Fiction for Christmas

I hacked Christmas this year to get two books I had been hearing about from reviewers and friends: Project Hail Mary and My Struggle by Knausgård. I wrapped the sci-fi one for my husband, because he will like it. I handed the weird one to him and asked him to wrap it for me. I killed many birds with one stone. The people who read econ blogs will appreciate my accomplishment.

Right after Christmas I had a plane trip that provided some reading time for My Struggle. I like it. As a warning to others, I wonder if the reason “everyone” thinks it is so relatable is that the types of people who review books share the author’s burning desire to be a writer.

Continue reading

Christmas Day

These are memes from my favorite nostalgic Christmas movie. I hope no one needed advice about inflation.

Lastly, I have, in the past, assigned college students to read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol JUST so we can talk about how messed up the book is and how the portrayal of markets is unhelpful.

Will we repeat the Christmas Covid wave?

EDIT at 7pm, same day as posting: You know you have good friends when someone quietly emails you and tells you that the news about Omicron just got much worse and you should probably edit your post. I’ve been trying to rationalized why this January will be better than last January. Of course if it were not for Omicron, I would expect very little from holiday gatherings among mostly-vaccinated Americans. However, having known Omicron was looming, I probably shouldn’t have even tried to speculate. Get your booster and be prepared to hunker down in January if the 2-3 week data indicates that infections are turning extra-lethal. </edit>

In keeping with the “dismal science” brand, let’s dwell on the horrible death toll of the January 2021 Covid wave in the US that followed the Christmas holiday. Here comes Christmas (and other winter holidays) again, a major public health event.

https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/27/us-reports-record-number-of-covid-deaths-in-january.html

This graph I borrowed from CNBC shows how fast deaths spiked up after the winter holidays of 2020. See also https://data.cdc.gov/.

According to Google search auto-complete, the public is more interested in whether there will be another Christmas Prince movie than whether there will be another Christmas Covid death wave.

I think it’s unlikely that we will see a repeat of exactly what happened last year. I’ve been looking online for predictions and mostly I have found articles warning that Omicron will cause a some kind of wave. No one wants to commit to predicting how many people will die, because anyone who tries is sure to be wrong. The consensus is that breakthrough infections are likely but that vaccines protect against extreme illness.

Nearly a million Americans have died from Covid already (Jeremy argues for a million). Some of those deaths, in retrospect, can almost certainly be tied to family travel during the holidays in 2020. The January Covid wave has only happened once, so it’s impossible to predict what will happen this time. Unfortunately we may get an interaction from increased holiday travel plus a novel highly infectious variant.

The Omicron variant is spreading fast, but no one knows if it will be worse than we we are currently dealing with from Delta. It seems like triple-vaxxed people are not at high risk, from preliminary data. That is reassuring to me personally. Thank you South Africa for being fast and sharing data with the world. For communities with low vaccination rates, it seems certain that more deaths will result from fast-traveling Omicron. Yet, from my reading this week, it is hard to know if it’s really much worse than what they are currently experiencing from Delta.

I’m keeping a Twitter thread going of what other people are saying. Caleb Watney points out that we have two things going for us. Widely available vaccines keep people safer from infection and reduces the chance of needing medical treatment. Secondly, we have gotten better at treating the disease. Together, that should mean less deaths in January 2022, as long as people seek treatment quickly and hospital capacity does not become a limiting factor. Omicron could multiply cases so quickly that we can’t apply all our best treatments to everyone. That is the biggest reason to worry.

Even though people will be less cautious about winter holiday travel this year than they were last year, the country has been open for many months now, including the recent Thanksgiving holiday. The vulnerable population this time should be smaller, in terms of the people likely to die from Omicron.

To say that we won’t blindly exactly repeat the biggest mortality event of my lifetime is not “optimism”. It seems like this January will not be as bad as last January for the reason Watney states: better medical tech on hand, most importantly vaccines for prevention.

Continue reading

Watching Get Back

I enjoyed watching Get Back, the new documentary about making a Beatles album. Sometimes I skipped over rehearsal scenes. The streaming format allows you to treat Get Back like a coffee table book, if you choose, as opposed to a feature film that you watch all the way through in one sitting.

I know very little about The Beatles, aside from recognizing their hit songs. Here are my impressions after watching most of Get Back.

