Results for “my favorite things”
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Michael Pollan’s *Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation*

Here is the bottom line:

The premise of this book is that cooking — defined broadly enough to take in the whole spectrum of techniques  people have devised for transforming the raw stuff of nature into nutritious and appealing things for us to eat and rink — is one of the most interesting and worthwhile things we do.

This is a highly thoughtful book, and I enjoyed the lengthy discussion of fermentation and fermented foods.  My favorite puzzle posed is the question of why fermented foods are so frequently matters of acquired taste across cultures.  Yet overall the book is missing a sharpness of argumentation or novelty of perspective which I look for in works of this kind.  You can order the book here.  Here is a useful Laura Miller review of the book.  Here is a NYT review.  Here is Mark Bittman coverage.  Here is an excerpt from the book.

Online Education and Jazz

A common responses to my article, Why Online Education Works, is that there is something special, magical, and “almost sacred” about the live teaching experience. I agree that this is true for teaching at its best but it’s also irrelevant. It’s even more true that there is something special, magical and almost sacred about the live musical experience. The time I saw Otis Clay in a small Toronto bar, my first Springsteen concert, the Teenage Head riot at Ontario Place these are some of my favorite and most memorable cultural experiences and yet by orders of magnitude most of the music that I listen to is recorded music.

In The Trouble With Online Education Mark Edmundson makes the analogy between teaching and music explicit:

Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition.

Quite right but every non-memorable class is also a bit like a jazz composition, namely one that was expensive, took an hour to drive to (15 minutes just to find parking) and at the end of the day wasn’t very memorable. The correct conclusion to draw from the analogy between live teaching and live music is that at their best both are great but both are also costly and inefficient ways of delivering most teaching and most musical experiences.

Edmundson also says this about online courses:

You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will.

Edmundson reminds me of composer John Philip Sousa who in 1906 wrote The Menace of Mechanical Music, an attack on the phonograph that sounds very similar to the attack on online education today.

It is the living, breathing example alone that is valuable to the student and can set into motion his creative and performing abilities. The ingenuity of a phonograph’s mechanism may incite the inventive genius to its improvement, but I could not imagine that a performance by it would ever inspire embryotic Mendelssohns, Beethovens, Mozarts, and Wagners to the acquirement of technical skill, or to the grasp of human possibilities in the art.

Sousa could not imagine it, but needless to say recorded music has inspired many inventive geniuses. Edmundson’s failure of imagination is even worse than Sousa’s, online courses are already creating intellectual joy (scroll down).

(Sousa was right about a few things. Recorded music has reduced the number of musical amateurs and the playing of music in the home. Far fewer pianos are sold today, for example, than in 1906 when Sousa wrote and that is true even before adjusting for today’s much larger population. Online education will similarly change teaching and I don’t claim that every change will be beneficial even if the net is good.)

Sousa and Edmundson also underestimate how much recording can add to the pursuit of artistic excellence. Many musical works, for example, cannot be well understood or fully appreciated with just a few listens. Recording allows for repeated listening and study. Indeed, one might say that only with recording, can one truly hear.

Recording also let musicians truly hear and thus compare, contrast and improve. Most teachers will also benefit from hearing and seeing themselves teach. With recording, teaching will become more like writing and less like improv. How many people write perfect first drafts? Good writing is editing, editing, editing. Live teaching suffers from too much improv and not enough editing. Sometimes I improv in class–also called winging it–but like most people I am usually better when I am better prepared. (Tyler, in contrast, is the Charlie Parker of live teaching.)

Sousa and the modern critics of online education also miss how new technologies bring new possibilities. For Sousa then, as for Edmundson today, the new technologies are simply about recording the live experience. But recorded music brought the creation of new kinds of music. Indeed, a lot of today’s music can’t be played live.

In his excellent 1966 disquisition, The Prospects for Recording (highly recommended, fyi), pianist Glenn Gould said that using the technology of the studio “one can very often transcend the limitations that performance imposes upon the imagination.” The same will be true for online education.

