Data Landfill

This semester, the textbook I am using to teach data analytics is Business Intelligence by Sharda, Delen, and Turban. In Chapter 3, the authors describe how a data warehouse fits into a business enterprise. A data warehouse (DW) is more than a spreadsheet. It is more than a two-dimensional transactional database. A DW takes expertise to build and maintain. If done correctly, users within the company will be able to quickly access important data that they need to make decisions. Having a good DW is essential for any large enterprise today.

Near the end of the chapter, the authors list problems that are encountered when technologists go in to build a DW for an enterprise.

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In Defense of Austenland (2013)

Imagine you finish watching The Greatest Showman and immediately watch it all again. The sets are beautiful and the movie inspires you to believe in the American Dream again. Looking for someone who shares your joy, you google movie reviews. Up comes the NYT website and some reviewer has written, “I expected a movie about the circus to have clowns, but director Michael Gracey disappoints.” You would be upset and feel the need to set the internet record straight.

Today I write to defend female filmmaker Jerusha Hess and her delightful directorial debut Austenland (2013). I will not link to or quote the nasty NYT review.

Jerusha Hess is the brilliant writer of Napoleon Dynamite (2004). I loved Napoleon Dynamite so much that I used my screen printing assignment in high school art class to create custom shirts with references to the movie. If you don’t get Napoleon Dynamite, you really don’t get it. It is funny, and every visual feature is intentional.

Austenland is also funny. There are slapstick moments that made me laugh. I also enjoyed little details such as the recurring motif of characters holding fake animals. Ironically, one of the only real animals is a newborn horse foal, who ultimately turns out to be part of a lie. The fake things are real and the real things turn out to be fake. This film is meta. It has layers, like Shrek. It is only inside of the theatrical play within the theme park that the leading man expresses his true feelings.

On the surface, this film is a guilty pleasure romantic comedy. It does deliver on fantasy wish fulfillment, which I think it should. Impressively, it delivers on wish fulfillment while simultaneously delivering interesting commentary on fantasy versus reality.

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Emily Oster on Vaccines in February 2021

My third post on Covid data heroes features Dr. Emily Oster. Emily is a mom. Lot’s of economists are moms, but few have incorporated it quite as much into their careers. Emily has written a book on pregnancy and a new one on what to do with the kids after they are born. She does a great job explaining scientific research in a way that is easy to understand.

Emily made a big push to collect data on schools and covid back when there was crippling uncertainty about how dangerous it is to let children go to school in person.

She has a great email newsletter and substack. Her latest post is called “Vaccines & Transmission Redux Redux”. In this post, she distills the latest research to give practical advice on when kids can see grandparents once the vaccines are out.

For a long time now, some families have been avoiding close contact with elderly relatives. When can we go back to normal?

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Gen Z on Deep Work

I asked students to read an excerpt of the first chapter of Cal Newport’s book Deep Work and comment in a discussion board. The prompt asked whether deep work goes on in college and what are the barriers to deep work. I think it’s important for society that some people engage in deep work on our problems. I’m interested in how 20-year-olds perceive Newport’s ideas on focus and what barriers they identify to deep work.

Replies ranged from “I do believe that deep work is happening at college, but I think that it is hard to find students using this strategy regularly.” to “I know multiple people who do not practice deep work….” They each have a different subjective view of “deep work” and their replies are anecdotal. It’s possible that some students are too hard on themselves, considering that I biased them to be negative with the discussion prompt. Some of them might have thought that “deep work” requires many consecutive hours of focus, which is not actually what I expect of undergraduates. Still, the discussion could be helpful to others who aspire to deep work.

The following barriers to deep work were identified:

“The barriers that we experience include social media, roommates, friends, significant others, going to classes, having to work, and any number of other things that cause our day to become disjointed …  We are the first generation that has spent the majority of our life utilizing social media… and in general, are used to taking in information from a large number of sources over a short period of time.

“Most students cannot spend a large amount of hours just focused on the one task at hand and that is required for deep work. For most college students it will be nearly impossible to practice deep work because of a job, outside social life, or a heavy class workload …

“I believe that deep work happens in college a lot.  Students often times must prepare/study for tests for a long time and that is when it happens the most.  When someone has to study for hours they are intensely focused if they put themselves in a good studying environment…

“This can be achieved when you are able to clear your mind of external things and place yourself in a non-distracting environment. As a college student, this can be difficult especially because we are constantly thinking about our to-do list, when will we hang out with friends, or what’s for dinner.

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Charities will pick up used stuff but not businesses

There are reality TV shows dedicated to the spectacle of Americans drowning in their own material goods. What a year to be alive. Household income is rising around the world, as will clutter issues.

