Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Rainbow Curve

As I mentioned earlier the highest I have been on land was on Trail Ridge Road in Colorado. The photo was taken from the Rainbow Curve in August 1994. Trail Ridge Road tops out at 12183 feet but Rainbow Curve is at a mere 10875.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Solar vrs Wind

My last tirade about rooftop photovoltaic installations prompted a request for alternative suggestions.

The problem with rooftop solar photovoltaic electricity generation is that it costs too much. According to this a 4 KW rooftop photovoltaic installation costs $32000 or $8000 per KW. By comparison a 1.5 MW GE wind turbine like those in the Walnut Wind Farm appears to cost about $3000000 or $2000 per KW. So the wind turbine is 1/4 the cost per KW. It can be expected to have a better capacity factor as well. Note rooftop solar in particular will often have a lower capacity factor because of unfavorable location or orientation. So wind is much cheaper.

The above figures are rough estimates. For a sanity check see this account of a HSBC investment report which says in part:

What’s really interesting about HSBC’s new report is how solar power stacks up today against other ways of generating electricity—it doesn’t. That is, all the other power-generation technologies are in roughly the same neighborhood, even wind power—but not solar.

For instance, HSBC estimates costs per megawatt for different options: Combined-cycle gas, 43 euros; regular coal, 62 euros; onshore wind, 58 euros; nuclear power, 48 euros; geothermal, 43 euros. Photovoltaic solar power costs 290 euros per megawatt; concentrated solar power 181 euros.

Again wind power is much cheaper than photovoltaic solar power. In fact if we ignore the fact that wind is intermittent it is competitive with fossil fuels.

So wind is real, rooftop photovoltaic is just symbolic.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Yankees clinch

The Yankees clinched the American League East last weekend sweeping their arch rival Boston Rex Sox in the process. As I mentioned at the start of the season I am not much of a baseball fan but I do follow the Yankees a little.

With the baseball season winding down the standings will start containing the "x"s and "y"s denoting teams that have clinched spots in the post season or division titles. Another feature I would like to see in the standings is an indication (possibly a line through the team name) of which teams have been mathematically eliminated from post season play. Unfortunately I expect the papers are wary of probable league public relations objections. And of course it would be a little tricky to determine exactly when teams are eliminated in some cases. Still I think it would be interesting.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


I was asked in comments a couple of days ago whether I was doing mathematics while out of work. Somewhat sad to say, the answer is no or at least not seriously. While with my former employer I gradually did less research level mathematics until in the final years I was doing programming almost exclusively. So at this point I am rather out of touch with the current research and am not very motivated to get back into it.

Some people can work for years on a problem without much interaction with other people. I am not really able to do this. So as I gradually lost contact with the mathematics research community I became less productive. And I became more interested in other things.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Vaccine trial statistics

The US military has been conducting a large and expensive AIDS vaccine trial in Thailand. Recently positive results were announced with much fanfare .

However the actual results are not that impressive. 74 out of about 8000 in the placebo group became infected as opposed to 51 out of about 8000 in the vaccine group. An approximate test of significance is to ask if we flip a fair coin 125 times what percentage of the time will the head tail split be at least as uneven as 74/51. By my calculation 4.87%. So this is statistically significant at the 5% level but just barely so. Again by my calculations if there had been one fewer infection in the placebo group this value would have been 5.89% or if there had been one more infection in the vaccine group this value would have been 6.09% neither of which would have been significant.

This illustrates one of the problems of picking an arbitrary line like 5% and declaring results on one side successes and on the other side failures. Another problem is the fact that there have been many vaccine trials other than this one all of which failed. Clearly if you run enough trials some will appear to succeed (at the 5% level) just by chance. I think there is a fair chance this is an example.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Pension finalized

Last week I sent in the forms to initiate my pension. As discussed earlier I chose to receive it all in the form of a single life annuity. I called today and verified that the forms had arrived ok. So I am all set to begin receiving a pension in November (although the first payment may be delayed a little).

Traditional defined benefit pensions like mine are becoming less common especially for private employers. Defined contribution plans (eg 401k) are becoming more popular. And in fact my former employer had shifted during the time I worked there, first putting all new employees into a 401k plan and later terminating the traditional pension plan (while preserving benefits earned). I think the main reason for this is that the value of a 401k plan is more apparent to employees. Each year you see how much money is added and the accumulated value. And it is totally portable. By contrast I expect most employees have little idea how to value a traditional pension. Since traditional pensions are in fact quite costly for employers this makes them an undesirable form of compensation.

