Monthly Archives: June 2010

Returning To The Real World

Bonnaroo was awesome. Now I’m in DC. I’m working at the Center for American Progress, for their excellent blog, Think Progress.

I’ll have a lot more later. My silence here is largely due to my lack of Internet at my apartment. But I’ve got lots of stuff to catch you all up on in the next week.

Until then, check out my first posts at TP:


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I’m leaving today. Blog’s gonna be quiet ’til Monday.

If you’re interested, take a look at the lineup. Can’t decide if I’m more excited for Jay-Z or the super late night show by LCD Soundsystem.

DC in 6 days.

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More Spill Logic

Richard Posner writes a great column about low probability, high risk events. It’s a developed version of what I mentioned last week. Here’s Posner:

The regulators who could have insisted on greater preventive efforts were afflicted with the usual short horizons of government officials. Elected representatives did not want to shut down deepwater drilling over an uncertain risk of a disastrous spill, and this reluctance doubtless influenced the response (or lack of it) of the civil servants who do the regulating.

The horizon of the private actors was foreshortened as well. Stockholders often don’t worry about the risks taken by the firms in which they invest, because diversified stock holdings can help insulate them. Managers worry more, but they are not personally liable for the debts of the firms they oversee and, more important, the danger to their own livelihood posed by seemingly small threats is not enough to discourage risk-taking. It seems that no one has much incentive to adopt or even call for safeguards against low-probability, but potentially catastrophic, disasters.

h/t Ezra Klein.

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Lying To Ourselves

I just discovered a great blog titled ‘You are not so Smart: A Celebration of Self-Delusion’ (h/t TC). Its posts explain to you all the ways what you think you know is total bullshit.

Example: Fanboyism. Excerpt:

The Misconception: You prefer the things we own over the things we don’t because we made rational choices when we bought them.

The Truth: You prefer the things you own because you rationalize your past choices to protect your sense of self.

Choice Supportive Bias is a big part of being a person, it pops up all the time when you buy things.

It works like this: You have several options, like say for a new television. Before you make a choice you tend to compare and contrast all the different qualities of all the televisions on the market.

Which is better, Samsung or Sony, plasma or lcd, 1080p or 1080i – ugh, so many variables!

You eventually settle on one option, and after you make your decision you then look back and rationalize your actions by believing your television was the best of all the televisions you could have picked.

It’s purely emotional, the moment you pick. People with brain damage to their emotional centers who have been rendered into Spock-like beings of pure logic find it impossible to decide between things as simple as which cereal to buy. They stand transfixed in the aisle, contemplating every element of their potential decision – the calories, the shapes, the net weight – everything. They can’t pick because they have no emotional connection to anything, no emotional motivations.

So is there any way for me to combat my total certainty that my MacBook is better than any PC laptop? Actually, yes (my emphasis).

After choosing between two alternatives, people perceive the chosen alternative as more attractive and the rejected alternative as less attractive. This postdecisional dissonance effect was eliminated by cleaning one’s hands. Going beyond prior purification effects in the moral domain, physical cleansing seems to more generally remove past concerns, resulting in a metaphorical “clean slate” effect.

Yes, you got that right. Our choice supportive bias disappears if we wash our hands after the purchase.

The human mind is a weird and wild place.

PS I just washed my hands and I still think my MacBook is #1. Because it is.

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Going Back To My Roots

T-minus 2 days until Albuquerque. How weird. I’m watching a lot of my friends (who’ve been here a semester) get upset and anxious about going back to the States. They’re trying to squeeze every last second out of Buenos Aires.

I don’t feel like that. Although I’m pretty sure I would have if my stay had ended after one semester too. But after living here for a year and really, truly integrating into culture (to the point where I’ve completely accepted cultural norms like lateness, poor customer service, and naps from 6-8 PM), I’m not trying to rush around and “see more” of Buenos Aires.

Touristy stuff has ceased being interesting. The same thing happens to NYU students that move to New York. Times Square becomes an awful cesspool of idiot, slow-walking tourists and when your friends come from nearby universities and want to go see it, you resent them a little bit. Similarly, I no longer want to go to an upscale parrilla or the Boca.

My favorite parrilla is on a quiet street in a residential neighborhood by my gym. I get stared at when I eat there because there are no other gringos in sight.

As my friend Lily (also here for her 2nd semester) pointed out last night, Argentina stopped being a crazy, foreign travel experience this semester. It became our home. We know locals, cook our own Argentine food, pay rent for apartments, and drink mate. That may be part of the reason we 2nd semesterers never really connected with the bulk of this semester’s students. We were no longer experiencing the foreignness that they were; consequently, the things they often wanted to do (go out to bars and clubs all the time) didn’t jibe with our idea of fun. (That said, I met some great friends here and had a very good time with those people.)

