Thursday, 30 August 2012

Coop-eration: chickens, baseball and the Research Excellence Framework

Back in the day, baseball teams would pay huge amounts for superstars with excellent performance statistics, such as batting averages. (Baseball involves batting, right? Bear with me, this will become a metaphor.) One now famous baseball coach started out as an econometrician. He analysed team performances, looking for players who were on successful teams even though their individual statistics were not that great. The logic was that teams, not individuals, win matches. Buying these relatively cheap players, he took them to the top of the Superbowl (or whatever - I think this book has the details).

Chicken farmers have discovered the same thing. If you only breed from the individuals who lay the most eggs within a coop, you end up selecting for highly aggressive hens who destroy each others’ eggs. It’s better to breed from individuals within highly productive coops. (Source.)

The UK's Research Excellence Framework is approaching. It ranks academic departments by aggregating each individual's productivity. This is fair enough. The problem starts when departments try to increase their ranking by trying to hire academic "superstars". If this were what made a great department, we could all just work from home. Departments should be places where ideas cross-fertilize. The person who contributes to a vibrant working environment, or frames someone else’s idea in an important new perspective, may be as important as the person with a Stakhanovite publication output.

So, in terms of incentive structures, academics are some way behind sports coaches and chicken farmers. I hope they will soon catch up with these more forward-thinking elements of society.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Pictures from an abandoned Russian army barracks

GSSD-Kaserne lies in the forest on the hills above Lichtenhain. Originally it was a location for Scud rockets. Parts of the base have become a nature reserve, with barracks buildings now housing bat colonies. Before that, it was visited by graffiti artists, newly liberated from the grip of the Red Army.


Groklaw thinks Apple's win against Samsung may not stand on appeal, and makes some scathing comments about the jury.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Weather linkage

Extreme weather events are probabilistic, not deterministic. So, can we blame them on global warming (or anything else)? Here's one methodology.

Alternative view: Liberal God punishes Republicans, APSA-goers for not boycotting Louisiana’s Super DOMA.

Sunday, 26 August 2012


Patriotism with Chinese characteristics.
Crookedtimber on economists on migration. Note the claim: "since population movements on the scale that Phelps and Kennan contemplate typically come with other problems, such as serious ethnic conflict...." Perhaps true, but certainly unsourced. Nineteenth-century America saw huge immigration but without serious conflict -- at least, serious in comparison to the benefit it, and the world, gained.
New blog, related to new book.
Ta-Nehisi Coates on the problems of being Obama. Here's a good paragraph:
In a democracy, so the saying goes, the people get the government they deserve. Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed.
My take: multicultural democracy involves constant walking on eggshells.

Will there, should there, be inflation?

On holiday in sunny, economically devastated Spain, I spent an evening chatting to an ex-financier who predicts inflationary doom for the Euro. Inflation doom-mongering has been consistently wrong so far. So why would that change? One reason is that inflation may be the wisest policy now. Europe has a lot of debts. (Yes, the US has more and Great Britain more still.) We probably can't pay off those debts. So we can either default hard, or default quietly via inflation. On a naive view the latter is less honest, but for that very reason, it is likely to cause less social conflict. Here are some more people making the argument.

A side note: sometimes people try to reconcile central bank independence with democracy, by arguing that monetary policy is a purely technical field without distributive consequences. If inflation does become a tool of policy, then this will swiftly be seen for the nonsense it always was. Inflation redistributes towards debtors. It's just as political as everything else.

Sunday, 19 August 2012


Having experienced both, I think Virgin are great and FGW are dreadful.

Designing a market for train services is tricky. Leaving each rail operator permanently in charge might lead to stagnation. Reshuffling franchises every few years puts civil servants in charge of the market, and can make the operators short-termist. My instinct is to prefer natural monopolies to artificial competition (have I mentioned the Russian chandelier factory?) but that is just from the gut.

I travelled across Germany on Friday. Every train I used was late, I was delayed by 2 hours in total, and there was a replacement bus service on the last part of the line.

Saturday, 4 August 2012


"I can't decide who I love more: Hitler or the Wu-tang?"

I should add that Ljubljana has actually really grown on me: a chilled-out small Central European town, with a pretty, baroque centre and lots of cafes serving fresh lemonade and Italian coffee.


Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation, the best and shortest of the new atheists' books) has a new ebook on lying.