Books Page!

Those readers who pay attention to stuff that appears on our navigation bar when they move their mouse on it would realise there is now a ‘Books To Read‘ page under Resources. ERPZ have accumulated quite a fair bit of entries that are basically book reviews and it’ll be good to catalogue them on a single page help readers access them quickly although you could always use the tags.

There might soon be a page indexing the articles on studying and motivation as well, so stay-tuned.

Optimistic Wishes for 2010

Bully Kids
Goofing Kids...

In today’s The Straits Times, occasional columnist Tom Plate writes about ‘an optimist’s wish list for 2010‘. Tom Plate is a relatively regular columnist for The Straits Times and writes for many other newspapers in the Asia-Pacific as well. His articles also often make for interesting reading because he writes in a rather cheerful and casual (yet still professional) style, a style not exactly like Paul Krugman’s whose writings I recently referred to in my last entry for erpz.net but I enjoy his writings as much as Krugman’s.

In this article, he tries to infuse some optimism into his hopes for the coming year. Some of the wishes are really wishful thinking, but still no harm keeping your fingers crossed.

His wishes:
1. World pays more attention to South Korea, less to North Korea
Well, actually this tactic might work. North Korea is sometimes like an attention-seeking kid throwing a temper-tantrum and sometimes you need to ignore the kid for a while so that he calms down. But then again, does your kid have nuclear weapons that he can throw at his ‘friends’?

2. These bad big shots will resign: Britain’s PM Gordon Brown, Burma’s junta leader Than Shwe & North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il
I agree on the latter two but Gordon Brown… he’s not doing a good job at all in Britain, but he’ll probably be kicked out through the elections this year. Why is Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not on this list? He’s a greater danger to the world than Gordon Brown is.

3. India’s Odd Couple named Time’s Man and Woman of the Year: PM Manmohan Singh & Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi
Like Plate says, US needs to pay more attention to India. It will make not ‘just a good strategic partner’ as US President Obama claims, but a staunch ally and friend not just in the War on Terror but in terms of the global economy and climate change for instance. US needs to soothe the frayed nerves of their Indian counterparts.

4. China’s President Hu opens up, gets down with Western media
This is not that hard to do on a personal perspective, but if you think about the Chinese leadership and how they go about doing things… this is pretty much like expecting Wish Number 2 to magically be granted.

5. Japan finds a successful premier: NOT Yukio Hatoyama
In all honesty, is anything so wrong with current PM Yukio Hatoyama? I think he is hamstrung by his 2 parties allied to his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) that are imposing many demands on him and not toeing the official alliance line. And then there’s DPJ Chairman Ichiro Ozawa who pulls strings behind the scenes… which makes the current PM’s life so difficult. Give him a chance to learn the ropes. We are so willing to give President Obama chances to make mistakes as a newly-minted leader without much experience, so why not PM Hatoyama?

He did not tackle climate change in his article as I hoped he might have, but let’s just stick to politics and economy for now. Or he probably feels pessimistic about climate change as well? We dont really know what he doesnt write, but from what he has written in his above list, if any of the wishes came true it’d make global affairs less complex and less troublesome for America at least.

Reads Again…

Globe Skimmer Dragonflies
Next Stop: The other side of the globe

I guess ERPZ recommends too much readings sometimes and so I think you could try watching more videos. Charles Anderson talks about his work and especially that with globe skimmer dragonflies on TED.com. It is interesting how he made the discovery of the migratory route of the globe skimmer dragonflies just through rather informal research himself; cycling through the island of Maldives and counting dragonflies, calling friends to ask them which time of the year they observed swarms of dragonflies out there. His spirit of inquiry of nature is admirable.

Students of General Paper who are into Science & Tech questions should definitely watch a presentation by Kevin Kelly on the evolution of technology. He asks the question, ‘What does technology wants?‘ in the evolution kind of way; a little like questioning what the genes are trying to achieve and what each organism is trying to do as it lives life. He tries to identify the trends of technology, the direction everything is heading towards, comparing it with biology – where there is increasing complexity, diversity, ubiquity and such. He even defines technology as the seventh kingdom of life, integrating the man-made with nature, reconciling the arguments on man versus nature.