And now we go back to the States, having entirely shifted our perspective on what constitutes a “normal” life. I’m excited to come back and I feel prepared to leave Argentina, but readjusting to life in the US is going to be difficult. Yea, some things will be great right off the bat – supermarkets with all the things you need to make any meal, a wide assortment of ethnic food, delicious breakfasts – but other things are going to be a huge system shock. I don’t know that I can say what those are yet. But I know they’re coming.

I’ve spent half as much time in Buenos Aires as I have in New York City. That’s insane. Can I really call myself a New Yorker? I certainly wouldn’t call myself a porteño. But, in many ways, I live like one. I’ve internalized it. Now I’m about to spend the summer in Washington, DC, a place that feels far more foreign than anywhere in Argentina.

Yet time lurches forward. But not before a big asado this afternoon. Time slows way down for asados. And that’s what scares me about the States: time never slows down.


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Harry Potter

Rosie (an NYU Local colleague) writes:

Put four kids around a table in someone’s backyard (!) in Brooklyn. Add beer and weed and if someone mentions how insane the second [Harry Potter] book was, you will not be able to stop talking about it for  three hours. You’ll remember a lot of stuff, and forget a lot of stuff, and it’s all kind of eye-opening to think about now that we’re adults (we’re totally adults, shut up).

I laughed out loud when I read this because it is 100% true. I have had some epic HP discussions in the last couple of years (notably around a dinner table in Berlin with some great people after a couple glasses of wine). The thing is: we (college kids) are the Harry Potter generation. We grew up with Harry, just about on the same schedule as he went to school.

I was so into the books that I would literally read them cover to cover in a few hours. It was just impossible to put them down. And, as Rosie notes, going back now and talking about the experience is amazing, especially because everyone has their own interests and memories about the series.

Particularly fun for me was the 7th book. At the time, I was working at Borders. Because of my DJ work, the manager asked me to host the book release. It was an amazing experience. Well over 1000 people came that night, from people my age, just about to graduate like Harry, down to young children and up to grandparents. Half the people were in costume. One group came dressed as a Quidditch team and got down to some Michael Jackson tunes.

I’m now super excited to watch my little brother start reading the books. He’s 10, so it won’t be long now. And I bet he’ll have the same conversations with his friends when he’s in college. Maybe even sitting around a table in Brooklyn.

But no beer or weed, thanks, he’s my little brother!

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Spill Logic

Sandeep at Cheap Talk clips this from an upcoming David Leonhardt piece (out online) in the NYT magazine:

The people running BP did a dreadful job of estimating the true chances of events that seemed unlikely — and may even have been unlikely — but that would bring enormous costs.Perhaps the easiest way to see this is to consider what BP executives must be thinking today. Surely, given the expense of the clean-up and the hit to BP’s reputation, the executives wish they could go back and spend the extra money to make Deepwater Horizon safer. That they did not suggests that they figured the rig would be fine as it was.

Sandeep comments:

But this does not prove the case.  You may buy a stock given the odds of it going up or down.  If it goes down you will regret your investment.  This does not prove it was wrong to invest in the first place.  It might have been right given your initial assessment. The same logic applies to BP.

This is a simple point: regret does not imply that the ex ante decision was bad.  Leonhardt is a great economics commentator and journalist.  The fact that he makes this elementary mistake shows how easy it is to make.

He’s right on. It is possible that BP analyzed the risk and decided that the money it would take to make the rig extra safe was not worth it, given the probability of rig failure. But going further, it’s also possible that BP did, in fact, correctly estimate the probability of a failure. Extreme right tail events happen.

What I think this shows is the importance of strict safety regulations on oil companies (and nuclear power companies, and any other companies that could have very low-probability, catastrophic failures). Now, over-regulation isn’t good; you don’t want to stifle growth by making it impossible to run your business. But heavier fines and much more oversight are crucial to keeping these companies honest. You need to tip their cost-benefit analysis towards safety.

As Jon Stewart highlighted on the Daily Show last night, BP’s US refineries accounted for 97% of all “willful egregious” violations given out by OSHA in the last 3 years. An OSHA rep told the AP that “BP has not adequately addressed the issues, despite being fined more than $87 million.”

$87 million. Sure sounds like a lot. Ha ha. We’re talking about an oil company. Guess how much many BP made in just the first quarter of this year? $6 billion. That $87 million makes up slightly more than one percent of their 1st quarter profits.

As Sandeep makes clear, BP might have made the ex ante “correct” decision not to spend lots of money on safety upgrades. But that’s only because the costs of not upgrading were far too low.

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