One liberal complaint, which getting laid off has made me a bit more sympathetic to, is 401k plans and the like require people to be investment managers a task that many people are likely to be bad at. I am smart and fairly knowledgeable about financial markets and I still find managing my 401k and other investments a bit daunting. I expect many people would make expensive mistakes.

I consider this a strong argument against privatization of social security. Social security is not all that generous but it does provide a safety net. Left totally to their own devices I expect many people would end up worse off.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


One thing I didn't like about "Panic" was the introduction by Michael Lewis which contained a confusing and in my view wrongheaded attack on the Black-Scholes option pricing formula.

Briefly Black and Scholes showed given a certain simplified model of the world in which stock prices move in continuous random walks then you could derive a formula for the value of stock options. Now it has always been known that this simplified model was not completely accurate. This is generally the case with models. The real world is very complicated and hard to understand. So we look at simplified models of the world which we can analyze. If chosen carefully such models can give us considerable insight into what is happening in the more complicated real world. But they will never match reality exactly and will increasingly diverge from reality as we move into domains where the simplified model assumptions break down. Still such models can be very useful.

But Lewis writes:

... At the end of 2006, according to the Bank for International Settlements, there was $415 trillion in derivatives-that is, $415 trillion in securities for which there is no completely satisfactory pricing model. ...

This is a silly objection. There is no completely satisfactory pricing model for stocks so why should there be one for stock options? In both cases the price is ultimately determined by the market, by the balance between supply and demand. The market price can be very wrong in retrospect. For instance during bubbles. But this is not the fault of the Black-Scholes formula. It just reflects the fact that it can be hard to think independently from the herd.

Recent comments

I have added a gadget to the blog that lists the most recent comments so it is easy to tell when comments have been added. Unfortunately the title of the posts isn't included. Also for some reason my own comments don't seem to be included.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


I recently read "Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity" edited by Michael Lewis. This book caught my eye at the library because of the name "Michael Lewis". I liked his books "Liar's Poker" and "Moneyball" a lot. Unfortunately as the small print explains this book was just edited by Michael Lewis.

It is a collection of many short articles written at the time about 4 recent market panics, the 1987 Wall Street stock market crash, the emerging market currency runs in the late nineties, the internet bubble and the housing bubble. A few of the articles and some introductory material are by Lewis but most of the content was written by other people.

I found the content uneven and generally mediocre. I found the book reasonably easy to finish as the format meant I could read it in small chunks. However the articles were of variable interest and quality and generally pretty superficial.

The articles also often seemed a bit dated. While contemporary accounts of events are interesting as records of what people were thinking at the time they suffer from not knowing how events played out. For example one of the articles in the book was a March 20, 2000 Barron's article, "Burning Up" by Jack Willoughby which calculated how long it would take various internet stocks to run out of their available cash given their burn rates. Apparently this article made a stir at the time and is historically important. However rereading it in 2009 one is naturally curious about the fate of the companies listed. An update would have been nice.

One of the better articles (which however is marred by a terrible misprint "able" has been changed to "unable" in one spot) in the book is an account derived from this blog posting of how during the California bubble years it was possible to buy a million dollar house while putting $270 down, pull out more than $300000 in cash over the next three years by refinancing and then just walk away sticking the banks involved (one which was Washington Mutual now defunct) with a massive loss. Which is why I am not all that sympathetic towards people being foreclosed on, a lot of them haven't really lost anything.

In summary if you like reading about markets behaving badly this book can provide some light entertainment. If you want a more serious exploration of the subject you should look elsewhere.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Summer ends

Summer ended Tuesday. I expect I am done with AC for the year and will need to start running the heat soon. This isn't really a bad time of year but I am always a bit sad to see summer end as it means winter is approaching. And I don't care for the winters around here what with the cold and snow and all.

Looking on the bright side the fall color is nice and should be starting pretty soon.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Solar madness

I have complained before about the foolishness of encouraging residential photovoltaic installations. Recent posts by Yglesias and Drum about feed-in tariffs which obligate utilities to buy (at exorbitant rates) power produced by small scale photovoltaic generation have provoked me into revisiting the subject. According to Drum:

... And yes, it's a very good idea that makes small-scale solar installations economically worthwhile.

Actually it's a very bad idea as the highly subsidized small scale photovoltaic installations are only economically worthwhile for the owners. They are economically wasteful for society as a whole because they are highly uncompetitive in cost with other means of generating electricity.