Interestingly, this issue that Kevin Kelly touched on is something I visited in the past on my personal blog. At that time, I was reading Origins of Wealth by Eric D Beinhock and was introduced to the idea of complexity. I was fascinated by it and believed that the idea of evolution as a proliferation of ‘experiments’ had great applicability beyond Biology and Economics. It’s such a pity I loaned out the book and seriously have no idea who it is with.

If TED.com is not enough for you, there’s always Academic Earth, which is way more academic in that it is practically university course lectures.

ERPZ in 2010

Year 2010
Happy New Year!

ERPZ emerged as an educational initiative about a year ago, originally focusing on delivery of study tips and exam-smart techniques; our first article, ‘Slack Later‘ introduces a means of disciplining your mind by ‘procrastinating procrastination’. Within a month the author (basically just Kevin) lost steam and articles stop flowing on the site, stunting further developments. An initiative to start a community around studying through a forum failed because of lack of forum-management expertise.

Roughly 6 months after ERPZ founding, the site underwent a transformation, moving beyond just tips and mind tricks, to discussion on worldly affairs (news in other words), tracking world developments in different fields (mainly areas of Economics, Technologies, sometimes on Climate issues) as well as making reads recommendation. This model is basically learnt from The General Paper, an initiative by a JC GP Tutor to help aggregate resources from the web for students of GP.

Today, after hundreds over entries, ERPZ is updated almost everyday; features writings of a few authors, a collection of notes from students of Top Junior Colleges of Singapore, weekly packs of video & readings links and more. In 2010, ERPZ will continue to deliver aggregation of content for the different social sciences and possibly the sciences as well, make reading recommendations and reviews of different academic resources for students at Junior Colege Level. Once again, any interested contributors might want to contact us through the comments system here and help ERPZ do more for students.

Mathematics of Warfare

ERPZ have always been rather social science oriented, doing analysis mostly on social/economic/political matters and lots of writing in just plain language (ie. no greek symbols or mathematical operators). Nevertheless, economics is fundamentally somewhat about logic and it attempts to connect the maths and science of our society with reality. Sean Gourley, a physicist is doing the same sort of analysis in his research on the mathematics of war, which he presented on TED.com.

Gourley's Equation
Gourley's Equation

The most interesting idea presented in the talk is that even within the chaos of conflict, there are universal principles and relationships between the myriad of different variables in the field (in this case, fatality and frequency of attacks). More importantly, the use of alpha as a measure of fragmentation of insurgency is an interesting result and hopefully can be exploited as a means to achieve peace more quickly during a conflict.

This research paper that eventually resulted from his collaboration with the various experts of different fields was recently published on Nature magazine. TED Blogs features a Q&A with Gourley about the research. It’s great that scientists and mathematicians are using their tools to learn more about complex reality and uncover patterns previously hidden from us; the applications of these mathematics, however, remains to be discovered. As science is often the neutral party, it is important to note also that the same tools can be used by the opposing parties. Strategic thinking, remains an important means of conducting these affairs.

Shock Doctrine

Shock Doctrine
Got shot by shock

I’ve previously read Shock Doctrine and written a review on my personal blog; it was a time before ERPZ started and became active. Here’s a reproduction of the original review:

After 2 months of reading I finally finished Naomi Klein’s powerful book, Shock Doctrine. It was a long ride deep into the dark old mines of history on the different ‘economic revolutions’ all around the world: Argentina, Chile, China, Russia, Bolivia and Poland. It was a book that was written with intentions to put down Milton Friedman, clearly anti-corporatist and in some sense, anti-globalization. From this book I understand finally how the term ‘anti-globalization’ have been mis-interpreted by so many people, even myself. I once thought that it means being against the integration of cultures, economies and companies but then I realised it gets way deeper than that.

