Home is where the inspiration is

•May 25, 2010 • 2 Comments

The mysteries of the trade become no mystery, but are, as it were, in the air.” – Alfred Marshall

I found this pearl of wisdom in the same place where I find a significant share of my inspiration – while paging through the Economist. The source article suggests that this is the reason “why geeks flock to Silicon Valley and financiers converge on New York”. I’d like to offer another cluster to the collection: why rising politicos rally toward the nation’s capital.

As a young idealist fresh in the political arena, I lived in Washington DC during the summer after my freshman year of college. I fell in love with the district: I loved the monuments, I loved the museums, I loved feeling more independent than I ever had in my life. And I loved the people. Tell this to your typical Washingtonian and he may roll his eyes at you, but it’s true. Everywhere I looked I was surrounded by passionate, fierce professionals searching for something more. Meaning, money, power, change, it doesn’t matter – as John Mayer would say, it’s all bigger than my body.

And maybe more than people, I loved being surrounded by ideas. Sure I read the news at home, but in Washington DC I got to experience the news and live it firsthand. Instead of watching a debate on C-SPAN (I do it from time to time), I could go down to the House floor and see it for myself. Pieces of news don’t go unnoticed when everyone around you is talking about them, at least if you make a point to listen. Politics became my business, and talk of it surrounded me. Its mysteries were circulated in the air.

According to Economics Professor Stephen Landsburg (see More Sex is Safer Sex), intellectuals inspire each other to be even more innovative and generate even more ideas. And all of these people inspire everyone else to test their boundaries and aspire to further discovery. There’s a reason people choose to live in cities; they like to be surrounded by other people, regardless of what they might say to the contrary.

So even if I don’t ultimately end up in the District, I’d like to think I will always find myself surrounded by inspiring people and ideas that keep me on my toes. Once we settle and get comfortable, we stop growing. Life is about facing challenges, and I think I will always feel at home wherever I feel inspired.



A More Pointed Chatroulette, Please?

•March 28, 2010 • 3 Comments

Ironically, I have been known to be a bit hesitant to jump on board with the latest in social media. I clung to my Myspace page when others were jumping ship to Facebook. I didn’t even start my own Twitter page, although now I’m an avid user. The latest craze I’m slow to accept: Chatroulette. I think it’s an interesting concept: connecting internet users around the world, capitalizing on global connection. But in practice, this experience is a little less than charming. To demonstrate my point, I yield to the ever-satirical Jon Stewart.

Chat Roulette would be cool if there were self-selecting categories to act as a screening process. I’d be all-for chatting with other curious social media users, maybe even from around the world. It could be a new way to share culture. I’d also suggest a category for groups. Part of the popularity of Chatroulette is its appeal to the collective experience. By having such a category, my sorority sisters could connect with other groups of people (likely students) who use Chatroulette as a party game. You’d get more of the audience you’re aiming for and bypass the sketchy men who sit alone in the dark. Basically, if there were a way to screen out creeps, I’d be more inclined to participate. C’est la vie.

But what other cues could we use to make Chatroulette a bit more pointed? Some suggest that a “win” in chat roulette is measured by length of conversation. This theory suggests that a long conversation means that you’ve successfully kept your audience’s attention and avoided the “next” button, thus making you a desirable connection for other users. However, to return to my previous point, the inclusion of some categories feature could signal the types of conversations or encounters users would have. The experience would be a little more self-directed, a little less random.

Then again, I could just be missing the point entirely. Maybe the appeal of Chatroulette is its random shock value. Thoughts?

These suggestions aside, I may give Chatroulette a go. There’s a chance I’ll be serenaded by Ben Folds. Please pick me, Ben Folds!


It’s Your World

•February 21, 2010 • 2 Comments

Admittedly, I have not been doing my best with blogging lately. Like everyone else you know, I’ve been busy. This week’s excuse: Model United Nations.

I always learn a lot from Model UN conferences. Obviously I learn about whatever country I am representing and the topics for discussion within my committee. But I also learn from the people I meet and the experiences I have. What I love best is that Model UN conferences seem to inherently draw an international crowd. This weekend I learned the basics of Irish dance and Swahili greetings; I was introduced to Thai food and Spanish rap music.

