01:11, 01/11/11

Later this year, if you use a European date system and military time, we will have 20:11, 20-11-2011.

Somewhat relatedly, Tyler Cowen discussed government policy (in terms of taxation and subsidization) for time travel research today. Here’s an out of context excellent sentence:

“On the plus side, the human race will die out anyway.”

Check it out.

Plane Rides

There are few things I enjoy more than intelligent, intimate conversation. I think part of the reason I really enjoy flying is that at a rate of perhaps one out of every eight flight “legs” I have a great conversation. In the past two years I have spoken with a textbook author, two highly successful entrepreneurs, a former American Medical Association president, and several other terribly interesting people without flashy careers.

Tell me this: where else can you have quality, potentially multi-hour conversations and interactions with complete strangers? I find the confinement and relative anonymity causes people to more fully engage in intimate conversations than they would in almost any other medium. In all likelihood you will never see this person again, so why not open up?

I don’t try to talk to every person I sit beside. Sometimes I want to sleep, others study or read, and of course it takes two people to have a conversation. When I feel like talking and they appear to be receptive I will break the ice based on my first impression of the individual. I can usually tell within a minute or two whether or not I want to continue.

My typical goals, in order from most important to least, are A) enjoy the conversation, B) learn something from it, and C) potentially develop a contact. The more interesting the person, the more I make a conscious effort to allow them to do most of the talking. This serves all three purposes simultaneously: A) I quickly become uncomfortable talking about myself, B) I learn more when listening, and C) people generally like talking about themselves.

Since I’ve been flying so much and will be making many more flights as long as I’m in a distance relationship, I think I’ll start posting stories and summaries of these conversations, when they warrant it.

Summer Road Trip … to Detroit?

Detroit is the butt of jokes by many people, including (especially?) people who have never visited the city. “That’s so Detroit.”

These jokes, in one way or another, of course refer to Detroit’s rapid decline over the past several decades. Economies tend to evolve in the following order: natural resource/agricultural based economy, transition to manufacturing based economy, and finally transition to a service/ideas based economy. Unfortunately for Detroit, it is a manufacturing city in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. The rise of the service and idea based economy has coincided with the decline of the automotive industry and manufacturing in general. Detroit has gone down with it. Unlike some other manufacturing cities, for a host of reasons it has utterly failed to transition into providing some other service to the global economy.

In the past couple years the city and its plight have popped up in discussions and things I have read and watched. I really enjoyed Gran Torino and its treatment of Detroit’s changing social fabric as a result of the manufacturing decline. That it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture given its competition was bizarre. Frost-Nixon was nominated? Really?

I also enjoyed David Byrne’s post about his experiences in the motor city, including his bike tour. He gives what I believe to be a fair interpretation of the forces that have shaped Detroit in the past fifty years, even if he views it as more of a centralized process (i.e. “man-made”) while I believe it to be more decentralized (i.e. economic development). The pictures alone warrant giving it a glance. Below is the Michigan theater, in it’s glory and now … as a parking lot (Click to enlarge. Note the marquee: “Acre of Seats.”)

A month ago one of my classmates told a couple wild stories about the city. One was that there were no grocery stores within a half hour drive of downtown Detroit. A more absurd story was about people making money shooting raccoons. When I later read Byrne’s story, including the bit about pheasants in city limits, I re-classified the raccoon story as “less absurd.” When I read the scariest sentences Ezra Klein read yesterday, namely that there isn’t a chain grocery store in city limits, I was even more inclined to believe it.

None of these things have positively changed my opinion regarding Detroit as a fun, beautiful, or uplifting city. In fact just the opposite. If possible, I now think of it as even more dirty and dangerous than I did before.

But something has changed. The social scientist in me has (perhaps fittingly) joined forces with the small part of everyone who wants to long-neck it when passing a car-crash: I want to see what a deserted major city looks like. Where before I only thought of the superficial drawbacks of Detroit (e.g. high murder and other crime rates, abandoned buildings, etc), I now view the city as a case study in creative destruction. The same forces that have made so many people in other parts of the world (and in this country) so much better off have caused the abandonment of a former industrial center. It’s the side of the economy and global community that some people focus on exclusively and others neglect completely. But what does it look like? How does it feel to stand in grand, empty, and utterly neglected man-made spaces?

I think this summer I will drive the 8 or 9 hours from DC to Detroit and find out, perhaps with some fly fishing and camping thrown in if I have time.