The idea of anti-globalization is usually used to mean being against the way the phenomena is taking place in our world, that inequality is rising and corporates are like taking over the world while people in poor countries work in sweatshops, suffer in silence and endure the hardship only to realise generations later that nothing changes. It is the discovery of a certain helplessness in the bottom layer of the world. Shock Doctrine is clearly about that, and more.

In a clear but otherwise way too long writing, Naomi presented a very complete picture of how pure ideology-driven economist are used by corporates and government to advance their self-interest. And of course, in a capitalistic perspective, self-interest is just profit and money. She didn’t over turn free market theories on how a perfectly free market is able to dilute power and increase freedom but she did show that the approach that allows for extreme free market is not exactly compatible with democracy and worst of all, economist have been naive about how a free market can be brought to exist. Case after case cited in the book, firms are privatize just be selling it out to the private sector without proper valuation of the assets and this hasty act would not only delay the attainment of a market equilibrium that would be at least more socially optimal but also create new forces that increases the inertia of the market. In other words, it makes the market less free.

In the area of corporate America and politics, Naomi is suggesting that the corporate people have penetrated politics too deeply with CEOs becoming civil servants in top positions of the government and politicians being lobbied by powerful companies with CEOs receiving incomes more than 400 times the average person on the street. And because of that, government becomes ran like corporations, public sector jobs being slashed and direct public spending is reduced while outsourcing (locally, giving contracts to companies) all the functions that can be done by the private sector. Worst, it is infected by a touch of cronyism; and this probably explains why contracts are rarely distributed by bidding and that the contracts concentrate in the hands of the few big firms that are always ‘aiding the government’ with ‘planning’.

It has been a good read anyways and while Naomi Klein has a rather extreme stance, my reading of Joseph Stiglitz (Globlization & its Discontents as well as Making Globalization Work) have helped me appreciate the gravity of the matters she was talking about and I could understand her thinking. As always, the writer do give us a gleamer of hope about what the future may turn out to be when the ‘Shock Wears Off’ and how we can prevent similar stuff from happening again. I would recommend this book for people who have no fear of heavy non-fiction reading, a thorough interest in learning how and why corporate America is seen in bad light.

The Big Zero

Zero
Null, nothing

Paul Krugman’s article, published in The Straits Times, regarding the 2000s, gives quite a bit for thought. Paul Krugman is a famed American economist from Princeton who was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 2008 for his theories on trade and economic geography. I have always loved to read his articles in The Straits Times because they have always been very insightful and succintly written, and always hit the nail on the head. This article that I introduce here is no different, but it’s slightly different in tone from what he writes.

Usually, he adopts a rather neutral or slightly positive tone in his writings, even if they are regarding the economic crisis today (he studies economic crises, hence his expertise in commenting on them). But in this article he takes a rather pessimistic, negative view towards the decade that just passed us: the Noughties (2000s). He proposes calling it ‘The Big Zero’ because ‘nothing good happened’ and ‘none of the optimistic things we were supposed to believe turned out to be true’.

And then he justifies with some general statistics based on America: almost zero job creation, private-sector employment decline, fall in median household income after adjustment for inflation, zero gains for houseowners, zero gains for stocks. Read the article for moredetails, but we all have seemed to come back to square 1, in 1999, or gotten worse off. So what’s with all that optimism about the economy?

By right things were supposed to go well. There was confidence in the financial system, expressed by Lawrence Summers in 1999. Summers is, by the way, the current administration’s top economist and in 1999 then deputy Treasury secretary. He believed then that America had ‘honest corporate accounting’, but this seemed to just vapourise if we look at this century. Even before the current financial meltdown, much earlier on there was Enron and WorldCom, two large and supposedly reliable firms that were exposed for dishonesty.

And then American politics does not seem to have a solution to the problem. The Democrats try to seek compromise in what they seek and their ideas are vehemently opposed by many as being too socialist, while the Republicans seem to believe that the solution to the problems caused by ‘tax cuts and deregulation’ is more ‘tax cuts and deregulation’.