Addendum: Andrew Gelman comments.

Hard Rock Hotel

Until I checked in, I thought the name of the place was an affectation, but it is actually attached to a Hard Rock Cafe, in San Diego.  They play bad and overly loud rock music in the lobby.  The front desk is usually unmanned.  The concierge looks and dresses like a 1970s hippie Deadhead.  There are guitars on the wall.  The bed is extremely comfortable.

Job candidates: you need a room key to work the elevator, so if you are coming here for an interview tomorrow a) I am leaving your name at the front desk, hoping it will be manned and they will help you, b) you can try to find someone else taking an elevator up, and c) you can call up and/or email.  In any case please give yourself a little extra time, our apologies.  I promise not to ask if you have brought your demo tape to the interview, even though I will be tempted to do so.

Addendum: It’s funny how many people are tweeting and emailing me that I don’t like San Diego.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I like it fine and I have come here repeatedly over the years.  The area where I have chosen to live and work — northern Virginia — also could be described as lacking in cultural importance for the broader United States and indeed the world.  And yet I chose it and prefer to stay there.  The whole point of public goods is that they spread far and wide!  Most generally, “reporting a fact or opinion which lowers the perceived relative status of X” does not translate into “source does not like X.”  This is closely related to the fallacy of mood affiliation.  One can have multiple moods about both San Diego and northern Virginia, namely something like “wonderful amenities and lifestyle, but culturally not nearly as impressive as the historical record of Kansas City.”  But when choosing whether or not to visit or live in Indiana, that Cole Porter was from there is really not much of a factor.  That all said, I’ll belatedly give San Diego credit for Roger Reynolds.


Ken writes:

I was scouring your blog for Fyodor Dostoevsky and was surprised to see no mentions. I was just wondering your thoughts on him. Currently reading the Brothers Karamazov and it’s fantastic.

Brothers Karamazov spent seven or so years as my favorite book, starting in high school.  I’m not suggesting it is juvenile, only that I find it hard to go back and enjoy things at lower levels than I did before (I also don’t like to eat in still-good but declining restaurants).  I no longer find Notes from Underground interesting, as I regard its questions as a dead end.  I’d sooner reread Pascal.  I never got through The Idiot or Demons in the first place.  About two years ago I read House of the Dead and liked it, though it felt like a respite from the more typical conception of Dostoyevsky.

How much can you like Dostoyevsky anyway?  My sense is that he is probably underrated as a pure writer (much of it comes across as garbage in English translation, but perhaps is quite biting or comic or interestingly manic), and overrated as a source of the “novel of ideas.”

If you enter “Dostoyevsky” into the search function of Twitter, you don’t come up with much interesting these days.

Some food notes from Mexico City

My favorite sandwich (ever) is the Hawaiiana, at “Tortas Chapultepec,” turn left out of the front of Hotel Camino Real in Polanco, and it is on the corner at Victor Hugo and Mariano Escobedo.  They usually are open by 9:30 and I suspect they close fairly early.

Pujol does wonderful things with vegetables and is perhaps the best fancy place to try; I recommend the Menu de la Tierra.

They have done away with the food stalls at the Zócalo.  In Mexico City calorie-counting menus are common and gelato is being replaced by frozen yogurt (!).

Tres Marias is a “food village” right off the highway on the way to Cuernavaca.  Look for the place on the southbound side which specializes in green chilaquiles and also chorizo tacos, but in general standards along that strip are remarkably high.

Here is the most important food advice for Mexico.

Overall, Mexico City is becoming a safer city, and compared to four years ago one sees many signs of economic progress.

Best economics books of the year

1. Best behavioral economics books of the year, Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and Bryan Caplan, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.

