that boxes of punched cards had to be lugged up and down. I was told to get a research assistant, which was sensible advice, but I have never really figured out how to use research assistance: for me, the process of data gathering — at first with paper and pencil from books and abstracts — programming, and calculation has always been part of the creative process, and without doing it all, I am unlikely to have the flash of insight that tells me that something doesn’t fit, that not only this model doesn’t work, but that all such models cannot work. Of course, this process has become much easier over time. Not only are data and computing power constantly and easily at one’s fingertips, but it is easy to explore data graphically. The delights and possibilities can only be fully appreciated by someone who spent his or her youth with graph paper, pencils, and erasers.

Given how far it was up the computer hill, I substituted theory for data for a while, and wrote papers on optimal taxation, the structure of preferences, and on quantity and price index numbers, but I never entirely gave up on applied work.

The entire biographical essay is of interest (pdf).

A brilliant selection.  Deaton works closely with numbers, and his preferred topics are consumption, poverty, and welfare.  “Understanding what economic progress really means” I would describe as his core contribution, and analyzing development from the starting point of consumption rather than income is part of his vision.  That includes looking at calories, life expectancy, health, and education as part of living standards in a fundamental way.  I think of this as a prize about empirics, the importance of economic development, and indirectly a prize about economic history.

Think of Deaton as an economist who looks more closely at what poor households consume to get a better sense of their living standards and possible paths for economic development.  He truly, deeply understands the implications of economic growth, the benefits of modernity, and political economy.  Here is a very good non-technical account of his work on measuring poverty (pdf), one of the best introductions to his thought.

He brought a good deal of methodological individualism to the field of consumption studies, most of all by using household surveys more than macroeconomic data.

I think of this as a prize for “a whole body of work” rather than for one or two key papers.  David Leonhardt has a good NYT summary of some his work and its deep underlying optimism about the situation of the poor in the global economy.

Here is the popular version of the Committee statement, here is the more detailed version (pdf), an excellent overview.

Deaton was born in Scotland but has taught at Princeton for some time.  Here is Deaton on Wikipedia.  Here is Deaton’s home page.  Here are some recent working papers, he even has published in Review of Austrian Economics, an interesting review of Bill Easterly on experts.  Here are previous MR mentions of Deaton, there are many of them.  Here is Deaton on Google Scholar.  Here is a Russ Roberts EconTalk with Angus Deaton.  I think of Deaton as someone who is relatively willing to share himself with the world, let’s hope the Prize doesn’t ruin that openness.  Here is 21 minutes of Angus on YouTube, on his core ideas.

He is married to Princeton economist Anne Case, a notable scholar in her own right and sometimes a co-author with Deaton.  Here are their co-authored papers, many dealing with South Africa.

Deaton has long had a special working relationship with India and South Africa.  Here are his key pieces on measuring poverty and poverty reduction in India.  Here is his work on the Indian health survey.  Here is his 2010 AER piece on how to measure poverty globally in a consistent manner, by the way he suggests that asking people should be part of the answer.

He also has written on gender discrimination within the family in developing nations.  Some of his work has helped direct our attention to the viability of cash transfers as a way of fighting poverty.

At first, say circa 1980, he was known for his work in developing Almost Ideal Demand Systems for analyzing consumer expenditures; much of this early work was with Muellbauer.  That made a big splash, but it was more of a theoretical and technical advance than what was to follow.  One message was that studies based on the idea of a “representative consumer” were likely to prove misleading.

It is interesting to note the trajectory of his career, as Alex noted on Twitter.  He first did theory, then filled in the numbers and did empirics, applying the theory.  Eventually he took theory + empirics and used it to tackle some of the big issues of poverty and development.

Here is his long survey piece on foreign aid and growth.  He favors the move away from project evaluation, is skeptical of instrumental variable methods, and believes that RCTs need to be supplemented with a better theoretical understanding of mechanisms.  He knows a lot about many, many topics.

