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Academic Blog Credit?

Martin Weller considers academic credit for blogs:

The answer to … whether new approaches such as blogging constitute scholarly activity, is an emphatic yes. Which leads us to a more problematic question: How should we recognize it? …

Tenure committees have increasingly come to rely upon journal-impact factors to act as a proxy for research quality. In short, we know what a good publication record looks like. But these criteria begin to creak and groan when we apply them to blogs and other online media. Simple metrics are subject to gaming, and because of the removal of the peer-review filter, may be meaningless anyway. I may have a YouTube clip of a skateboarding octopus with two million hits, but that doesn’t make it scholarly work.

It’s a difficult problem, but one that many institutions are beginning to come to terms with. Combining the rich data available online that can reveal a scholar’s impact with forms of peer assessment gives an indication of reputation. Universities know this is a game they need to play—that having a good online reputation is more important in recruiting students than a glossy prospectus. And groups that sponsor research are after good online impact as well as presentations at conferences and journal papers.

… I’ve found that since becoming a blogger, I publish fewer journal articles, so it has had a “negative” impact on that aspect of my academic life. However, it has led to so many other unpredictable benefits—such as the establishment of a global peer network that helps me stay up to date with my topic, increased research collaboration, and more invitations to give talks—that it’s been worth the trade-off. (more)

Yes universities care about getting good and much “press”, but they are not willing to tenure professors merely for getting good press. The self-concept of professors only lets them give at most a minor weight to press, and sometimes the weight is negative.

The key difference is between getting attention vs. making impressive original intellectual contributions. Being cited by major news media, or having so many blog readers, can credential you as getting attention. But so far only journal articles, Ph.D. theses, and certain books and conference papers are accepted as credentials for impressive original intellectual contributions. For these, high quality experts are seen to judge the intellectual contribution.

Yes blog posts can contain impressive original intellectual contributions. Newspaper columns can contain them as well. So can speeches. Even spontaneous party conversations can contain them. The problem is, we don’t have systems set up for experts to evaluate these things in such terms. And if an intellectual contribution isn’t credentialed as such by academic experts, then it basically doesn’t exist as far as academia is concerned.

So either blogs will be continue to be seen mainly as a way to get “press” attention, or some folks will develop a system of expert evaluation of the intellectual contribution of blog posts. And as with academic journals, the main obstacle to doing that is: getting sufficiently prestigious academies to spend enough time doing their evaluations.

Now it turns out that many prestigious academic already read a lot of blog posts. So one approach would be to create a special “review” section where only prestigious academics can enter quick reviews of blog posts they read. Perhaps these reviews would be anonymous to the blog author and readers, and a more centralized part of the system would weigh their prestige, and degree of topical expertise, to compute a post evaluation.

But even with lots of new whizzy software support, it isn’t obvious you’d get enough reviews to make it work. People write reviews of journal articles in part because they hope doing so will favorably dispose editors toward their later submissions. People who write reviews of blog posts couldn’t have that motivation.

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Big Changes Test Econ

For students motivated by grades, ways to teach are limited by ways to test. No matter how insightful your lectures, grade-focused students will only attend to what it takes to pass your tests. So better ways to test give better ways to teach.

Economics is usually taught as a series of abstract concepts, and such concepts are usually tested in the abstract as well. Alas, this encourages neglect of how to apply abstract concepts to concrete situations.

Yes, one can instead ask concrete questions, about what would happen in the world if a specific social change were made. For example: what would happen if we discovered a huge new oil field? Problem is, there are many ways to guess at specific consequences without using abstract economic theory. People come to economics with lots of complex intuitions about how the social world works, or how it should work, so if you ask them specific questions they tend to use such intuitions instead of abstract concepts.

For example, lots of questions about changes within the usual range of experience can be answered merely by projecting observed trends, or by making analogies to similar situations. Yes, these are reasonable ways to guess at social consequences, but they can get in the way of assimilating economic concepts. Yes, tests can reward using abstract concepts, but even so it can be hard to get students into that habit.

A related problem is that small changes seem to have limited consequences. One might notice a few immediate consequences, but indirect consequences seem to quickly fade into “pretty much no effect” on more distant parts of society.