It is ironic that Yglesias and Drum who once claimed to be members of the reality based community (in contrast to the delusional Bush administration) now give uncritical backing to liberal programs that are equally detached from reality. It appears Republicans and Democrats just live in different fantasy worlds.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Great Blue Heron

One of the things I like about my condo is the back overlooks a small pond. Ducks and geese are common inhabitants but this year it has been sporadically visited by a bigger bird. I don't know anything about identifying birds but it appears it may be a Great Blue Heron .

It's difficult to take a picture of it as it seems to spook easily. I took the picture Saturday with a telephoto lens. The sun was setting but it was not actually as dark as the picture appears.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Comment weirdness

When commenting to my own blog I sometimes get a can not be processed please try again error message. I don't know what is causing this but resubmitting the comment generally works. So don't let the message scare you off.

New Croton Dam

Today I walked along Old Croton Aqueduct trail from Quaker Bridge Road to the New Croton Dam . This is about a mile each way. There are only 3 or 4 parking spots where the trail crosses Quaker Bridge Road and they are sometimes full but I was the only car at 5pm. The trail is on the side of a wooded hill and is shady most of the way except where it goes under some high tension lines about half way to the dam. Summer is coming to an end but the trees were still green.

You used to be able to drive across the dam but the road was closed before 911 to repair a bridge over the spillway at the far end of the dam and will not be reopened because of security concerns. Even when it was open the road didn't get a lot of auto traffic. You can still walk or bicycle across the top.

I took the photo in October 2005.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Fading STAR

I made my final 2009 property tax payment today. This was the first half of the 2009-2010 school and library taxes and was due by September 30.

My total property taxes in 2009 were 29% higher than in 2008. This was primarily due to cuts in the state STAR school tax relief program. Part of the cut was obvious, the STAR rebate checks were eliminated in 2009. The other part was more subtle, my basic STAR full value exemption was cut from $106000 to $90000. My full value assessment also was cut but by a much smaller percentage. The net effect was to reduce my STAR savings (and hence raise my taxes) by a couple of hundred dollars. Despite considerable poking around on the STAR website I was unable to explain the cut. I suspect some arcane formula change intended to save the state money.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Education again

There were some belated comments to my recent education posts.

Regarding rubber rooms it was pointed out that it wouldn't matter that it is almost impossible to fire teachers after they get tenure if school districts never made mistakes when awarding tenure. This is true but unrealistic. Probably school districts could do a better job of selecting new teachers but perfection is impossible.

The New York City school district has been attempting to fire Colleen McGraham since 2005 when she developed a crush on a 15 year old boy. As of June 2008 the city had successfully appealed an arbitrator's 90 day suspension as too lenient but as far I can tell the case is still going on. Meanwhile she collects her salary.

In a similar case it took many years and multiple court appeals for the New York City school district to fire Cary Hershkowitz .

At least these teachers weren't criminally convicted of anything, unlike Alabama teacher Charlene Schmitz who continues to be paid while serving a 10 year sentence in federal prison for seducing a 14 year old.

I am unaware of any way that school districts can effectively screen out all teachers who will develop a propensity for this sort of thing.

These are extreme cases but it stands to reason that if it is difficult to fire teachers like these it will be almost impossible to fire teachers who are merely a little incompetent.

Regarding teachers there was some anecdotal evidence offered that teachers can make a differences. Some of this evidence was for remedial classes while I have been primarily talking about typical classes. More importantly I don't trust anecdotal evidence.

Consider this story :

Within a couple of weeks, Schonfeld, then a 46-year-old interior designer, got quickly and dramatically better, able once again to care for herself and her husband and daughter, no longer so convinced of her own worthlessness that she'd consider killing herself. For the next two months, she came back weekly for more interviews and tests and EEGs. And by the end of the study, Schonfeld seemed to be yet another person who owed a nearly miraculous recovery to the new generation of antidepressants -- in this case, venlafaxine, better known as Effexor.

A miracle drug? Not quite, she was on the placebo.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Health reform nonsense

Young drivers are more likely to get in auto accidents. As a result they pay more for auto insurance. No one seems to think this is outrageous.

On the other hand young people are less likely to require expensive medical care. But for reasons that baffle me, many of the people backing health reform think it would be terrible if young people got a break on rates for medical insurance. It appears the Baucus plan contains a provision to allow young people to pay lower rates. Timothy Noah is annoyed . Apparently in his view treating young people fairly constitutes "pandering". For

Everybody else gets screwed ...

In Noah's world it is unfair to require people to pay fair rates. This is connected to a common liberal misapprehension about insurance.