I do not know him, but he is described by many as a colorful character.  Dani Rodrik has strong praise for Deaton as a teacher.

Here are short, popular essays by Angus Deaton; you can call that the “what he really thinks page.”  He is critical of the Republican war against ACA and connects that topic to Downton Abbey.  He argues for regional price indices for the United States.  He discusses American inequality and why it is often ignored as an issue.  He warns against the creeping regulation of science.  And he considers why the Stern report had a greater impact in the UK than in America.

I very much liked Deaton’s recent book The Great Escape, which focuses on how modernity revolutionized standards for consumption.

This award is no surprise at all and he has been on the short list for a while.  Is it a slight surprise that Deaton won this prize on his own?  Many thought he would be paired with Anthony Atkinson, but I see Deaton as worthy of a stand-alone prize and Atkinson’s chance has not passed him by.  In any case, Tirole was a stand-alone prize too, so maybe in that regard there has been a shift in the Swedish regime.

Last but not least here is Alex’s post on Deaton.

I enjoyed many passages in this book, here was my favorite:

As well as these untranslatable terms, I have gathered synonyms — especially those that bring new energies to familiar phenomena.  The variant English terms for ‘icicle’ — aquabob (Kent), clinkerbell and daggler (Wessex), cancervell (Exmoor), ickle (Yorkshire), tankle (Durham), shuckle (Cambria) — form a tinkling poem of their own.  In Northamptonshire dialect ‘to thaw’ is to ungive.  The beauty of this variant I find hard to articulate, but it surely has to do with the paradox of thaw figured as restraint or retention, and the wintry notion that cold, frost and snow might themselves be a form of gift — an addition to the landscape that will in time be subtracted by warmth.

Also of note is the discussion of how places names in Gaelic (and many other languages and dialects) are becoming unintelligible, even if much of Gaelic is surviving.  And so:

The nuances observed by specialized vocabularies are evaporating from common usage, burnt off by capital, apathy and urbanization.  The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units (‘field’, ‘hill’, ‘valley’, ‘wood’).  It has become a blandscape…It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing, rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen.

Definitely recommended, buy it here.


Named Robocoach, the fitness-minded cyborg will be deployed to over 20 senior activity centres to help caregivers run exercise classes for residents.

The project is sponsored by Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority as part of the government’s Smart Nation plan — a large-scale multibillion dollar government initiative to use Internet technologies to modernise different facets of Singaporean life and infrastructure.

There is more here.

Here is an article in The Crimson, with many interesting bits, including about Raj Chetty.  In turns out space is also a problem, even back in the mid-1980s I thought Littauer was not impressive.  It has not improved:

Economics faculty also say that the kind laboratory work common in modern economics—and exemplified by Chetty’s work on government policy—require physical space that is lacking in Littauer and scattered around campus.

“You need infrastructure to run the types of projects he is running,” Antràs said.

Bernheim said Stanford was working “on much closer collaboration and integration” between its economics research buildings to provide adequate space because of Chetty’s arrival and other new hires. He would not comment on the specifics of Chetty’s hiring package, including any lab space he may receive.

And of course, Littauer is old. It hasn’t undergone a major renovation in decades and lacks a functioning air conditioning system.

Whether there are plans to renovate Littauer is uncertain. FAS Dean Michael D. Smith would not comment on any plans to add space to the building, though he noted that conversations about department space across FAS are ongoing.

Even more, the Fine Arts Library, which moved temporarily to Littauer in 2007 during the renovation of the Fogg Museum, compounds the problem of tight space in the building.

University professor Jerry R. Green said the move “pained” him and that now many books used by the Economics department are housed in the Harvard Depository.

Here are the current Harvard faculty, all via Matthew Kahn.  And here Matt comments.  And Niall Ferguson is leaving Harvard for Hoover.

That is the new and excellent book by Greg Ip, no fluff here substance all around. From the book’s home page:

How the very things we create to protect ourselves, like money market funds or anti-lock brakes, end up being the biggest threats to our safety and wellbeing.

