Category Archives: commerce

Los Angeles, November 2019

Actually, I arrived on October 31, but who can resist a gratuitous Blade Runner reference?

I was in town for the always-interesting meeting of the IPAM science board. Keep an eye on their schedule; there are great workshops coming up!

There was chaos and anger at LAX when I landed, because the airport just this week moved Lyft/Uber/taxi pickups offsite. For reasons I don’t fully understand, this has led to long waits for rideshare cars. For reasons I understand even less, people are waiting an hour for their Lyft to show up when the regular taxi stand is right there, and you can — I did — just hop in a cab with no wait and go. (Yes, a VC-subsidized Lyft is cheaper than a cab, if it’s not surge time. But the bus is cheaper still, and once you’re not saving time with the Lyft, what’s the point?)

So I got in my cab and went to the beach, and watched the sunset over the ocean. Clear view of a really nice Moon-Jupiter conjunction and Venus still visible down at the horizon. Last time I went to Dockweiler Beach I was all alone, but this time there were several groups of people in Halloween costumes around bonfires. That was probably the most Blade Runner thing about this trip and it wasn’t even November 2019 yet!

I have a first cousin in LA, and good luck for me — my first cousin’s first baby was born my first morning in town! So on Saturday after the meeting I got to go see my first cousin once removed on his second day alive. I haven’t seen a one-day-old baby in a really long time! And it’s true what they say; I both remember my own kids being that age and I don’t. It’s more like I remember remembering it. I thought I was going to have a lot of advice but mostly all I had to say to them was that they are going to be amazing parents, because they are.

The hospital was in East Hollywood, a neighborhood I don’t know at all. Walking around afterwards, I saw a sign for an art-food festival in a park, so I walked up the hill into the park, where there wasn’t really an art-food festival, but there was a great Frank Lloyd Wright mansion I’d never heard of, Hollyhock House:

As with most FLW houses, there’s a lot more to it than you can see in the picture. A lot of it is just the pleasurable three-dimensional superimposition of rectangular parallelipipeds, and that doesn’t project well onto the plane.

There were a lot of folks sitting on blankets on the hillside, even though there was no art-food festival, because it turns out Barnsdall Park is where you and your 20-something moderately hipster friends go to watch the sunset in LA (unless it’s Halloween, in which case I guess you dress up and build a bonfire on Dockweiler Beach.) Sunset:

Then I ate some Filipino food, since Filipino restaurants sadly don’t exist in Madison right now, and went back to my hotel and read MathJobs files.

My Lyft driver on the way back was a 27-year-old guy from Florida who’s working on an album. That’s no surprise; my Lyft driver yesterday was also working on an album. Your Lyft driver in LA, unless they are a comic, is always working on an album. (My Lyft driver yesterday was also a comic.) This ride was a little deeper, though. This guy was a first-generation college student who went to school out-of-state on a soccer scholarship, majored in biology, and thought about getting a Ph.D. but was too stressed out about the GRE. He said whenever he started studying for the math part he was troubled by deep questions about foundations. Pi, he asked me: what is it? How can anyone really know it goes on forever? For that matter, what about two? Why is there such a thing as two? He also wanted to be a perfusionist but sat in on an open-heart surgery and decided it wasn’t for him, not in the long term. He started asking himself: is biology what I really want to do? So he’s driving a Lyft and working on his album. He also told me about how he doubts he’ll be able to make a long-term relationship work because he doesn’t believe in sex before marriage (he said: “out of wedlock”) and how he had dabbled in Hasidic Judiasm and how he was surprised I was Jewish because I didn’t look it (“no offense.”) Anyway, it just made me think about how normal and maybe universal his existential doubts and worries are for a 27-year-old dude; but for an upper-middle-class 27-year-old dude from an elite educational background, those existential doubts and worries would be something to process while you continued climbing on up that staircase to a stable professional career. That would just be a given. For this guy, the world said “You’re not sure you want that? Fine, don’t have it.”