So to teach (and test) students to really apply economic concepts, it helps to consider concrete changes well outside of their usual range of experience. For changes that are big and dramatic enough, students can see the inadequacy of analogy and trend projection, and so are willing to look to abstract theory. And big changes more obviously have distant indirect effects.

My post yesterday on Tube Earth Econ was an example. If I ask you to estimate the social consequences of your planet having a very different shape, it is hard to make analogies to similar past events. That will push you more to go back to basic concepts and work from there.

I apply this concept in my masters level microeconomics course. One quarter of the grade is for this assignment:

Big Change Paper – Imagine a single big change to our economy, and then use microeconomics to describe the consequences of that change, including whether those changes are good or bad. You might, for example, imagine how things would be changed if people became immortal, if Star Trek style “transporters” were available, if very reliable lie detectors were available, or if no one needed sleep.

We talk about the consequences of similar big changes in class, to give students examples to follow in their papers. Such discussions and assignments are especially fun for people like me who enjoy science fiction and the drama of thinking about big dramatic social changes.

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Consulate Care

Here’s another idea for medical reform: consulate care. Let countries like Sweden, France, etc. with approved national health care systems have bigger consulates, and open them up to paying customers for medical services. For example, you could sign up for Swedish Care, and when needed you’d go to their consulate to get medical care as if you were living in Sweden.

Now we might not approve consulate care for say North Korea or Uganda, but surely most developed nations are good enough. We don’t issue travel warnings suggesting people not travel to Sweden, for fear of getting sick there. So why not let folks travel to a Sweden nearby for their medical care?

Since most other nations spend far less than the US on medicine, consulate care should be a lot cheaper. And since those other nations seem to suffer no net health loss from their cheaper care, consulate care should be no less healthy.

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Continuous Cooperation

In a prisoner’s dilemma, two sides have an incentive to defect, even though mutual defection is worse for both sides than mutual cooperation. It is well known that in theory and in reality people cooperate more when then expect to interact over more repetitions, and when they care more about the future.

It is hard to make people live longer, or care more about the future. It can be just as helpful, however, and often much easier, to make people interact more frequently. In the limit of continuous interaction, people should cooperate the most. My once co-author Ryan Oprea has a paper with Daniel Friedman in the latest AER, showing this:

We study [lab experiment] prisoners’ dilemmas played in continuous time with flow payoffs accumulated over 60 seconds. In most cases, the median rate of mutual cooperation is about 90%. Control sessions with repeated matchings over 8 subperiods achieve less than half as much cooperation, and cooperation rates approach zero in one-shot control sessions.

They introduce some new theory to explain details of this behavior:

Inspired by a strand of existing theoretical literature, we postulated a particular class of epsilon equilibria and derived formulas predicting how cooperation rates respond to adjustment lags and to payoff parameters. These predictions accounted well for the Continuous, Grid-8 and (trivially) One-Shot data. They also nicely explained a set of second-round data from Grid-n sessions, which varied the number of subperiods from 2 to 60. Thus the formulas correctly predict defection in one shot games, cooperation in continuous time and intermediate results on the path between the two. The underlying intuition is simple. When your opponent can react very quickly, defecting from mutual cooperation is likely to earn you the temptation paypoff only briefly and may cost you the cooperation payoff for the rest of the period.

So do online firms cooperate more when they can vary their prices more frequently? What rapidly-changeable actions would help nations to cooperate more?

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Farm vs Pet Medicine

We now spend a huge fraction of income on medicine. Today the US spends ~18% of GDP on medicine, while in 1940 we spent ~4%. Why the huge increase?

A supply explanation is that doctors have invented lots of new useful treatments. A demand explanation, in contrast, is that we want more medicine as we get richer, either because we care more about health, or about showing that we care.

One way to distinguish supply vs. demand explanations is to look at farm vs. pet animal medicine. Both kinds of animal medicine are treated similarly by most supply changes – new medical treatments help both kinds of animals. But most demand changes treat them differently – farm animals today aren’t that much more valuable than they were long ago, but we treat our pets as if they were far more valuable.