For now, I’m abstracting away from irrational hoarders. Lots of people have items that they would happily sell at a small price if only a buyer would come to their home. I see people posting items for sale all the time online, with the condition that the buyer come to them. (Most of these items are “used”, but some are brand new in the box.)

Why is there not a truck circling every American neighborhood offering to haul away unwanted stuff in exchange for a small payment?

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How to get rid of toy clutter

I asked my friend Carrie what she does about the first-world problem of too many children’s toys in the house (especially right after Christmas). Her reply was genius and even includes some tips from psychology at the end. This method is economist-approved:

For [older elementary kids], they are really good about going through toys in their room with me.  I sell at consignment sales twice a year, so I will pay them a small amount for each toy I take from their room to sell (they do not get money for the family toys in the playroom).  I pay them whether or not the toy actually sells. I do not pay them what the full profit would be from each toy, but they get something for their unplayed-with toys.  This is very motivating for them and helps them truly evaluate whether they want a toy or not.  With [older girl]’s unwanted toys, I might pay her but keep them for [younger girl] if I think that she would enjoy it one day.  

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Talking about redistribution in the lab

I am grateful to Yang Zhou for inviting me to talk about a working paper (with Gavin Roberts) on Friday. Yang told me that this audience is not familiar with lab experiments, so I’m going to take a few minutes out of my time to set the stage for my research.

There is a new book out, Causal Inference by Scott Cunningham, that is the talk of #EconTwitter (Cunningham, 2021). The book is 500 pages of dense prose and code. Here is a review saying that Cunningham left out many key things that a practitioner would need to know. Causal inference from naturally occurring data is hard!

Lab experiments bring something important to the research community. Lab experiments give the researcher a lot of control, which is why they are particularly useful for causal inference  (Samek, 2019).

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Andrew Weaver is Searching for the Skills Gap

Andrew Weaver is doing interesting work on “the skills gap.” One of his key methods is to create new data by interviewing firms. As someone who has looked hard for good data on the skills gap, I can say that we need more work like his.

Weaver’s 2017 paper with Paul Osterman is about data for U.S. manufacturing firms. These findings may or may not generalize perfectly outside of manufacturing, but I think this was a great place to start. There is plenty of talk about the decline of U.S. manufacturing and at least some of the talk was about a lack of skilled Americans to meet the great demand for high-tech doings. For this survey, they only ask about “core workers” who are doing the specialized roles of making widgets.  

Here are two important empirical questions:  a.) do American manufacturing firms want high-skill workers? b.) do they have trouble finding them? The authors answer, “not as much as you might think from policy discussions.”

There are lots of details in the paper that I don’t have time to cover. In table 2, they go over the determinants of a firm facing long-term vacancies. What is common among the (minority of) firms that report having long-term vacancies? Advanced computer proficiency is not associated with difficulty of filling jobs. The implication is that most manufacturing companies around 2017 were able to find workers who had the computer-related skills needed to do the core production tasks. What seemed to be a limiting factor was not computer skills but advanced reading skills. Half of the establishments surveyed said that they require workers with extended reading skills. That could mean, for example, reading a 10-page technical article in a trade journal.

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Will GameStop be as profitable as “Roaring Kitty” predicted in 2019?

He’s been found and he’s talking to the press. He’s known as “Roaring Kitty” on Youtube, and his Reddit username is… something else. The WSJ even talked to his mom which tells you just how much public attention was directed at the event this week that he might be the prime mover of.

The man who convinced a Reddit “army” to drive up the price of Gamestop ($GME) says that he originally simply saw it as a value investment. He believed people would keep shopping there, even though some short sellers on Wall Street bet money on the store going the way of Borders (the way of all flesh).

One of the strange turns of this story is that now people are buying the stock as a means of self-expression. Some of them claim they don’t care if they lose the money they put in. A friend of mine described the scene thusly on his social media account:

#SaveAMC #gamestop Amid the global turmoil, some big banks made billions ‘shorting’ floundering businesses, profiting off of the struggles of failing businesses. Recently those targets were brick and mortar retailers like GameStop and AMC. But the banks got too greedy and shorted too far, so individual investors rallied to invest in these businesses to simultaneously save their favorites and stick it to the banks. Power to the people.

He describes GameStop as a “failing business” and simultaneously declares it a favorite of consumers.

The $GME episode might have been as fun as playing a video game. Will anyone think it’s exciting to shop at GameStop 2 years from now?

If the short sellers were right, then who is helped by prolonging the agony? If the short sellers were wrong, then they will pay anyway.

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