2. Best economic history book, Alexander Field, A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth.

3. Second best eBook of the year, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy.  By the way, here is my recent debate with Erik; we both agreed in advance to mix things up and generate controversy, so interpret the exchange accordingly.  In reality, Erik and I agree about many many things and Matt Yglesias notes as much.  (We do, however, seem to disagree about what this graph means.)  Arnold Kling comments on the debate itself.

4. Best economics/business book of the year: Tim Harford’s Adapt.

5. Best Austrian or Austrian-influenced book of the year: Daniel B. Klein, Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation.  It’s not out yet, I’ll cover it more when it appears, more information here.

6. Best economics textbook, Ahem!  I don’t mean my favorite economics textbook (though it is that too), rather best economics textbook.  The revised second edition of Micro just appeared, the macro is due out any day now.

Overall if I had to pick one, text aside, it might be the Alexander Field book, but this is a diverse lot with something for everybody.

From yesterday’s New York Times

They are experimenting with different models of human behavior, here is from Modern Love:

At first his behavior was endearing. He constantly gave me attention, lavishing me with compliments, calls and sometimes gifts. But one morning when I slid out of bed from next to him, things felt different. All his wooing suddenly repelled me.

I crawled back in and tried my best to pretend things were O.K. He showered and dressed. I clenched my teeth when it was time to kiss goodbye, then shut the door behind him, sighed and wondered if he had any idea.

We learn from this same column that butterflies can see with their genitals.  And from the NYT Sunday Magazine, here is a Death Row love story:

“I knew you were going to say your favorite color is blue,” he wrote. “It belongs to you. My favorite colors are black and crimson. I love deep, dark red things made of red velvet.”

For a while, in Blogland, Alex was married to Natasha

He also was buying Haitian art and describing his favorite things Alabama.  How so?  During the transition to WordPress many of my posts were attributed to him.  One of our assistants explains:

The root of the problem was the sheer number of comments you have.  After running the importer a few times, we actually hit a computational limit in PHP on 32-bit systems, which caused the errors we’ve seen.  After manually manipulating the data, however, we’ve sorted everything out and we won’t be running into this problem again.

The RSS feed has been flushed and is displaying in proper order once again.  For some readers, this may take a few more hours to update.  For others, depending on how their reader grabs and stores posts, the wonky posts may just have to cycle out.

Sorry again for the technical problems involved with this.  I’ve never had problems relating to sheer data size, but I’ve never dealt with something with close to 150,000 unique data points be entered multiple times. ..Pushing the upper bounds of programming languages through sheer blogging volume is pretty admirable.

We are continuing to work out the glitches, thanks for your patience!

Observations about Rio

I'm no expert on Rio, but I have visited the city twice, have taken a favela tour, been in a police vs. drug gang shoot out (not as a shooter), and read quite a few books about the place, so here are my observations on the latest events:

1. The authorities will not win until they have a superior ability to supply local public goods in the favelas.  That is a ways away.  (The broader lesson is you should not take in more immigrants than you can supply local public goods for, and that is why fully open borders is not a good idea in every setting.)

2. On a day-to-day basis, the police are outmatched in terms of weaponry and also will to win.  The military cannot remain deployed forever and a tank cannot rule a neighborhood.  I am skeptical about current victory claims, which from my comfortable perch in Fairfax I suspect are temporary at best.

3. Sometimes the Rio police push out the drug gangs, but the alternative is paramilitary groups which then run the drug trade.  (Those groups, by the way, employ a lot of former policemen.)  A police victory is not always the solution.  Here are the different types of police in Brazil.

4. The Brazilian state has extended its governance, throughout the country, much less than you might think.  The current battles are, among other things, an exercise in nation-state building, which historically has not come easily to most regions.  Furthermore relying on the military for a (partial) victory is in the longer run a double-edged sword, especially in a nation with a history of military coups and military rule.

5. For a different and now shocking look at Rio (the hills are mostly empty), watch the stunning 1959 film Black Orpheus.  Very good trailer here.