This international flair makes Model UN a little difficult. Despite our best attempts, we can’t always understand the perspectives of other people and other countries. At one point in second committee I found myself working on a draft resolution as a delegate representing the United Arab Emirates with my delegation partner, who is from the Netherlands. And we were working with the delegate representing Qatar, who is from Kenya (he is the one who taught me a bit of Swahili). It was quite the geographic medley: the three of us are from three different continents all doing our best to act from the perspective of the Arab league, foreign to us all.

In another scenario, our committee was in a caucus during plenary session working on a resolution amendment. An American student representing Columbia spoke about the ‘Columbian’ perspective on the amendment. The Iranian delegate (who is really from Uruguay) turned to me and said that her statements were blatantly out of character, that Columbia would never vote that way. But being from South America, he had an advantage in understanding that the American could not relate to; he had the benefit of personal experience.

While these experiences are more of the international variety, there are also plenty of new experiences to be had within my own country. Over the weekend I went out to dinner with a friend of mine from study abroad who introduced me to cream soda. Seriously, I had never had cream soda before (loved it)!

Every person lives a life rich in experience. These experiences are all different, among people from the same country or even the same city. I’ve come to realize that everyone has something to teach me. I may never be able to fully and completely understand the perspective of another. Maybe the best I can hope for is a meaningful and informed appreciation of his perspective. All I have to do is indulge a genuine curiosity in the human experience and open myself to the unfamiliar around me.


What Makes An Expert Trustworthy?

•February 11, 2010 • Leave a Comment

We appear to be in a time of populist exasperation with experts on a wide variety of topics. Immune to this trend (pun intended) seem to be medical doctors. On one level this makes a lot of sense. Only a fool would question a doctor’s knowledge on an upcoming surgery, and there are a lot of fields of medicine where advice is backed up by empirically significant findings. But in many cases, doctors don’t know why the pills we take are helpful, they barely outperform control groups with placebos, and the long-term side effects are simply unknown. In short, the theories doctors in these situations employ have predictive powers that are certainly no better than that of an economist looking at a complex labor market policy. Why do we remain so trusting of medical doctors in these situations, then, while we are generally skeptical of experts in economics and policy fields?

I can think of a couple explanations for this. The first is that in the hard sciences, debates about the efficacy of drugs and techniques take place mostly in journals and conferences, while policy debates are played out with gusto every night in news rooms.  The media likes to paint a picture of uniform scientific advancement, as opposed to the zero-sum game of partisan politics. This masks the considerable diversity of opinion and the lively debate among leading researchers. Another reason may be that we do not have the same kind of preconceptions of what works and what doesn’t for medicine as we do for political questions. Most of us don’t have experience isolating strains of bacteria or running trials, though we have worked before and have our own definitions of what is “fair”.  A more cynical hypothesis is that we don’t like to dwell very long on illness and death, and thus we defer to medical authorities without much thought. Or maybe the prestige earned from sound advice on some issues where doctors do have a degree of positive knowledge “spills over” into other fields. In this way, doctors are able to subsidize their reputation in a more uncertain field through affiliations with doctors that perform more basic medicine that is proven to be efficacious. My guess is that it is some combination of all of the above, perhaps weighting the beginning of the list more heavily in terms of importance.


Speed Limit Enforcement

•February 4, 2010 • Leave a Comment

A group project that I am working on is looking at the costs and benefits of using a radar system to enforce speed limits. The basic idea is that it will calculate speeds and then take a picture of your license plate (and face) to be able to know who to fine if you are caught over the speed limit. Its a pretty efficient system, but ever since its introduction in the U.S. in the 1980’s it has made most motorists furious. This begs the question: why the hate?

At first the answer might seem to be a simple one. No one wants to go out to the mailbox to find a large fine from the Department of Transportation. But as long as we agree that we should enforce speed limit laws in some fashion, the relevant question is whether or not automatic enforcement mechanisms are better than relying on police officers to give out tickets. The main difference between the two seems to be discrimination, which I use in the broad sense of being able to make value judgments. With the radar and camera system, fines are determined automatically by your speed and number of previous offenses. Cops, on the other hand, have the choice of what cars to pull over and whether or not to let drivers get off with a warning or perhaps reduce the fine.