While I can’t find good historical data, what I do find suggests we’ve seen a huge switch in animal medicine, from a focus on food animals to a focus on pets. On recent pet med spending increases:

The average household in the U.S. spent $655 on routine doctor and surgical visits for dogs last year, up 47% from a decade ago, according to the American Pet Products Association. Expenditures for cats soared 73% over the same time frame—on pace with human health-care cost increases. Expenditures for people in the U.S. were up 76.7% between 1999 and 2009, according to the U. S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. (more)

On vets long ago:

Very early veterinarians were mainly concerned with the care of livestock and horses and mules. … Prior to World War II, very few people would consider paying more than a token amount for the medical care of their pets any more than the average person today would consider taking an injured chipmunk to the vet. (more)

On the focus of US vets in 2011:

Food animal exclusive 1.8%; Food animal predominant 6.0%; Mixed animal 6.8%; Companion animal predominant 9.7%; Companion animal exclusive 67.2%; Equine 6.0%. (more)

Thus much, perhaps most, of the rise in animal med spending is a demand effect. More careful data analysis might give a more precise estimate.

Now pets probably live to be older than farm animals, so a supply shock mainly relevant for older animals might explain an increase of pet med relative to farm animal med. But that seems pretty unlikely to be the main thing going on here.

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Virtual Office Design

Imagine that you have an office job (as most of you do). Full of meetings, memos, reports, proposals, phone and email ping pong, informal gossip in the hall or over lunch, etc.

Now imagine that you work in a virtual office. That is, while you are actually lying at home in your VR pod (or being an em brain in a data center), you experience yourself as sharing a virtual office complex with your work colleagues. Sitting at your desk working at your computer, talking in a meeting, chatting with a neighbor in his doorway, or perhaps walking the cubicles to feel the buzz.

OK, now ask yourself: how could we design more effective virtual offices, for the purpose of making an efficient workplace not needlessly taxing its workers? For example, what features of office spaces today would we jettison if we could, since they mainly deal with physical constraints that need not apply in virtual reality?

Maybe each person would feel the temperature and humidity they like best. Maybe walls would glow, instead of all light coming from glaring overhead lights. Maybe you’d always feel like you were walking barefoot on soft grass. Maybe all surfaces could be of the most luxurious textures and styles. Your computer “screen” might fill up a wall, or be 3D in a vast warehouse-sized space. But what else?

People might just appear in each other’s offices, instead of having to walk there, but that might feel disruptive. Perhaps hallways could be lots shorter, with each person having a huge personal corner office looking out on a spectacular view. But would it be ok if the shapes and views of offices and halls made no sense relative to each other?

In meetings it might be possible to let each person see and hear others in great clear detail, even adding biometrics on if they felt scared, tired, etc. You might even be able hear their thoughts if you wished. Or at the other extreme, each person might instead be able to project a pleasant attentive appearance no matter how they actually felt. You might even appear to be in several meetings at once. Where along this spectrum would typically make for the most productive meetings?

If each person could make the walls etc. look however they want to, then how will other people know what they are seeing in order to interact smoothly with them? Would you like the ability to look out at any time and see dozens of people as they work, if the cost were that dozens of people could you look at you at any time?

I’ve read a lot about speculation about virtual reality over the years, but I’ve not seen much that took these sort of questions seriously.

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Eye Candy Shows Slack?

I had a meeting this morning at a management consulting firm that does a lot of government business. Waiting in the lobby, I noticed that their employees are especially good looking. I remembered also noticing this about a similar firm a few years ago.

This makes sense – if you were a government employee choosing among competing firms, you might well choose on the basis of the best eye candy for your regular meetings, since your other personal stakes in the outcomes are so weak.

This suggests that studying how physical attractiveness varies with industry, occupation, and position could give us a window into agency failures at work. That is, it could show us where some employees are especially free to choose for their personal benefit, rather than for a larger benefit. Even when they leave clear evidence of this self-dealing. Seems like a project for an enterprising data-gathering grad student.