6. One of my favorite non-fiction books is Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil, highly recommended.

7. The Brazilians are now building high-speed rail between Rio and Sao Paulo.

Markets in Everything: Afghan Votes

The NYTimes has an excellent piece today on vote-buying in Afghanistan:

How much does it cost to buy an Afghan vote?

Saturday’s parliamentary elections offer a unique opportunity to ascertain that price – and it is in theory a market with many buyers, as 2,500 candidates scramble for only 249 seats….

Nonetheless, prices are low. In northern Kunduz Province, Afghan votes cost $15 each; in eastern Ghazni Province, a vote can be bought for $18. In Kandahar, they sell their rights for as little as $1 a ballot. More commonly, the price seems to hover in the $5 to $6 range, as quoted to New York Times reporters in places like Helmand and Khost Provinces.

You may be surprised to learn that in Afghanistan a woman's vote is regarded as especially valuable:

He wanted to know how many of the cards were for female voters; those are more valuable because, out of respect for cultural sensitivities, women’s registration cards do not bear photographs, so they are easy for anyone to use. 

Here is my favorite bit.  Vote buying is much more common in this election than in the last.  So things have gotten worse, right?  Maybe not:

The feeling, experts say, was that last year’s election was stolen wholesale by supporters of President Hamid Karzai, so there was little need for vote buying.

*Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945*

The author of this book is Max Hastings.  Although this topic may seem like well-trodden ground, this is so far one of my favorite non-fiction books of the year.  Excerpt:

It was remarkable how much the mood in Washington had shifted since January.  This time, there was no adulation for Churchill the visitor.  "Anti-British feeling is still strong," the British embassy reported to London, "stronger than it was before Pearl Harbor…This state of affairs is partly due to the fact that whereas it was difficult to criticize Britain while the UK was being bombed, such criticism no longer carries the stigma of isolationist or pro-Nazi sympathies."  Senator Allen Ellender of Louisiana declared sourly there "there was little point in supplying the British with war material since they invariably lost it all."

Among other things, it is an excellent book for communicating how military alliances actually work and how much humiliation a nation feels if it keeps on losing military battles or is unable to fight in response.  I also had not realized what a folly British policy toward Singapore was.  Definitely recommended.  Here is one review of the book.  Here is an excerpt.

Not everyone in Australia likes Max Hastings.

Measuring fiscal policy and evaluating its results

There are two measures of fiscal policy: the sum total of everything a government does and the "ramp-up-the-spending-quickly" component which gets labeled "stimulus" by politicians and the media.

In the blogosphere, economists argue mostly about the latter yet it is the former which is more important.  (On this question, among others, I credit Yglesias for being ahead of most of the economists.)

The most important, most effective, and least controversial forms of fiscal policy are the automatic stabilizers.  Let's say you have two countries, A and B.  In country A government spends 50 percent of gdp, mostly on a well-designed welfare state.  When the downturn comes, there is only enough extra borrowing to make up for the lost revenue, and there is no designed "stimulus" per se.  In country B, government spends 25 percent of gdp, mostly not on a well-designed welfare state.  When the downturn comes, country B does an extra three, four, or even five percent of gdp "ramp-up" borrowing and spending.

Which country has a better, more active, and more AD-stabilizing fiscal policy?  Well, it depends on the details and the numbers but I would encourage you to consider country A for this honor.

I don't agree with Krugman's recent interpretation that "Korea and China both engaged in much more aggressive stimulus than any Western nation – and it has worked out well."

In South Korea the welfare state is smaller and more of the government spending is corporate and military, compared to Western Europe, plus government spending is lower overall.  In China central government spending is 19.9 percent of gdp (beware those numbers, though) and the social welfare state institutions, and automatic stabilizers, are very weak, both in terms of quantity and quality. 

For purposes of contrast, in Germany government spending is about 44 percent of gdp and you'll find similar or higher number across Western Europe.