Paul McCartney is a rock star. His hair could have its own line in the closing credits. When Paul goofs off, he appears to be entertaining his bandmates because he loves playing for any audience. Conversely, John Lennon seems to joke around because he does not take their music seriously. Paul is motivated to make the Beatles excellent. Ringo’s ability to show up and be quiet is almost as important as Paul’s ability to lead.

I’ll put up my tribute. Then I’ll add more casual observations.

Continue reading

Getting hired by a bot is unsettling

Samford student Savanah Needham identified an interesting recent WSJ article about the use of AI in hiring. Savanah writes:

In The WSJ, we learn that AI is being used for hiring employees rather than a traditional hiring manager, thus job applicants fear that they must impress a robot instead of relying on human interaction to get their dream job. The writer argues that job applicants deserve to know ahead of time how the algorithm will judge them and ought to receive feedback if they are rejected. Her proposal highlights the uncertainty that job candidates face in the newly AI-augmented hiring world.

We desperately need such a system. AI’s widespread use in hiring far outpaces our collective ability to keep it in check—to understand, verify and oversee it. Is a résumé screener identifying promising candidates, or is it picking up irrelevant, or even discriminatory, patterns from historical data? Is a job seeker participating in a fair competition if he or she is unable to pass an online personality test, despite having other qualifications needed for the job?

Julia Stoyanovich, WSJ

Robots can look at social media postings, linguistic analysis of candidates’ writing samples, and video-based interviews that utilize algorithms to analyze speech content, tone of voice, emotional states, nonverbal behaviors, and temperamental clues (HBR 2019). In just a few quick seconds, AI uses all the data it has on you to jump to conclusions. AI uses tools that claim to measure tone of voice, expressions, and other aspects of a candidate’s personality to help “measure how culturally ‘normal’ a person is.”

You spend a large amount of time proving to employers that you are not like the others, you’re different/better than other candidates…but now we need to try and convince a robot that we are “normal.”  

Researchers predict that face-reading AI can soon discern candidates’ sexual and political orientation as well as “internal states” like mood or emotion with a high degree of accuracy. This can be worrisome if the face reader claims that one is “too emotional” or assigns someone to a certain political party. 

If Tyler is talking about a new variant…

For some Americans, this Thanksgiving was the first holiday that felt normal in a long time. Being re-united, without Covid restrictions, is something to celebrate.

On the other hand, a new coronavirus variant was just discovered in South Africa. It’s scary enough that travel bans might be imposed. We have all (just about) learned to live with the original strain from Wuhan, but scientists want time to figure out how dangerous and infectious this new strain is. Maybe at this point people are tired of being lectured about risks. No matter how much or little a person sacrificed for Covid-19, they might feel like that storyline has become too boring to deserve any more of our attention. We cannot stop looking out for new variants that might force us to put cherished traditions on hold again. Coronaviruses kill. My advice is to keep following news from Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok, and Emily Oster.

Oster has been consistently reasonable about family and health risks. She argued to open schools and essentially said that you can see grandparents if the risk is small enough (even though the risks are never zero). As I said before, another trustworthy source of information throughout the pandemic has been Tyler and Alex, who put up almost all of their material in real time at Marginal Revolution.

I’ll share something a friend wrote to me today:

Although [his wife’s name]’s chemo treatment continues to show good long-term signs, this morning we discovered that [she] tested positive for COVID. That’s bad news, the good news is that [she] is already getting the antibody treatment and some extra fluids at the hospital as I write this.

“The antibody treatment” did not exist when the first Covid-19 waves swept through New York with such devastating consequences.

If the newest strain turns out to be a serious development, then in many ways we are better prepared to deal with it than we were before. We probably will blow through the red tape on at-home rapid tests faster the next time around (I’m such an optimist!). We already have contact tracing apps that protect privacy. Vaccine scheduling software is already in place. Everyone has masks at home.

The biggest difficulty I foresee is not coming up with scientific solutions but agreeing as a society about which tools to use. Some people might (will) not even believe the new strain is real.

EWED was started right at the moment when Marginal Revolution commentary on Covid seemed the most crucial. So, sometimes I will do little more here than keep up the echo. Do tweets, phone calls, letters, blogs, or talk about Covid around the Thanksgiving table. Don’t give up.