Now I’m in LAX about to go get on the flight home to Madison, the direct flight we so gloriously now have. The last time I was in this LAX breakfast place, there was a big tumult around somebody else eating there and I realized it must be a celebrity, but I didn’t recognize him at all, and it turned out it was Gene Simmons. In LA people know what Gene Simmons looks like without the Kiss makeup! I do not. For all I know he could be in here right now. Are you here, Gene Simmons?

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In which I almost waste four dollars at Amazon

Instructive anecdote. I needed a somewhat expensive book and the UW library didn’t have it. So I decided to buy it. Had the Amazon order queued up and ready to go, $45 with free shipping, then had a pang of guilt about the destruction of the publishing industry and decided it was worth paying a little extra to order it directly from the publisher (Routledge.)

From the publisher it was $41, with free shipping.

I think it really did used to be true that the Amazon price was basically certain to be the best price. Not anymore. Shop around!

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If I have caught a foul ball it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants

“Combined cap and baseball mitt,” A patent by Richard Villalobos, 1983.

 

This is meant for fans, not players. The idea is that if a foul ball comes towards you, you may not have time to grab a glove you’ve stashed at your feet. Rather, you quickly slip your hand into the cap-mounted glove and snag the foul with your hat still attached to the back of your hand.

What is the median length of homeownership?

Well, it’s longer than it used to be, per Conor Dougherty in the New York Times:

The median length of time people have owned their homes rose to 8.7 years in 2016, more than double what it had been 10 years earlier.

The accompanying chart shows that “median length of homeownership” used to hover at  just under 4 years.  That startled me!  Doesn’t 4 years seem like a pretty short length of time to own a house?

When I thought about this a little more, I realized I had no idea what this meant.  What is the “median length of homeownership” in 2017?  Does it mean you go around asking each owner-occupant how long they’ve lived in their house, and take the median of those numbers?  Probably not:  when people were asked that in 2008, the median answer was 10 years, and whatever the Times was measuring was about 3.7 years in 2008.

Does it mean you look at all house sales in 2017, subtract the time since last sale, and take the median of those numbers?

Suppose half of all houses changed hands every year, and the other half changed hands every thirty years.  Are the lengths of ownership we’re medianning half “one year” and half “30 years”, or “30/31 1 year” and 1/31 “30 years”?

There are about 75 million owner-occupied housing units in the US and 4-6 million homes sold per year, so the mean number of sales per unit per year is certainly way less than 1/4; of course, there’s no reason this mean should be close to the median of, well, whatever we’re taking the median of.

Basically I have no idea what’s being measured.  The Times doesn’t link to the Moody’s Analytics study it’s citing, and Dougherty says that study’s not public.  I did some Googling for “median length of homeownership” and as far as I can tell this isn’t a standard term of art with a consensus definition.

As papers run more data-heavy pieces I’d love to see a norm develop that there should be some way for the interested reader to figure out exactly what the numbers in the piece refer to.  Doesn’t even have to be in the main text.  Could be a linked sidebar.  I know not everybody cares about this stuff.  But I do!

 

 

 

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I guess Caffe 608 was in trouble

Eight years after I wondered whether the arthouse cinema / cafe in Hilldale could really make a go of it, Sundance 608 is getting bought out by AMC.  I have really come to like this weird little sort-of-arthouse and hope it doesn’t change too much under new management.  It’s a sign of my age, I guess, that I still think of “movie at the mall” as an entertainment option I want to exist.  It’s my Lindy Hop, my vaudeville, my Show of Shows.

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Mathematicians becoming data scientists: Should you? How to?

I was talking the other day with a former student at UW, Sarah Rich, who’s done degrees in both math and CS and then went off to Twitter.  I asked her:  so what would you say to a math Ph.D. student who was wondering whether they would like being a data scientist in the tech industry?  How would you know whether you might find that kind of work enjoyable?  And if you did decide to pursue it, what’s the strategy for making yourself a good job candidate?

Sarah exceeded my expectations by miles and wrote the following extremely informative and thorough tip sheet, which she’s given me permission to share.  Take it away, Sarah!

 

 

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Bugbiter

Dream:  I meet two 9-year-old boys with identical long curly hair.  They’re in a band, the band is called Bugbiter.  They explain to me that most of their songs are about products, and they share their songs via videos they post on Amazon.