One reason given against the automated system is that it entails privacy concerns. Not only do I believe these are overblown, I think they pale in comparison to the broad power and authority that we give to police. Both the camera operators and the police are public employees, and there seems a lot more potential for abuse with a gun. With this in mind, I think the real reason why people don’t like the camera systems is that they are impartial. Police can choose to target cars with out of state plates, or they can give more tickets (or more expensive ones) to different age, gender or ethnic groups. None of this is possible with the camera system, but with police tickets can be concentrated among groups that don’t have much of a say in local politics. So here’s an interesting paper idea: controlling for group-specific accident rates and car ownership/use, see if voter turnout by group can accurately predict the likelihood of receiving a ticket from the police. My guess is that this effect would be especially strong among out of state drivers, followed by ethnic minorities and younger drivers.


Cue: Political Conversation

•January 31, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Wednesday hosted an annually famous political ritual: the State of the Union address. Did you watch the State of the Union? Or, more interestingly, what news source did you use? Personally, I didn’t even watch the address; I read the transcript (I’m more of a visual than auditory person anyway).

In the days following the State of the Union, I’ve been interested in hearing what news medium people chose to follow. Some followed the direct stream from the White House or the straight forward broadcast from C-SPAN. The perceived benefit here is that there is no commentary from biased political pundits; you get the voice of the speech, nothing more.

Then there are those who opted in favor of the commentary. Take your pick from Fox News, MSNBC or CNN, among others. These pundits do not shy away from political biases. With so many alternatives to choose among, audiences have the option of selective hearing; you can listen to the partisan (or nonpartisan) commentary of your preference. Audiences can actively and intentionally avoid commentary that challenges their political beliefs if they so choose. In choosing a network to watch, you also choose the voices to hear.

And let’s not forget the opportunities presented by social media. Social technology features an Average American-style commentary rather than that of big news personalities. In watching the address via Facebook and YouTube, audiences have the opportunity to comment on posts; those in the Twitter-verse used the hashtag #sotu to create and follow a conversation.  If networks give voice to partisan and professional figures, then technology gives voice to everyone else.

Be it through listening to partisan politicos or participating in social media dialogue, political engagement is a social experience. Information in the public sphere opens itself to collective interpretation. But what about those (like me) who seemingly avoided the public sphere? By reading the transcript, you could argue that I missed a fundamental part of the experience; and no, I don’t mean watching VP Joe Biden in the background of the visual broadcast. Political engagement provides an opportunity to influence social discourse. Listening to the ideas of others and contributing our own helps us understand issues and formulate our own opinions. To be an idealist for a moment, it’s a part of democracy.

Although perhaps my experience was more social than I give it credit. The transcript did make sure to include cues such as “applause” and “laughter” where appropriate.


Asking the Tough Questions

•January 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

There are numerous political talk shows that advertise that they “ask the tough questions” during interviews with public officials and politicians. Generally they follow a pretty standard format: “Did you do ‘x’? What is your position on ‘y’? What will you do if ‘z’ occurs?” It seems silly to me that these are what pass for hard-hitting questions; surely politicians have been well-prepped by their advisers to answer these well. It may be a tough question because it broaches an uncomfortable subject, but the way in which the question is asked is prosaic and unchallenging.

So what kind of questions should we be asking our politicians? I think that we would learn a lot more about them if we were to ask them what they think is the best counter-argument against a position that they hold. Not only would this likely catch them off guard, it would also show whether or not they have thought seriously enough about the issue to consider alternative viewpoints. Anyone can parrot back arguments and stick to the party line, but it takes real intelligence and a willingness to engage with ideas to be able to outline why you might be wrong.

This technique certainly shouldn’t be left to politics. Next time you are in a debate with a friend, ask them how they think an intelligent opponent would respond to their arguments. Better yet, ask yourself what you think the weak points are in your theories, or what conditions would need to hold for you to be wrong. My guess is that we would be much more nuanced in our thoughts if we did this, and that our positions would be stronger as a result of it. There is a reason why military training isn’t comprised of merely attacking a straw man, and we should expect debates to move beyond this as well.