... Insurance, after all, works only to the extent that it can spread risk among a diverse population. ...

This is completely wrong. Insurance works just fine with homogeneous pools. The purpose of insurance is to hedge against future bad luck. There is no need for good risks to subsidize bad risks. There is no reason for people in California to be forced to buy tornado insurance to reduce rates for people in Kansas or for people in Kansas to be forced to buy earthquake insurance to reduce rates for people in California.

The liberal fetish for community rating (charging everybody the same rate) for medical insurance makes their plans difficult to implement as it means there will be a large group of people who are being overcharged and who will look for ways out. Allowing them to leave will set off an adverse selection death spiral but forcing them to remain will be complicated and unpopular.

Even just allowing rates to vary by age and sex would considerably reduce the mismatch between rates charged and actual risk and alleviate the above problem. But this appears to be anathema to the reformers.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Late bloomer

About 10 years ago 4 day lily plants were put along the street in front of my condo. They bloom prolifically for about a month from late June through July. Unfortunately I am not always around to see them.

Last year another day lily was added. It is not as prolific but blooms into September. The picture was taken on Tuesday and shows a late bloom.

Monday, September 14, 2009

State of Play

A few days ago I watched (via netflix) the 2009 movie State of Play which has just come out on DVD. This is a remake of a 2003 BBC miniseries (6 one hour episodes) which I saw (also on DVD via netfix) a while ago.

Both concern a newspaper investigating a scandal triggered by the death of a politician's research assistant who it turns out was also his mistress. There are the usual twists and turns as the reporters dig into the case. I am a bit of a sucker for stories about crusading newspaper reporters battling evil in high places and I liked the BBC miniseries a lot.

I didn't like the movie as much. It started strong but then seemed to lose its way a bit. There was a scene in a parking garage that seemed confusing and unnecessary. Apparently it was in the movie as some sort of homage to a parking garage scene in "All the President's Men" (which I have not seen). This doesn't seem a very good reason for including a scene to me. More generally I thought the movie had trouble compressing 6 hours of material to 2 hours. The final plot twist seemed insufficiently developed.

Of course it is bit hard to be fair to the movie having seen the miniseries first. Still although the movie was ok I thought the miniseries was quite a bit better. So my recommendation would be to watch the miniseries first. You might want to turn subtitles on however as I found some of the English accents hard to follow.

Malicious ads

Another problem with online ads is malicious ads. Sunday the New York Times placed the following warning on its website:

Some readers have seen a pop-up box warning them about a virus and directing them to a site that claims to offer antivirus software. We believe this was generated by an unauthorized advertisement and are working to prevent the problem from recurring. If you see such a warning, we suggest that you not click on it. Instead, quit and restart your Web browser. Questions and comments can be sent to

Some additional information can be found here .

According to the second link the New York Times believes it has eliminated the problem (although I encountered one of the malicious ads after reading the first warning). Even so this sort of thing hardly encourages readers to trust online ads. If the New York Times can't manage to keep malicious ads out of their online newspaper why should anybody trust any online ad. A TV commercial may be annoying but it is not likely to hijack your TV.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Jesse Unruh

Last week California state assemblyman, Michael Duvall , resigned after he was caught on tape over sharing about his sexual activities with lobbyists.

This brought back memories of growing up in California, before term limits , in the time of Jesse Unruh . Unruh was Speaker of the California State Assembly from 1961 to 1969. Here is a 1961 Time magazine profile of Unruh as he prepared to become speaker. And here is another 1970 Time profile of Unruh as he ran for Governor of California against Ronald Reagan. Unruh lost of course and lost another race for Mayor of Los Angeles before being elected California Treasurer in 1974 serving until his death in 1987.

Unruh is best remembered today for two quotes about politics. From the second Time profile:

... He is remembered for two harsh dicta from his assembly days: "Money is the mother's milk of politics," and, speaking of lobbyists: "If you can't take their money, drink their booze, screw their women and look them in the eye and vote against them, you don't belong here." ...

By most accounts Unruh personally was not shy about screwing their women. It appears times have changed.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Online ads

There has been much discussion lately about how newspapers can survive in an online world. Here Felix Salmon criticizes a micropayments proposal. I agree micropayments are unlikely to work. Salmon goes on to say:

My view is that the internet has been magnificent at vastly increasing the number of readers that newspapers have, and at strengthening the relationship that print subscribers have with the newspaper brand. By rights, those relationships, in aggregate, should now be more valuable, not less valuable. But because of problems with the ad market — including the tyranny of the CPM and the fact that advertisers in general are not big fans of buying online inventory — newspapers profits have gone down even as their readership has skyrocketed.