Now it could be that some people just place an especially large value on working with attractive others, or that in simple places having attractive associates is an important signal of status. But honestly, while those might be contributing factors, it is hard to believe those are usually the main effects.

Added 11a: Eric Barker a while back:

[Advertising] firms with better-looking executives have higher revenues and faster growth than do otherwise identical firms whose executives are not so good-looking.

Yup – since it is so hard to tell which ads help, folks who hire ad firms probably have a lot of slack.

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Office By Combo Auction

Twenty years ago when I worked at NASA Ames, our group moved to a new office building. We put up a map of the new offices, and invited folks to put their name on a office they liked. People were ranked by seniority, and a higher ranked person could bump a lower ranked one from an office. People changed their office assignments based on what office they liked and who they wanted to be near until changes slowed to a trickle. And that was our new office arrangement.

Now imagine a much more elaborate system. Imagine that all the workers in your office are moving to a new building, requiring a new assignment of floor space to offices, conference rooms, copier/printer rooms, lunch rooms, hallways, etc. Now imagine that this assignment is done by combinatorial auction.

That is, imagine each person in your office has a budget of cash or bidding points, and submits bids saying how much he or she would pay for various office scenarios. Such bids can express values for:

  1. Whether one sits in an open cubicle or closed room, and how many officemates.
  2. Office features like size, windows, carpet, lights, climate controls, elevation, etc.
  3. Distance of office from entrances, bathrooms, conference rooms, lunch rooms, etc.
  4. Distance of office (in time or space) from the offices of other particular associates.
  5. Utilities like wired internet, big power plugs, or paper mail delivery.
  6. Local policies like if allow loud conversations, or food eaten at desk.

Given such bids, a computer could search for the office assignment that achieves the highest total bid value. Such an assignment might say:

  1. Who sits in which office.
  2. Which rooms are assigned as offices, conference rooms, lunch, printers, etc.
  3. If changes can be made, each office’s carpet, lights, windows, climate controls, etc.
  4. If changes can be made, what internet, power, etc. are supplied to each office.
  5. If partitions can be moved, the number and size of rooms.
  6. For each area, policies on loud conversations, food at desk, etc.

When choices like differing carpets vary in cost, cost functions could let one seek the assignment that maximized the total bid value minus costs. Such cost functions could express scale economies, such as it being cheaper to give all rooms the same carpets. When management cares about office arrangements beyond satisfying office workers, management preferences could be expressed in management bids, or in constraints on the final arrangement.

To save workers from having to express too many bid details, the process can be iterative, always showing a tentative assignment given the last round of bids, so bid elaboration efforts can focus on aspects that make a difference. (Bids themselves would stay secret.) Bidding assistant software might also infer preferences from user ratings of past or hypothetical offices.

Now even with a perfect choice of who gets what bidding budget, this process isn’t at all guaranteed to give an optimal office arrangement. For example, workers would likely underbid for shared resources like conference rooms; they’d want them but rather that others pay for them. There is now a whole academic field of “mechanism design” that studies the general problem of choosing rules for how such “direct revelation” bids are expressed, how they are updated across rounds, who wins what in the end, and who pays how much.

And yet, even the simple process described above would get a lot of things right, things that most offices get pretty wrong. After all, workers would actually get offices that had a consistent relation to their office preferences. Which makes it a shame that we don’t do this sort of thing more.

Yes, I realize that such computer-based solutions have not been feasible until recently, that there is work to be done to make them easy, and that innovation takes time. I also grant that bosses may see this as threatening their power, and that we may have social norms against using “money” in such a “personal” context (even in business!).

I also don’t want to give the impression that combinatorial auctions are my idea. I worked on them during ’93-’95 as a grad student under John Ledyard and David Porter. There is now a whole academic field of combinatorial auctions. See this book, its intro, and also articles on applications to environmental offsets, spectrum, airport landing slotsland consolidation, purchasing, and procurement of trucking and school lunches. See also a sf story.

And yes, assigning offices is far from the biggest problem we face in this world. This post mainly uses it as a vivid example to introduce the concept of combinatorial auctions. I’ll elaborate on a bigger application tomorrow.