Here is one excerpt:

The experiment found that people with no impairment to the brain’s emotional center were much more conservative.  After losing money on one coin toss, only 40 percent of them agreed to invest on the next — but 85 percent of the brain-damaged patients did.  By the end of the game, the brain-damaged patients had earned an average of $25.70 while the healthy players averaged $22.60.

And another:

By Spellberg’s reckoning, the odds of an adverse reaction to an antibiotic, such as an allergic reaction, are about 1 in 10, whereas the odds that someone will suffer because antibiotics were wrongly withheld are about 1 in 10,000.  Nonetheless, most physicians do not want to run the risk of letting a patient suffer when an antibiotic could help…His research in Nepal produced the depressing finding that antibiotic resistance was highest in communities with the most doctors.

Spellberg thinks trying to persuade doctors not to prescribe antibiotics is a doomed strategy.  Better, he says, to develop tests that rapidly identify what bug a patient has and thus whether an antibiotic is needed.

Strongly recommended, devoured my copy in a single sitting right away, due out this coming Tuesday.  By the way here is the FT review by Andrew Hill.

Chapter Summary
Information is convex to noise. The paradox is that increase in sample size magnifies the role of noise (or luck); it makes tail values even more extreme. There are some problems associated with big data and the increase of variables available for epidemiological and other “empirical” research.

Here is a bit more information:

Greater performance for (temporary) “star” traders We are getting more information, but with constant “consciousness”, “desk space”, or “visibility”. Google News, Bloomberg News, etc. have space for, say, <100 items at any point in time. But there are millions of events every day. As the world is more connected, with the global dominating over the local, the number of sources of news is multiplying. But your consciousness remains limited. So we are experiencing a winner-take-all effect in information: like a large movie theatre with a small door. Likewise we are getting more data. The size of the door is remaining constant, the theater is getting larger. The winner-take-all effects in information space corresponds to more noise, less signal. In other words the spurious dominates.

That is from a Marc Andreessen link (but what is the source?).  He also links to the March Playboy piece on why the world is getting weirder all the time, previously linked by MR but worth a reread nonetheless.

Ayn Rand and The Martian

by on October 5, 2015 at 7:25 am in Books, Film, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

The Martian is the most Randian movie in years, perhaps in decades. Ayn Rand is best known for her defense of capitalism but her defense of reason was even more fundamental to her thought. The Martian has no bearing on politics but it reminded me of Rand’s essay on Apollo 11 and the moon landing, the launch of which she witnessed Apollo 11 - 2from Kennedy Space Center.

Rand wrote that the Apollo 11 mission “conveyed the sense that we were watching a magnificent work of art – a play dramatizing a single theme: the efficacy of man’s mind.” The  efficacy of man’s mind and the power of reason is exactly the theme of The Martian.

As Rand continued:

That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt…And no one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being–an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality.

The difference is that Apollo 11 gave the sense that we were watching a magnificent work of art but it was real. While the Martian gives the sense that we are watching something real but it is a magnificent work of art. Have we not been diminished? Nevertheless, the sense of life of the event and the movie are the same and the movie is gripping, thrilling and uplifting, a triumph for Ridley Scott and the author, Andy Weir.

Addendum: See Tyler’s review as well.

*The Martian*

by on October 4, 2015 at 10:38 pm in Film, Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

The way the movie is good is almost the opposite of the way the book is good, so re-gear your expectations.  It is the most convincing portrayal of a planet I have seen in cinema.  (Planets, by the way, create erotic bonds stronger than those of actual marriages.)  I enjoyed the homage shots to Bruce Dern and Silent Running, Brian De Palma’s underrated Mars film too.  The horizon images of earth toward the end come as an ecstatic jarring relief.  They are, by the way, aiming for the China market with a plot twist that almost seems satirical except in Beijing it is dead serious.  That this film is sometimes dramatically inert is beside the point, recommended.