Friday, April 30, 2010

W-Shaped Recession and Urban Development

Megan McArdle at The Atlantic is calling attention to the possibility that Greece is the trigger to drag us all into the second wave of the "W-Shaped Recession", the way there's often a second dip before a full-on recovery. It's definitely something you need to hedge against, if you haven't already.

In other news, Tim Logan at The Big Money says that Prof Richard Florida, the guy who invented the "Creative Class Thesis", is undermining his own thesis in his new book, The Great Reset. Florida's new idea in this book is that, we need to help kick people out of under-performing cities such as Rust Belt, so that they can go to where the jobs are. Which is counter to his "Build it and they will come" thesis of revitalizing the downtown club scene.

It's great to see Florida acknowledging his own mistake. I've always thought that he was mistaking the symptom for the cause. Art is a luxury good, as Prof Carroll Quigley would say. You have to have rich people around to consume luxury goods, including art. Artists thrive because the city has plenty of jobs and rich people, not that artists bring jobs into a city. For a city to grow, you need jobs, a reason for people to go there. That seems to be a foreign idea to Florida and his supporters, who don't have to work for a living.

Plus, there are several variations on the "creative class" idea, some of which include engineers, others purely art. Despite the artistic element of architecture and industrial design, applied science has little to do with art. In the first place, engineering can create jobs, whereas art is kind of a service industry. It's dangerous when the urban developer confuse the two.

The US Army cancelled Non-Line-Of-Sight-Launch-Station, their new smart missile system. Unfortunately, that has not erased the precision short-range strike/recon requirement from the books. I've always thought that NLOS-LS was kind of a waste, where you have this big box that you toss out afterwards. Plus how are you going to manhandle it into position?

The strike requirement, you can substitute with precision mortars. It's long past due that the Army acquire a precision mortar munition, when the Brits and Scandinavians already do. A laser-guided mortar will be great.

For the recon requirement, perhaps we will resurrect the fiber-optic guidance technology. You can even string the fiber behind mortar bombs as they fly off.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

E, Marriage, & Stock Markets

Meghan McArdle wrote her own book review on Lori Gottlieb's "Marry Him". McArdle brought up the inherent game theory aspect of the dating jungle. Indeed, the current dating system is quite inefficient at connecting people together in a long lasting way.

As I've been reading Caroll Quigley's Evolution of Civilizations, I have to wonder perhaps that the Western dating scene has institutionalized. That the combination of fairy tale endings and the sexual liberation has transformed the instrument of dating, as a way to interview suitors, into an institution more concerned with dating for its own sake.

As a side note, the book is fantastic, and it has definitely transformed the way I look at history and current events.

Anyway, when I went to a math camp, I saw a population problem that has some bearing on this dating business. Readers perhaps will find this of use in their own lives:

Assume that the dating population is stochastic, meaning that you will, at random, meet dating prospects who are of random quality. The problem is that you have no pre-existing basis to judge your boy/girlfriends: Is s/he sufficiently good enough to settle with? How do you know if s/he is the best you can do?

It turns out that, given a time range when you plan to date, by time 1/e, you will have met enough of the population to know the upper and lower bounds of the population. By time 1/e, you have a good enough idea to know what "great" looks like, and to settle with the next best guy/girl that comes along. At age 22.4 [for range 18 to 30], you will have enough data history to know what is the best you can get.

So at age 21 to 23 [23 is using another age range], you need to sit down and seriously compare your internal romantic ideal versus the past boy/girlfriends you've had, just so you don't keep pining for that Disney prince/princess to come along.

This particular solution assumes that dating and pickup skills do not improve, which is not necessarily the case. But it is a good metric.

The number 1/e is applicable for other random walk problems as well. For example, assume that the stock market is a random walk, and that you need to invest $5,000 into the stock market every year [aka, your IRA contribution]. If you want to time the market, you want to know when is a great low-point to plunk your money into the market. Well, the 1/e works here, too. Assume 12 months, by April 12th, you will know what's the likely lower bound of the market. The next time the market crosses that lower bound, you know that the opportunity has arrived.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Team Sports Are Bad (Kind of)

This morning, I saw Bill Sweetman's response to the "Mission Readiness"'s report that obesity is endangering national secuirty. Sweetman lambasted school intramural sports program as one prime factor in spawning the national obesity trend, among others.

This is an interesting take, especially since I've been reading Caroll Quigley's The Evolution of Civilizations. Prof Quigley had a similar observation on the evolution of American football as an institution. Quigley described football originating as an impromptu intramural program to keep students exercising. Over time, football naturally became an organized club sport and spectator-funded as people focused on winning the game against other groups of people (clubs, colleges, cities, etc.) The natural institutionalization of American football led to the NFL and NCAA today, where the athletes are getting more exercise than they need, while the rest of us who need the exercise are, instead, watching from the stands, sitting down and converting beer into calories. The institutionalization of football has made football an abject failure at achieving its original purpose: Instilling habits of exercise among the youths of this country. Prof Quigley arrived at this conclusion back in 1961. He saw all the other college sports programs in the same light, but football and basketball were the most prominent offenders.

Organized team sports definitely are not helpful in promoting general athleticism among the general population, speaking as an uncoordinated nerd myself :) By its very nature, team sports seek to exclude. The very structure of a tournament competition incentivizes the teams to seek the best players, and exclude the general peons.