I think of Korea and China as having more "ramp-up" stimulus to make up for what is initially a weaker fiscal policy all things considered (you can add Russia to that list, which also has a high measured "ramp-up" stimulus).  Overall, despite the bigger "make-up." it is quite possible Korea and China are doing less with fiscal policy to stabilize aggregate demand than are the more substantive welfare states.  (Also see Sumner's comment on Krugman here.)

Or think about the fiscal variation within Europe.  "Ramp-up" spending measures of zero vs. 1.5 percent of gdp are portrayed as big differences, but as a chunk of the broader metric — the variation in AD-stabilizing properties of the public sector – it's not such a big deal, especially once you take "crowding out" into account.  Whichever quantity of ramp-up spending you prefer, it's not reason to preach doom and gloom for the welfare state countries with the smaller ramp-up plans.  (Have I mentioned that ramp-up spending is often of lower quality?)

The best fiscal policy — for cyclical and not just growth reasons — is a steady stream of permanent and high-quality government expenditures.  That's true no matter what you think the absolute size of this flow should be.

Sometimes you will see this point acknowledged, such as when U.S. federal transfers to the states are praised as the most effective part of ARRA (which they were).  But again, that's just a constant stream of spending.  And that's in the particulars, not just the aggregate, and it matters because you don't want the federal spending having to rehire the people the states laid off.  The praise is correct, but rarely are its complete implications thought through and presented.

Let's say we measure the efficacy of fiscal policy correctly.  The countries with the most stabilizing fiscal policies would be the big government welfare states with high quality governments.  That means Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, and so on, the usual list.  In addition to their relatively high quality governments, they also have relatively strong real economies and healthy institutions.

When this whole episode is over, I would not be surprised to see that same list of countries as having had relatively good recoveries (of course we don't know yet).  A regression could positively correlate "good final outcomes from the crisis" with "total fiscal policy, properly measured."  Such a regression also would be picking up the quality of the institutions and of the real economy.

One way of reading those (potential) numbers would argue that strong real economies, strong governments, and healthy institutions all go together and that such combinations help drive healthy recoveries.  That's actually not so far from real business cycle theory, a favorite whipping boy but in its more sophisticated forms alive and well.  

In the blogosphere, most of what you hear about "fiscal policy" — pro or con — is misconceiving and mismeasuring the concept and then drawing incorrect conclusions.  There's no good reason to focus our economic attention, or perform the informal (or formal) econometrics, on the "ramp-up spending" component.  The ramp-up spending attracts a lot of symbolic interest in the more partisan political debates because it has Obama's or Merkel's or whosever name on it, but it is better to see through such labeling.

Keep your eyes on the ball(s): high quality governments, stabilizing long-run expenditures, well-designed welfare states, robust real economies, and healthy institutions.  In principle there's plenty of room for those concepts in Keynesian economics, but right now they're getting…crowded out…in the intellectual debate.

Temple Grandin’s theories on autism

As you probably know, the Temple Grandin biopic, starring Claire Danes, is showing this Saturday evening.  Here is Temple on the movie.  Grandin has done a great deal to benefit animals, by designing more humane slaughterhouses, stockyards, and encouraging other innovations.  She also has promoted the idea of talented autistics and helped raise that notion to a very high profile.  I have enormous respect for what she has done and I would gladly see her win a Nobel Prize if the appropriate category for such a prize existed.

That said, researchers disagree with Grandin's theories on autism in a number of ways and my own reading leads me to side with the researchers on some issues.  Many non-autistics defer to Grandin on autism because of her life story, her remarkable achievements, and yes because of her autism.  I thought it would be useful to offer a more skeptical view of a few of her claims:

1. Autistic individuals do not in general "think in pictures," though some autistics offer this self-description.  Grandin repeatedly refers to herself in this context.  I don't read her as claiming this tendency is universal or even the general rule, but the disclaimers aren't as evident as I would like them to be. 