However I don't think this is accurate. The internet means I read articles from a greater number of newspapers but the total amount of time I spend reading newspapers has decreased. And online ads don't sell for much because they aren't worth much. They are too easy to ignore. This is true of newspaper ads also but sometimes you don't want to ignore newspaper ads. You might be in the market for a house or a car or just want to see what some local stores have on sale. But online you would not go to a newspaper site for these needs, you would go directly to an online market or store website. And reading a newspaper or magazine an ad can catch your eye in a way that does not seem (at least for me) to happen online.

While I don't think micropayments will work an annual subscription model might. I might pay the New York Times a small annual fee, say $50/year, for unlimited access to their website and archives. But I wouldn't pay such fees to a lot of different newspapers. So perhaps the end result will be massive consolidation of the newspaper industry with only a few survivors.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

New York mini-COBRA expanded

New York state has passed a law extending the 18 month federal COBRA period (during which you can stay in your former employer's health plan) to 36 months in New York state. This would be helpful for me but it is unclear whether the law applies in my case. According to the FAQ :

The law effects policies or contracts issued, renewed, modified, altered or amended on or after July 1, 2009. For most policies, the new benefit will apply on the policy’s annual renewal date. You can check with your insurer to determine the renewal date.

I was terminated effective February 26, 2009 but will be still be covered under federal COBRA on the renewal date (which I think is near the end of the year). Does this mean I am then entitled to a renewed policy for the remainder of the federal COBRA period which must contain an option to extend for an additional 18 months under the new state COBRA law? Hopefully, but it seems unclear.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Seniority pay

In the course of arguing here and here for merit pay for teachers Yglesias dismisses the usual seniority based pay scales for teachers as an ineffective version of merit pay (because merit and seniority are not strongly related). But I don't think this is the main argument for seniority pay.

Research has shown people's happiness depends more on whether their condition is improving or deteriorating than on its absolute level. Seniority based pay systems take advantage of this to increase worker satisfaction. Compare a pay scale that rises from $40000 to $80000 over the course of a 30 year career to one than is a flat $60000 independent of seniority. In the seniority based system workers will get annual raises of about 2.3% (in addition to any increases in general pay levels). So their pay will go up a little every year increasing satisfaction. Unions like this as it makes the contracts they negotiate appear better than they actually are.

Of course seniority pay has disadvantages too. It requires workers to trust their employers to stay in business and not to lay off their older workers. So it is especially attractive for jobs like teacher where these aren't major worries. I doubt it will be easy to get rid of.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Efficient market hypothesis

Kevin Drum criticizes the efficient market hypothesis (EMH) on the grounds that the management of publicly traded companies which are targets of hostile takeover offers invariably says the offer undervalues their company. Now there are certainly legitimate criticisms of the EMH but this particular criticism is silly.

Because of the agency problem the management of takeover targets will tend to resist them even if they are in the best interests of the shareholders because takeovers are often not in the best interests of the incumbent management. Of course management likes to appear to be acting in the interests of the shareholders. Hence claims that the price offered is too low as within limits this is in fact a legitimate negotiating tactic that is in the best interests of the shareholders.

As for why people might offer more than the market price if the market price is "correct", the market price generally assumes the company will be run by existing management (as replacing management is difficult). With different management the company could be worth more.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Mount Fuji

Congratulations to my brother and niece for climbing Mount Fuji in late August.

The summit of Mount Fuji is 12388 feet above sea level. I believe this is a bit higher than I have ever been on land. I think the highest I have been is on Trail Ridge Road in Colorado which has a maximum elevation of 12183 feet. It is possible to drive to the top of Pikes Peak (14115 feet) but I haven't.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Home field advantage

Matthew Yglesias has been wondering why the Taliban are more popular in parts of Afghanistan than we are. There is no real mystery about this.

In Afghanistan the average American soldier does not speak the local language, does not follow the local religion and is unfamiliar with the local mores and customs. Furthermore it is American policy to forcibly transform Afghanistan in ways many locals find highly objectionable. So it is hardly surprising that American soldiers are not universally loved by the locals. Our native vassals have more local knowledge but are constrained by having to at least pretend to be following American policy.

Ann Coulter notoriously suggested that the way to deal with places like Afghanistan was:

We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. ...