Part of this Balanced Breakfast

I think a lot about how much and what I read. I am one of the readers Tyler Cowen references in his new book Create Your Own Economy.My primary source of information is the blogosphere. The blogs I read typically have posts including one or more links to other blogs or “hard” news sources. I follow various chains until I either lose interest or run out of time. I read about Tyler’s book on his blog, Marginal Revolution, as well as on Ben Casnocha’s blog. I have not, however, read the book. I read Ben’s excellent essay on the book, but I’m not sure I’ll take the time to read the book itself for a number of reasons. Mainly, I think in some ways it would further distort my informational diet. I already read Tyler’s blog everyday. Would reading his book really be optimal compared to other books by other authors? Probably, if only because it might provide insight (or at least a justification) for my current informational diet.

I would certainly enjoy having a response to the little intellectual dietician inside me who seems to constantly scream, “Eat more vegetables (books) and less sweets (blogs)! Even the nuts and whole grains you purchase (the Economist and the Atlantic) are more healthy than blogs!” I usually reply, “You’re right, but with Madmen, movies, friends, my girlfriend, work, soccer, golf, and socializing I just don’t have time to read more than one or two books per month.” That doesn’t do a great job of shutting him up.

Starting graduate school later this month will temporarily put this debate to rest, in any case.

Mutterings and Musings

I find Styrofoam cups, particularly when filled with sodas, unsightly. Is this because they look antiquated and blah or is it my sub-conscious reminding me of the negative health and environmental connotations associated with Styrofoam?

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The more I work with data the less I believe in aggregate statistics, particularly those derived from survey results. Not too ago I was given a piece of code to manipulate data gathered by one of the most respected government surveys around. Six pages of code read, extracted, twisted, sorted, sliced, adjusted, and eventually summarized the data in table form. The final step before summarizing, however, involved multiplying the relevant statistic by a number between one and four, depending on how many quarters per year I might expect the item to be purchased by the average consumer unit. This offends a quasi-data geek such as myself on several levels. The author of the code, who similarly worked for the agency producing the survey, offered no guidance on how to make this determination other than to mention that it was obvious what factor should be used for small, frequent purchases such as gasoline and large, infrequent purchases such as cars. So much for the illusion of precision.

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I am competitive. I love sports. Unfortunately, time is scarce and I can only allocate a certain number of hours per week to athletic activities. Given a time-budget of between 6 and 8 hours per week for sports, would you (as a 24 year old male in good health and decent physical condition) devote time to playing a sport you love, but will only be able to play into your late forties or early fifties (soccer), or, would you devote time to playing a game you also love but that you’ll be able to hopefully play well into your 60s (golf)? Note my skill level compared to peers is probably more advanced in soccer than golf, primarily due to the speed of youth. I realize this is going to diminish in a big way at some point. Obviously some mix of the two is optimal, but I am inclined to skew the distribution towards one or the other for the time being in hopes of improving.

Ironic Business Model

Recently a friend was searching for housing on Craigslist. One of the people he/she contacted regarding an advertisement for a nice high-rise apartment replied with some complaints about past tenants and the need for a more thorough background check prior to proceeding with a viewing. They asked for a credit score, but stressed they did not want the full report as it contained sensitive information.

My friend used the service they provided, sent a response with the credit score and of course never heard back. One week later a charge appeared on her/his credit card for “credit protection services” from the credit report company. Apparently signing up for the free credit report also automatically enrolled my friend in a service designed to guard against identity theft for a monthly fee.

In other words, creditreport.com scammed my friend into buying identity theft protection. Amazing.

Subsidized (sometimes intranational) Emigration

They are flown to Paris ($6,332), Orlando ($858.40), Johannesburg ($2,550.70), or most frequently, San Juan ($484.20).

They are not executives on business trips or couples on honeymoons. Rather, all are families who have ended up homeless, and all the plane tickets are courtesy of the city of New York (one-way).

The Bloomberg administration, which has struggled with a seemingly intractable problem of homelessness for years, has paid for more than 550 families to leave the city since 2007, as a way of keeping them out of the expensive shelter system, which costs $36,000 a year per family. All it takes is for a relative elsewhere to agree to take the family in.

That is from the NYT. Relatively few families take part  in this program annually, suggesting stringent qualifications (the most stringent being the relative requirement), limited available funds (it appears to be about $500,000), or lack of interest in relocation.