It’s now clear, whether or not the news out of South Africa turns out to be serious, that we are living with a new problem that will last a long time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

If you ever read much of the New Testament, you’ll see a theme in the letters of Paul to cities he has visited. The brand-new churches were doing well, while he was with them in person. Then time goes by and the community or doctrine starts to fray.

Paul wrote these words to the church in Galatia, more than a year after he had visited them:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 

Galatians 6:9
Continue reading

Word Golf is a new online game

If you like Scrabble or Family Feud, then you might enjoy playing Word Golf. You can get started for free immediately by going to word.golf

You play by thinking of word associations to click from one concept to another. The challenge will get you thinking. Every game only takes about one minute, and there are simple instructions on the website to get you going right away. Unlike chess, you can do this for fun even without any time commitment.

Like Mike and Jeremy before me this week, I am writing about something I saw at the Emergent Ventures conference. It was an inspiring type of event. I met the young creator of Word Golf and was inspired by his vision for a new intellectual sport.

The game is built from data on how often words appear together on the internet. That’s why I compare it to the TV guessing game show Family Feud. You are not just thinking of synonyms to jump from one word to another. The challenge is to think of what words other people typically use in the same online article.

Word Golf is probably a better use of time than Candy Crush or Solitaire. (I played a lot of computer FreeCell at one point in my life but not anymore.)

Data continues to improve sports performance

Joy: As a Data Analytics teacher, I often think about the applications of machine intelligence to work processes. Samford undergraduate Copeland Petitfils has written the following blog, which is a reminder to me that there are still many potential areas for growth.

Since “Moneyball”, we have seen the growth of analytics throughout sports. However, many teams have stuck to the same old way of playing baseball, like the Braves. This past May, the Braves took a new innovative approach and saw room for growth on their defensive side.

The general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, implemented a radical strategy and improved the defense by using shifts with data analytics. While “Moneyball” looked at the statistics of acquiring cheaper players who had good batting averages and improved the offensive side, the Braves looked at improving the defensive side and the way they shift between pitches to improve their chances of getting a ground ball out. A defensive shift in baseball refers to the infield changing positions from normal to a certain area of the infield based on the pitches and using stat cast to predict where the batter is most likely to hit the ball depending on the type of pitches. Shifting can increase the probability for players to get ground balls out rather than hits.

Statistically, the Braves ranked at the bottom of defensive shifts in the MLB, and Anthopoulos, the general manager, saw this as an opportunity to improve. The Braves started the 2021 season with no shifting at all to shifting on 50.6% of pitches by the end of the year, which was the highest in baseball this year only behind the Dodgers. The shifting ultimately allows the Braves to improve in converting ground balls to out rather than turning into hits. At the start of the season, the Braves converted under 75% of ground balls into outs which ranked middle of the pack in defense. However, since implementing the shift the number jumped to 77%, which was the second-best in baseball. Although these jumps in percentages seem small, they allowed the Braves to field 25 more ground balls into outs rather than hits.

The data analytics the Braves used allowed the players to be put in a better position to succeed, and as the season progressed, they started to get better and better at it. These decisions turned around the Braves’ season, and now they are on their way to the World Series for the first time since 1999 after beating the Dodgers in the NL Championship.

Coda by Joy: That said, guess who failed at data driven decision making? Zillow!

In a statement Tuesday, Chief Executive Rich Barton said Zillow had failed to predict the pace of home-price appreciation accurately, marking an end to a venture the company once said could generate $20 billion a year. Instead, the company said it now plans to cut 25% of its workforce… “We’ve determined the unpredictability in forecasting home prices far exceeds what we anticipated and continuing to scale Zillow Offers would result in too much earnings and balance-sheet volatility,” Mr. Barton said.