I don't advocate this but if we aren't willing to use such methods we shouldn't be trying to transform Afghanistan as this just makes us unpopular without achieving anything.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Verizon update

I complained back in March that my internet service provider, Verizon, was not letting me send emails with my resume attached. At the time I was unable to get Verizon to admit there was a problem much less fix it. However I just checked and the problem appears to have gone away. I don't know when this changed or why.

My new complaint about Verizon is that they are dropping support for Usenet newsgroups as of September 30. I must admit their explanation of reduced demand is plausible. I actively participated in several Usenet newsgroups in the 1990s but have not done so in some time although I have continued to read a few sporadically. But it is still a little annoying to have Verizon unilaterally drop part of their service without a price adjustment (especially since I was required to commit for a year when I signed up).

Friday, September 4, 2009

Fatal error

There is a long article in the current New Yorker about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was executed in 2004 after being convicted of setting a 1991 fire which killed his three young children. The prosecution case relied on testimony by fire investigators that the fire was deliberately set. According to the article this testimony relied on theories of fire behavior that are now known to be wrong and that there was no real evidence that the fire wasn't accidental. Assuming this to be the case the remaining evidence against Willingham is not convincing beyond a reasonable doubt. This is sufficient to show Willingham was innocent in the legal (they didn't prove it) sense although not necessarily in the factual (he didn't do it) sense. However it does seem quite possible he was factually innocent as well and just very unlucky.

If Willingham was factually innocent this was an individual tragedy but it it is not clear to me that it has any wider implications. There have been over 1000 executions in the United States since they resumed in 1976. According to Blackstone "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer". Still this standard does not require the exclusion of all doubt. And in practice it seems apparent that a few percent of convictions are in error. Allowing for a higher standard in death penalty cases a 1% false conviction rate seems a reasonable estimate to me. So this would give an over/under of about 10 for the number of executions of innocents since 1976. Perhaps this is high but I don't think it is at all reasonable to have confidently expected everyone executed was factually guilty. So I don't really see why this case should change any one's mind about the death penalty, any honest supporter should already have conceded that it will result in the occasional execution of an innocent.

Mistakes are made all the time that result in the death of innocents. Vaccines occasionally kill. Simple operations go wrong. Planes collide. Cars crash. So I don't see why the criminal justice system should be expected to avoid all fatal mistakes. Which isn't to say of course that reasonable efforts shouldn't be taken to minimize such errors.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Depression Economics

I recently read "The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008" by Paul Krugman . This is an updated version of his 1999 book "The Return of Depression Economics" which I have not read.

This book is basically a narrative account of various economic disturbances around the world since 1990 or so culminating in the 2008 crisis. I found it easy to read and entertaining. The downside is that the book is pretty superficial. It does introduce a few simple economic ideas but I don't think I learned a lot.

The book seemed pretty bland considering Krugman's reputation (possibly undeserved) as a partisan firebrand. Perhaps the most controversial thing in the book is a sentence praising Pinochet's economic reforms in Chile. I got little sense of what Krugman thinks should have been done differently in the past or should change going forward.

I also feel the book tended to neglect the aftermath of the crises it discusses. This may reflect in part a failure to completely update the 1999 edition. For example a speculative attack on the Hong Kong dollar is described but the ultimate outcome is left unclear.

So to sum up I found the book adequate as a light introduction to recent economic events but a bit lacking if you are looking for deeper insights.

Valley View Sewer District extension

In recent weeks I have observed considerable construction activity along the east side of 134 (Hawkes avenue) on the way into town. Apparently this is an extension of the Valley View Sewer District, perhaps connected with the Hawkes Crossing development. It seems this is being paid for by the people being added. It would be interesting to know how the costs were allocated. It doesn't really affect me as I am in the Lakeville Sewer Extension District on the other side of 9A.

Construction at Hawkes Crossing is proceeding fitfully. A first (model?) home looks complete but doesn't seem open yet.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Moby Dick

Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum disagree about Moby Dick . Yglesias:

All that said, I love Moby Dick. Every American should read Moby Dick, it’s our great national epic and you can’t understand the country without it.


I read Moby Dick a couple of months ago. I didn't care for it. I'll spare you the details since I'd just be opening myself up to quite justified charges of philistinism, and who needs that? But I will say this: I don't feel like I understand our country any better for having read it. ...

I have read Moby Dick but I don't remember anything much about it except that it was long and boring. So I agree with Drum.

As for requiring kids to read it, in my opinion this is wrong for anything less than a specialized college level course. Forcing students to read books like this seems like a variant of the theory that the worse a medicine tastes the better it must be for you.