It is a problem found in most organized competitions. Math teams and Academic Decathlon, for example, both seek to promote scholastic skills among the student population. However, the team competition format discourages the less practiced students from participating. The tournament format of Academic Decathlon additionally leaves most participating school teams with little to do for much of the year. [Academic Decathlon has a regional meet in Nov, a state meet in Jan/Feb, and a national meet in Apr/May. One to two teams per state go on to national.]

At this point, though, organized team sports are here to stay. With the entrenched institutions and interests of football, basketball, et al, in the US and around the world, reform is near impossible. As Prof Quigley would say, we'll have to try circumvention. The Japanese morning calisthenics program, or the Chinese morning Taichi, both look pretty good from here.

Monday, April 5, 2010

"Business Education": Advice to Aspiring Undergraduates

Newsweek is noting the declining enrollment in liberal arts program at the mid- and lower-tier colleges around the US, in the midst of this recession. Students are majoring in more "marketable" fields to prepare for a job afterwards.

Well, that sounds like a nice story, but it makes you wonder about all of those alumnis: How did they get their own jobs back in the day? Were companies just not paying attention?

Anyway, the author notes that the students were switching from traditional BA fields into Bachelor of Science fields or business. This seems like a bogus trend, as Jack Shaeffer of Slate would say. Students have been flocking to the business majors for years. Most people at these colleges know that the arts are not business. That schools are cutting the arts programs are more the result of a declining endowment, rather than a new found trend. Schools are confronting the reality that they have to cut costs, such as the relatively expensive arts programs.

As I previously wrote about the service academies, the Bachelor of Science program, for non-science/engineering fields, are inadequately rigorous for the scientific theories we employ. The BS, with its shallow calculus and science requirements, give the students the illusion that the world is deterministic and Newtonian, whereas science and engineering have moved past deterministic calculus and into differential equations. The real world is full of equations that we cannot solve explicitly, but only approximate with computers.

So in general the BS program does not give its students a good appreciation of the complex world we live in. Unless we step up the requirements of the BS program with at least 2 more classes inlcuding differential equations.

That gets to another problem in the American college education, the inadequate math skills of the American students. The calculator is not a substitute for arithematic skills, which builds the foundation for higher level math skills. But I probably should save that for another day.

We also have this expanding corps of business undergraduates. Personally, I think business undergraduates are not getting their money's worth, except for the accounting majors. Business programs attempt to treat all businesses the same, that there are universal expertise you can apply to all industries. That theory of universal expertise is not universally accepted; just witness all those consultants who specialize in particular industries. If a generalist consultant could serve all industries, there would not be a market for all these specialist consultants.

This is partially related to the Generalist vs Specialist debate, whether generalists' universal truths are more useful than the nuanced knowledge of the specialists. For the business students, their problem is that they have no grounding for this amorphous universal principles they are learning. For a program that's supposed to be real-world skills, the students are ironically learning theories without real-world experience or skills to ground the application. Students end up practicing the skill of salesmanship: most business plans end up focusing on retail, selling a product mano-a-mano.

I guess that's kind of fair, as Americans are supposed to be the best salesmen, that their business students end up practicing sales skills.

A revolution in the business undergraduate program would make the business program a double-major, that the student has to major in a field outside of the business school. For example, marketing students should double major in visual art or psychology. Management could major in history or economics. They could even major in the sciences or engineering, if they feel up to it. That second major will give students some in-depth insight to back up the broad overview they are learning.

The business students might complain that is too much work. [As in they shouldn't work hard?] My answer is, if they are going to work in the retail world, as many Americans do, do they really need that business degree right now? Why is it that a high school education has not prepared them to manage that first level of business operations? It is not like business math teaches a subject beyond Algebra 2. Writing a business plan is a college class, but does it require a college graduate to write the plan?

That segues into the next subject: jobs and college education. College is an inefficient way to figure out what you should be doing. It is expensive. A full-time student is incapable of working above subsistence level, and he is piling on debt on top of that. In America, it is easy to work part-time to be self-sustaining [at least before the recession.] Once you take care of food and shelter, you can spend the rest of your day figuring out what you want to do. At least you're not being a burden on society by frittering away financial aid dollars.

The subject of future jobs can take up a whole book, so I will elaborate later. However, there are three key trends you need to pay attention to. First, the US Dollar will depreciate quickly in the near future, relative to other currencies. As the world becomes more multi-polar, other currencies will replace the US Dollar as the reserve currency. Not to mention the fiscal health of the US, although the rest of the world is not much better. Secondly, distributed manufacturing will be more wide-spread, pushed downstream to the retail level. Like food preparation, the other physical retail sectors will take on more manufacturing at the store level to be more responsive to consumer needs. It is also a requirement to compete against internet retail, by allowing the customers to receive products faster. Thirdly, oil will become more expensive in the US, as the Dollar debase. Transportation cost will rise, making domestic manufacturing, and local manufacturing, more attractive. How much production finishing should be done at the retail level will be the reigning business question for the next 50 years.

As an example, clothes fitting is one manufacturing activity still done at the physical store. The electronic installation and software configuration at the user level is another "manufacturing" activity that's keeping electricians and computer geeks working today. Sysco and the restaurant industry is all about production finishing. Ebay is full of vendors selling electronic parts that the users, or the enterprising local merchant, can assemble into finished products. That is a job opportunity that you can get into, whether you're recently unemployed or thinking about college.