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Galaxy Calc Shows Aliens

What makes a planet a good host for life? That is, what does a planet need for life to originate there and then evolve to something at the human level? Astronomers today say a planet at least needs a star that 1) lasts long enough, 2) has enough heavy elements, and 3) is not too often hit by nearby supernovae or gamma ray bursts. Using such criteria, several astronomers (mentioned below) have tried to calculate “galactic habitable zones,” i.e., galactic distributions of good-for-life planets, in both space and time. Such calculations are far more important than I had realized – they can help say how common are aliens! Let me explain.

Imagine that over the entire past and future history of our galaxy, human-level life would be expected to arise spontaneously on about one hundred planets. At least it would if those planets were not disturbed by outsiders. Imagine also that, once life on a planet reaches a human level, it is likely to quickly (e.g., within a million years) expand to permanently colonize the galaxy. And imagine life rarely crosses between galaxies.

In this case we should expect Earth to be one of the first few habitable planets created, since otherwise Earth would likely have already been colonized by outsiders. In fact, we should expect Earth to sit near the one percentile rank in the galactic time distribution of habitable planets – only ~1% of such planets would form earlier. If instead advanced life would arise on about a thousand planets, Earth should sit at the 0.1 percentile rank. And if life would arise on a thousand planets, but only one in ten such life-full planets would rapidly expand to colonize the galaxy, Earth should again sit near the one percentile rank.

Turning this argument around, if we can calculate the actual time distribution of habitable planets in our galaxy, we can then use Earth’s percentile rank in that time distribution to estimate the number of would-produce-human-level-life planets in our galaxy! Or at least the number of such planets times the chance that such a planet quickly expands to colonize the galaxy. If Earth has a low percentile rank, that suggests a good chance that our galaxy will eventually become colonized, even if Earth destroys itself or chooses not to expand. (An extremely low rank might even suggest we’ll encounter other aliens as we expand across the galaxy.) In contrast, if Earth has a middling rank, that suggests a low chance that anyone else would ever colonize the galaxy – it may be all up to us.

At the moment published estimates for Earth’s time percentile rank vary widely. An ’04 Science paper (built on an ’01 Icarus paper) says: Continue reading "Galaxy Calc Shows Aliens" »

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New Is Not Better

“As a non-American, I don’t completely understand it, but there is a phenomenon in the U.S., the latest and the greatest. … There was a patient demand to get these implants on the misconception that the latest was the best.” …“The vast majority of the ‘innovations’ on which we have spent money with respect to orthopedics over the past two decades have not resulted in improved patient outcomes.” (more; HT Tyler)

Assuming no side-effects, if users gain from innovations then innovators must gain less than the social value of their innovations, which risks their having insufficient incentives to innovate. This effect can be countered, however, by giving extra social status to the creators and users of innovative products, services, and behaviors.

United States culture gives such extra status to creators and users of innovations, and so probably deserves some credit for encouraging innovation. But alas much of this is wasted via merely rewarding things things that are new, rather than innovative. And if your reaction to reading that was “what is the difference?,” that just shows the depth of the problem.

Innovative things must be new, but new things need not be innovative. To be usefully innovative is to be better some how. Innovators try many new things, most of which are not better, but a few of which are. On average new things are w0rse, but those that are eventually retained are hopefully on average better. And with the right incentives, the retained better things are so much better that they pay for all the other new worse things.

If our culture waited until it was clear which new things were actually better, and gave more status to the creators and early adopters of those things, culture would promote innovation. But alas culture instead mainly showers status on those who merely create and use new things, regardless of whether they are better. While in small amounts even this status effect can promote innovation, in larger amounts it can hurt. After all, when there is too little added reward for creating or using something that is both new and better, relative to something that is just new, people will mainly focus on the new part.

The problem comes from an excess focus on current behavior, relative to past track records. In enforcing social status norms, it is relatively easy to just see that someone is today affiliated with with something that is new today, and give that person credit for their newness. It is much harder to remember that a person was once affiliated with something that was then new, and which later turned out to actually be better. A mechanism that made it easier to collect and view such track records could be of great social value, at least if combined with new matching social norms on who deserves social credit for being “innovative.”

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