Saturday, January 29, 2011

Another statistics application

Estimating Germany's tank production during WWII. "...After the war, the allies captured German production records, showing that the true number of tanks produced in those three years was 245 per month, almost exactly what the statisticians had calculated, and less than one fifth of what standard intelligence had thought likely."

Friday, January 28, 2011

Better than focus groups?

Reagan polled his (postal) inbox.
Reagan had a rather statistical frame of mind (speechwriter Peggy Noonan said that the President's first drafts for speeches always included far more statistics than the public could put up with).

One of his more curious, but revealing habits, was that he had his White House staff provide him every Friday, with about 20 letters from citizens. On Monday, he'd give the staffers' his replies to send out. It was an odd system, but he felt that grappling with the idiosyncratic concerns of about 1,000 individual citizens per year provided a sample that kept him connected to the country.

I have no idea how effective this was. There's always selection bias to worry about. However, pollsters can partially correct for this, and perhaps Reagan's staffers did the same.

If you knew that Obama was polling his inbox the same way Reagan did, would you be more likely to send him an email? How willing are you to participate when a pollster calls you? Is there any tension between your last two answers?

More on the future of scholarship

British academics are not happy about the idea of having to justify their research in terms of "impact". (I'm not happy about the idea either.) Meanwhile, Stanley Fish, provoked last fall by SUNY Albany's announced termination of its French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater programs, has suggested university presidents rebuke state legislators:
...drop the deferential pose, leave off being a petitioner and ask some pointed questions: Do you know what a university is, and if you don’t, don’t you think you should, since you’re making its funding decisions? Do you want a university — an institution that takes its place in a tradition dating back centuries — or do you want something else, a trade school perhaps? (Nothing wrong with that.) And if you do want a university, are you willing to pay for it, which means not confusing it with a profit center? And if you don’t want a university, will you fess up and tell the citizens of the state that you’re abandoning the academic enterprise, or will you keep on mouthing the pieties while withholding the funds?

That’s not the way senior academic administrators usually talk to their political masters, but try it; you might just like it. And it might even work.

Good luck with that. I think the future of "non-impact" research funding is with grants and donations from private foundations and individuals. The median voter hasn't acquired a taste for scholarship in any discipline. Even the median alum of a big state school probably cares a lot more about the performance of its football team than the prestige of its scholarship.
The jobs of the future:
Tyler also argued that we faced a great recalculation problem, with lots of jobs opening up that need high tech skills, but way too many poorly educated workers. Yet the facts he presents seemed to point in the opposite direction. He mentions that the new high tech firms like Facebook can get the job done with an extremely low number of workers. This webtopia that Tyler foresees won’t require many workers at all. In that case, what should all our surplus workers do? How will they find jobs? Not in agriculture, 2 million farmers can feed the whole country. Not in manufacturing, we are falling below 10% in that sector. And most people don’t want three washing machines and four cars. Where would they put them all? Here’s what I think most people still want:

1. A bigger and nicer house, with granite counter-tops.

2. More restaurant meals.

3. More fun vacations.

That means we need more construction workers, and granite miners (quarriers?) We need more cooks and waiters. We need more hotel receptionists and maids. More people to work on Carnival cruise ships. I think our workforce is skilled enough to fill those jobs. It’s very lucky that the high tech companies that will provide all sorts of wonderful services do not need many workers. We aren’t Singapore, and would have trouble supplying them.

This reminds me of a 1996 Paul Krugman essay about 2096:
Late 20th-century America was supremely efficient at growing food; that was why it had hardly any farmers. Late 21st-century America is supremely efficient at processing routine information; that is why the traditional white-collar worker has virtually disappeared from the scene...

If you want to devote yourself to scholarship, there are now only three options (the same options that were available in the 19th century, before the rise of institutionalized academic research). Like Charles Darwin, you can be born rich, and live off your inheritance. Like Alfred Wallace, the less fortunate co-discoverer of evolution, you can make your living doing something else, and pursue research as a hobby. Or, like many 19th-century scientists, you can try to cash in on scholarly reputation by going on the paid lecture circuit.

But celebrity, though more common than ever before, still does not come easily. And that is why writing this article is such an opportunity. I actually don't mind my day job in the veterinary clinic, but I have always wanted to be a full-time economist; an article like this might be just what I need to make my dream come true.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

I've been closely following the NYT's Disunion series. There have been many interesting posts, but I'll limit this post to two things:

1) Did Buchanan provoke two states' secessions?

But the question remains: Wouldn’t the six other Lower South states have joined South Carolina in January in any case, even if Buchanan had prolonged his December stall on military intervention? Probably. In Florida and Mississippi, the military excitements could have only fattened the secessionists already huge majorities. But elsewhere, the aftermath of Buchanan’s Star of the West decision just may have deflected the verdict. Especially in closely contested Georgia and Louisiana, public uproars may have boosted the secessionists to their razor-thin victories.
2) If Lincoln had known how long and bloody the Civil War had would be, I wonder if he would have stuck to his principles, opposing any compromise that left open a possible future conquest of Cuba and the expansion of slavery thereto.
Perhaps Yglesias is not representative of the median view at the Center for American Progress, but I was still pleasantly surprised by this:
Personally, I’d favor focusing on catastrophic coverage and preventive services, while leaving routine care up to individuals, but reasonable people will disagree about exactly how many social resources should be devoted to health care overall.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Critical mass is ~50kg.
US tests have confirmed it is 89.4% enriched, usable in a nuclear warhead... They thought they were selling their 18g sample to a representative of an Islamist group as a precursor to a bigger consignment. But the buyer was an undercover police officer.

It is the third time in seven years HEU has been intercepted in Georgia. There have been 21 seizures or attempted thefts of weapons-grade material, uranium or plutonium, in the region since the Soviet Union collapsed. In every case the material seized had not been missed and mostly the theft was by an insider...

"Most likely, the materials were stolen in the mid- or early 1990s when a big amount of material disappeared. It's hidden somewhere and from time to time, someone is trying to find new buyers," said Archil Pavlenishvili, head of Georgia's radioactive materials investigation team. "We think that the game is not over. There will be more attempts."

Is the problem of that "big amount of material" being allocated at least as much talent as Stuxnet was?

Monday, January 03, 2011

Saturday, January 01, 2011

US distribution of racial/ethnic groups (White/Black/Hispanic/Asian/Other). It's based on Census Bureau surveys from 2005--2009, not the 2010 census. Nevertheless, this is an excellent visualization of data that goes down to the neighborhood level.