I share this dream with you mostly because I think Bugbiter is actually a legitimately good band name.

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Antonin Scalia thought jurisprudence was more like math than it really is

I didn’t mean for Antonin Scalia to be a major character in my book.  I was just going to write about an interesting math snafu that shows up in one of his capital punishment opinions.  But then that led quite naturally into talking about “formalism,” which many mathematicians use (or think of themselves as using) as their everyday philosophy of math, just as Scalia used it (or thought of himself as using it) as his everyday philosophy of jurisprudence.

Legal reasoning is not much like math.  But Scalia sometimes acts like he thinks it is.  That’s what makes him an interesting figure to me.  He writes down arguments which he presents as derivations axioms — as if the words of the Constitution determined the resolution of the legal question, so long as you were willing to apply them methodically and impartially in the correct sequence.

But surely that’s wrong!  The words of the Constitution underdetermine a lot of really interesting questions.  Richard Posner:

Most of the cases the Supreme Court agrees to decide are tossups, in the sense that they cannot be decided by conventional legal reasoning, with its heavy reliance on constitutional and statutory language and previous decisions. If they could be decided by those essentially semantic methods, they would be resolved uncontroversially at the level of a state supreme court or federal court of appeals and never get reviewed by the Supreme Court.

I have written before about the Court’s decision that statistical sampling in the Census is in conflict with the relevant Constitutional clause:

Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct.

Scalia’s opinion concentrates on the word “enumeration,” which he argues does not mean “determining the number of,” but rather should be understood in the more restrictive sense of “counting one by one.”  And he has some good contemporary sources for this reading!  You get a nice satisfying no-nonsense feeling, reading this opinion.  Then you start to think about what it actually says. Is Scalia declaring that constitution requires that the census count people one by one?  Can’t be — for the last fifty years the census has been conducted mostly by mail.   Does he think the census has to enumerate something, but it doesn’t have to be people?  Could it be anything?  Could it be “all property owners?”  Could it be “all non-atheists?”

Note, too, that when you fill out the census form, you write down the number of people in your household, then you fill out information for each person.  When the numbers are compiled, the computer, surely, adds up the numbers from each form to get an answer.   In other words:  a mathematical process other than enumeration-in-the-narrow-sense whose output is an approximation to the total number of people in the United States.  Kind of like statistical sampling.  Except not as good an approximation.

I don’t think we should consider that process unconstitutional.  It seems reasonable to consider it an enumeration, despite the inconsistency with some dictionary definitions.  Because dictionary definitions aren’t mathematical definitions.  A mathematical object is exactly what it is, and nothing else.  But when we read a word, we make a choice.

Scalia makes one choice: we could also opt for a more expansive but equally common-sensical definition of “enumerate” as “determine, to the extent possible, the number of,” which permits statistical sampling aimed at counting the “whole number” of Americans.  That “whole” is a word in the Constitution too, with as much binding force as “enumeration.”  It doesn’t appear in Scalia’s opinion.

Am I saying Scalia’s opinion in Dept. of Commerce vs. U.S. House of Representatives was wrong?  No; I’m saying merely that it’s not the kind of opinion it presents itself as being.  It is not determined by the text before it.  It relies, elsewhere, on an argument from pragmatism:  if statistical sampling is constitutionally permissible, then legislatures might authorize it, and the resulting partisan wrangling over methodology would create hard cases for future courts.  These are fair arguments, but they’re not textual arguments.  The argument admits that we make choices when deciding what words mean, and we should let our choices be guided by their likely consequences.

But no, I don’t think those arguments are obviously wrong.  It is pretty rare to find Scalia being obviously wrong.  Except in the following higher-level sense.  Scalia seldom concedes that the questions he faces are authentically difficult.  He — or at least the character of “Scalia” he plays in the opinions — lacks the humbleness appropriate to the task.  His habit is to present his conclusion as if it’s obviously right, the way a mathematical proof, once you understand it, is obviously right.  That is obviously wrong.

