Monday Miscellany

Happy 2011! My first posting of the new decade (yes, they start in 2001, 2011, etc) will be a bit about my blog’s new look, and then some links. I tend to only highlight a few links in blog postings like these, often when I have something short I want to say but not enough to flesh out into a full-length post. If you like the links I share, you can follow my Google Reader feed at this URL, and/or let me know if you have a public feed as well. Some of the most interesting reading material I come across is from shared feeds through Reader — it’s a great way to manage your information flow. Now the miscellany:

  • First, my blog’s new look: For those interested in the technical how-to, most of the changes result from a change in WordPress themes to Carrington. I was inspired by the formatting of Chris Blattman’s blog, which also uses Carrington — especially the ability to include a blog roll and shared items feed from Google Reader in the sidebars, while still keeping a very clean, readable look to the main column. The new header image is a skyline of Baltimore, where I currently live, manipulated in GIMP (freeware Photoshop, more or less). I used an Emboss filter first (which makes everything grey-scale and highlights the image’s lines and textures), then used the bucket fill tool (with varying thresholds) to selectively fill in contiguous areas in the embossed photo with black, white, and an orange-ish red that matches the link color in the Carrington theme.
  • I’m back to Twittering, occasionally, at @brettkeller, though I’m still not sure how this will (or should) fit in with other ways of sharing information for me. I stopped for quite a while after leaving my last job as an online organizer, where I think I got a bit burnt out on it. I’m finding the occasional usage refreshing, especially after reconfiguring who I’m following to match more with my current interests. Political news and online fundraising are out and the global health and international development twitterati are in.
  • We’re getting closer to being able to build space elevators… but don’t hold your breath. I’ve been fascinated with t his idea ever since reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, in which space elevators (and terrorist/freedom fighter attacks against them) feature prominently on both the Martian colony and its possessive mother planet Earth. I recently found a used copy of Arthur C Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise, a Hugo and Nebula award winning novel that is (as far as I know) the first science fiction work to focus on space elevators.
  • Jina Moore on “Why we should be worried about genocide in Cote d’Ivoire.” I really want this to turn out OK, and am worried about the broader consequences for future conflicts if Gbagbo gets to stay, or the situation ends with more violence. In that sense, there’s a lot more at stake here than just the current standoff, which even alone would be something to care about.
  • “Academic economists to consider an ethics code.” It’s kind of amazing that they don’t have one already. Take this sentiment: “Mr. Lucas added: ‘What disciplines economics, like any science, is whether your work can be replicated. It either stands up or it doesn’t. Your motivations and whatnot are secondary.'” You’d think that economists, of all people, would recognize how research and (more importantly in the context of the article) policy recommendations, can be shaped by outside incentives. Making big money from firms that might benefit from your policy recommendations if a huge incentive to consciously or unconsciously tweak your suggestions.

In short, there is an unholy dynamic of short-term trading and investing, backed up by bailouts and risk reduction from the government and the Federal Reserve. This is not good. “Going short on volatility” is a dangerous strategy from a social point of view. For one thing, in so-called normal times, the finance sector attracts a big chunk of the smartest, most hard-working and most talented individuals. That represents a huge human capital opportunity cost to society and the economy at large. But more immediate and more important, it means that banks take far too many risks and go way out on a limb, often in correlated fashion. When their bets turn sour, as they did in 2007–09, everyone else pays the price.

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01 2011

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