Gen Z on The Great Resignation

Even though a housing price crash is often reported on as a crisis, it benefits first time homebuyers. Do the college seniors in 2021, likewise, see this “labor shortage” as a wonderful opportunity and stroke of luck for them personally? They overwhelmingly think of themselves as sellers of labor, not employers.*

Sometimes Samford students write for EWED if I felt like there was something that I and readers could learn from their perspective. This is accounting major Rachel Brinkley:

As a 21-year-old senior in college, the workforce is a confusing place. On the one hand, “The Great Resignation” is creating millions of jobs across America. It is a very encouraging time to be graduating college, as it appears that most of my peers and I will have no issues finding employment. Employers are currently struggling to compete in terms of compensation and benefits offered. I am majoring in accounting, and everyone that I have spoken to in my major has had at least one compensation increase since accepting their position. None of us have worked even one day on the job. This competition between employers creates favorable bargaining power for those entering the workforce, while putting a strain on employers.

While I may have confidence in my employment status after graduation, I will be starting at an entry level position for a firm that has a relatively structured promotional process. Like most large accounting firms, the promotions within the firm are based on the number of years spent working at the firm. There may be a few exceptions to the standard promotional pace, but I am not very optimistic about climbing the corporate ladder any faster than I would under more typical economic conditions. This is due, in part, to the fact that the best jobs are hard to come by. At a large accounting firm, the structured promotional process limits the number of the most sought-after jobs.

This circumstance leads me to ask how it is possible to obtain a top job when competition for those positions seems to be increasing. We read “Deep Work” for class, and I think about the author’s advice. We will need to continue learning new skills to make it into top positions.

Are my students running through the halls celebrating the current state of the labor market? Maybe they should be, but they are not, especially if their focus is on what Rachel called “top jobs”. Some jobs, almost by definition, are limited because they are top-of-the-pyramid or “tournament” positions.

My current Fall students pointed out that they feel better than the last two batches of students graduating into a closed-down Covid world. Many of our previous students got hired virtually and I don’t know at what point if at all they have had in-person interactions with work colleagues.

*The truth is more complex in a large diverse economy. Even though I don’t think of myself as en employer, I am concerned that there will be no one to operate my upcoming flight to a conference. The airline I rely on has had to cancel hundereds of flights in the past week over labor issues.

EWED Recommends Gifts 2021

Economists know that holiday gift-giving is inefficient. However, if it’s going to happen anyway then we try to help on the margin with our personal recommendations. First, I will explain the products that writers liked this year, and then I will list the books. I thank the writers for participating in this exercise for a second time (see last year).

Not-Books

Jeremy made strong case for portable batteries that allow you to charge your electronics. As he said, you could be someone’s battery hero! This product would make a nice tidy box to wrap for an adult and it’s under $40. Are men hard to shop for?

For stocking stuffers, Zachary recommends a children’s music CD by Laurie Berkner. Your kid will start asking for something on repeat, so why not make sure it’s something good? Zachary also reminds us to consider nostalgic wrapped snack foods.

Scott gives two solid options that are affordable and small. A keychain light for adults and a spinner toy for kids. You can buy the plastic spinners in bulk and give them out to a whole family or neighborhood of kids at the same time. A more substantial adult gift would be a folding bicycle.

I recommended a pair of running shoes and, even though this might no longer be the “hot” gift, AirPods. Some people still don’t have AirPods, and it makes a tidy package. Or, maybe your teen lost one of their ear pieces over the last year?

James reminds us to order products ahead of time because of looming supply chain delays. He also suggests some internet paid subscriptions. If you don’t want to deliver a physical wrapped package, then buying someone a year-long subscription to one of these Substacks is a great idea.

Note that the tungsten cubes you are seeing in the news are not EWED-endorsed gifts.

Books

Jeremy highlights a brand new economics book, Career and Family, about the changes in women’s labor force participation throughout the 20th century.

Yesterday, I recommended Liberty Power about American abolitionists for adults and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader for school-aged kids (in which, also, a slave trade is abolished).

Scott recommends How the Irish Saved Civilization. For many people, Scott’s book is probably a safer choice than mine because its scope is wider. Liberty Power would make a great gift for someone who reads so much that they have already finished How the Irish Saved Civilization.

James has given us a few suggestions. For fun, Murder-Bears, Moonshine, and Mayhem: Strange Stories from the Bible to Leave You Amused, Bemused, and (Hopefully) Informed. James found 4 Hour Body and 4 Hour Chef to be useful.

As a final note, a lot of my professor friends are getting the Remarkable II as a paper-reading-writing tablet. It seems superior to an iPad or previous tablets. Some functionality requires an extra data plan subscription.