Update:  Commeter aaaatos makes a really important point, one I meant to address directly in the post.  He writes:  “what makes the legal system so useful to mankind is the fact that therein law is treated in a formalistic way as much as possible, i.e. as if it were mathematics.”  This points to another plausible account of Scalia:  that he didn’t actually believe law was very much like math, but felt it was best practice for judges to pretend to believe that.  That’s what I was getting at with the distinction between Scalia the person and “Scalia,” the persona he adopts as a writer of opinions.

Why pretend?  Partly because it enhances the authority of the process; partly because pretending to believe it helps us be “as formalist as possible,” mildly constraining the inevitably biased choices we make when we read words and try to obey them.

 

 

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The furniture sentiment

Today’s Memorial Library find:  the magazine Advertising and Selling.  The September 1912 edition features “How Furniture Could Be Better Advertised,” by Arnold Joerns, of E.J. Thiele and Co.

Joerns complains that in 1911, the average American spend $81.22 on food, $26.02 on clothes, $19.23 on intoxicants, $9.08 on tobacco, and only $6.19 on furniture.  “Do you think furniture should be on the bottom of this list?” he asks, implicitly shaking his head.  “Wouldn’t you — dealer or manufacturer — rather see it nearer the top, — say at least ahead of tobacco and intoxicants?”

Good news for furniture lovers:  by 2012, US spending on “household furnishings and equipment” was  at $1,506 per household, almost a quarter as much as we spent on food.  (To be fair, it looks like this includes computers, lawnmowers, and many other non-furniture items.)  Meanwhile, spending on alcohol is only $438.  That’s pretty interesting:  in 1911, liquor expenditures were a quarter of food expenditures; now it’s less than a tenth.  Looks like a 1911 dollar is roughly 2012$25, so the real dollars spent on alcohol aren’t that different, but we spend a lot more now on food and on furniture.

Anyway, this piece takes a spendidly nuts turn at the end, as Joerns works up a head of steam about the moral peril of discount furniture:

I do not doubt but that fewer domestic troubles would exist if people were educated to a greater understanding of the furniture sentiment.  Our young people would find more pleasure in an evening at home — if we made that home more worth while and a source of personal pride; then, perhaps, they would cease joy-riding, card-playing, or drinking and smoking in environments unhealthful to their minds and bodies.

It would even seem reasonable to assume, that if the public mind were educated to appreciate more the sentiment in furniture and its relation to the Ideal Home, we would have fewer divorces.  Home would mean more to the boys and girls of today and the men and women of tomorrow.  Obviously, if the public is permitted to lose more and more its appreciation of home sentiment, the divorce evil will grow, year by year.

Joerns proposes that the higher sort of furniture manufacturers boost their brand by advertising it, not as furniture, but as “meuble.” This seems never to have caught on.

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Why would anyone want to become a security analyst or portfolio manager?

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Jason Zweig frets about the popularity of index funds:

If investors keep turning their money over to machines that have no opinion about which stocks or bonds are better than others, why would anyone want to become a security analyst or portfolio manager? Who will set the prices of investments? What will stop all stocks and bonds from going up and down together? Who will have the judgment and courage to step in and buy during a crash or to sell during a mania?

First of all, it hardly seems like the entire stock market is liable to become one big Vanguard fund:  as Zweig says later in the piece, “indexing accounts for 11.5% of the total value of the U.S. stock market.”  Big institutional actors have special needs which give them reason to actively manage their funds.  And an institution like Wisconsin’s pension fund, which manages about $100b, isn’t giving away 2% of its money per year to a manager, the way you or I would.  (This document says we spent $52.5 million in external management fees in 2013; percentagewise, that’s less than I give Vanguard for my index.  Update:  I screwed this up, as a commenter points out.  Our external management fees increased by $52.5m.  They present this as a substantial percentage of the total but I can’t find the actual amount of the fee.)

But second:  am I supposed to be upset if it becomes less attractive to become a portfolio manager?  One out of six Harvard seniors goes into finance.  Is that a good use of human capital?

(By the way, here’s a startling stat from that Harvard survey:  “None of the women going into finance said they would earn $90,000 or more, compared to 29 percent of men in finance.”  Is that because men are overpaid, or because we lie about our salaries the same way we lie about sex?)

 

 

 

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