2. There is little evidence to support her view that autistics "think like animals."  Here is one published critique of her theory: "We argue that the extraordinary cognitive feats shown by some animal species can be better understood as adaptive specialisations that bear little, if any, relationship to the unusual skills shown by savants."  You'll find a response by Grandin at that same link.  I'm not totally on board with the critique either (how well do we understand savants anyway?), but at the very least Grandin's claim is an unsupported hypothesis.

3. Grandin tends to brusquely classify autistic children into different groups.  She will speak of "the nerds who will do just fine" (see the eBook linked to below) as opposed to the "severely autistic," who require that someone take control of their lives and pound a bit of the autism out of them.  There's a great deal of diversity among autistics, and autistic outcomes, but I don't see that as the most useful way of expressing those differences.   Autism diagnoses are often unstable at young ages, there is not any useful or commonly accepted measure of "autistic severity," her description perpetuates stereotypes, and Grandin herself as a child would have met criteria for "severely autistic" and yet she did fine through parental love and attention, which helped her realize rather than overturn her basic nature.  That's not even a complete list of my worries on this point; for more see my Create Your Own Economy.

4. Grandin supports some varieties of intensive behavioral therapy for autistics.  Many research papers support those same therapies but those papers do not generally conduct an RCT and furthermore many of the said researchers have a commercial stake in what they are studying and promoting.  In my view we don't know "what works" but my (non-RCT-tested) opinion is that giving autistic children a lot of fun things to do — fun by their standards — and a lot of information to study and manipulate, gives the best chance of good outcomes.  (In any case "spontaneous improvement" is considerable, so anecdotally many therapies will appear to work when they do not; nor is there a common control for placebos.)  Many of the behavioral therapies seem quite oppressive to me and if we don't know they work I am worried that they are being overpromoted.  Grandin has in some ways the intellectual temperament of an engineer and I am worried that she has not absorbed the lessons of Hayek's The Counterrevolution of Science.

5. Grandin refers to herself as more interested in tangible results and less interested in emotions.  She is entitled to that self-description, but it is worth noting that most individuals in the "autism community" would not consider this a good presentation of their attitude toward emotions.

There is a recent eBook (selling for only $4.00), consisting of a dialogue between myself and Grandin, mostly on autism and talented autistics but not just.  For instance we also talk about our favorite TV shows, including a discussion of Lost, and there is a segment on science fiction and the future of humanity.  I try to draw her out on autism, cognitive anthromorphizing, and attitudes toward religion, but she is reluctant to offer her opinions on that important topic.  I would describe the eBook as a good introduction to her thought on autism and society, while also giving an idea of how someone else (me) might differ from some of her basic attitudes.

What defines the Swedish soul?

This article, from Prospect, is interesting throughout.  Excerpt:

Inevitably, the subject turns to sex and marriage. I'll never forget
asking one group what they thought of marriage in a country where most
educated young people (and half go to university) don't get married or
bear children until they are well over 30. A young woman gave me a
thoughtful answer and so I asked her, "What are you looking for in a
husband?" Without batting an eye or pausing for thought, she answered:
"Three things. One, he must be good in bed. Two, he must be a good
father. Three, when we divorce, he mustn't be bitter."

Robin Hanson comments on the USA.  Here is my earlier post on what I think of Sweden, one of my favorite MR posts.

Jessica Crispin reads

I am a very keen and regular reader of Bookslut and here is Jessica Crispin:

I have been happily reading Timothy Clack's Ancestral Roots: Modern Living and Human Evolution,
although it covers so many areas I occasionally wish some things had
been expanded. Like the monkeys who went on hunger strike until all
monkeys were receiving grapes. Or the evolutionary explanation for
"beer goggles." Although my favorite part was when he mentioned a study
where women "politely" asked men for no strings attached sex and they
counted how many agreed. (Less than you would think.) So many
questions! Were the results different if they "belligerently demanded"
casual sex? Did they go through with the sex, or did they just say,
"Okay, just wanted to know if you were interested. I'm going home now."
Because that seems mean. I need to find the original study.

The link is here, but that is all there is.