Certainly not a very inspiring decade. But this restricts itself to America of course. I must say that for most other countries it was probably not this bad. If we take the example of China, to call this decade The Big Zero would be to forget its ascent onto the global arena as a superpower. So… the Americans have it bleak but the Asians are having it better.

Benefits of Procrastination

Stop Procrastinating
Might not always be the right way...

Our views towards climate change are often tinted with a veil of emotions – fearful of our children’s safety, the prospects of more disasters and such. As a result, we proceed as cautiously as possible when studying it and would rather we err on the side of exaggerating the effects of climate change than to downplay it. Robert P. Murphy, an economist specialized in climate change economics, gave the whole story a more objective treatment in his article, The Benefits of Procrastination: The Economics of Geo-engineering

The article mentions some interesting geo-engineering schemes that are currently explored, but the main issue of the article is not the technologies involved but the cost-benefit analysis for the choice between waiting for more options to fight climate change and fighting it now through emission reductions. He argues for wait-and-see approach towards climate change and encourage geo-engineers to get on with their innovations and research.

Murphy believes that procrastination might give us a better assessment of the effects and extent of climate change our economic activity is resulting in and thus allow us to respond with more effective initiatives without compromising our economic growth at present and paying too high a cost from preventive measures such as reducing emissions.

Interestingly, discount rates isn’t even the issue. The significant idea Murphy is after is that we could buy time to refine our assessment of climate change and also the means to tackle them. And that it’s worth it. I’m not sure if the potential life loss from the risk is accounted for but his suggestions would sound insane to those who are suffering at the frontline of climate change, like the Inuits in Arctic region.

Even as an economist-to-be, I know that these issues is not always about economics and when we are thinking about global issues and aggregating cost, we almost definitely will leave out the non-monetary cost borne by the fringe groups. Perhaps Murphy could re-do his calculations and analysis after he reviews the cost of the effects of climate change even using more conservative estimates of the effects.

Thinking Strategically

Thinking Strategically
Think, think, think...

As I was mentioning a couple of weeks back, I have been reading Thinking Strategically by Avinash Dixitt and Barry Nalebuff. This is a pretty old book, being first published in 1991 and the version I was reading is the 1993 paperback re-issue – there was no more revisits to this book by the authors since then but it’s been in print until now. I believe it’s largely used as readings for undergraduate economics students as well as students of business or management schools.

The 2 authors are great teachers of Game Theory in Princeton and Yale and have often adapted the principles this somewhat mathematical subject to the less mathematical real world. Thinking Strategically is a great attempt at discussing strategic thinking that follows from game theoretical analysis for the layman.

The good thing about ideas on strategic thinking is that their principles hold even when the examples they are attached to often become obsolete or arcane – that is not to say that Thinking Strategically features arcane examples. Most of the examples used to bring ideas across in the book are simple, often bordering trivia but they illustrate the essence of the concepts and can be used to explain the principles for similar but more complex issues. One of the case studies brought up that I particularly love is the one about a three-way duel where we have 3 shooters of varying abilities.

Each shooter fires at someone (or something) each round; there’s is fixed order as to who gets to shoot first. The one who’s allowed to shoot first is a poor shooter with an accuracy of only 30%, the second has an accuracy of 80% and the last is a sharp shooter who shoots with an accuracy of 100%. The question is that if you’re the first shooter and allowed to go first, who would you choose to shoot?

An analysis of this “game” gives us a surprising but convincing result. If you choose to shoot the average shooter, and succeed, you will definitely lose because the next in line would be the sharp shooter and he would shoot you. If you choose to shoot the sharp shooter and hit, the average shooter will shoot you, leaving you with a 20% chance of survival. And even if you survive, you only have 30% chance of hitting him later. You might say, this mediocre shooter is so lousy, he’ll probably have to lose anyways. But you can actually raise your chances of winning by choosing a more intelligent strategy: To fire into the air.

This way, the average shooter will get his turn and attempt to shoot the sharp shooter since shooting you and succeeding mean he’ll have to die when the sharp shooter’s turn comes. If he succeeds, the mediocre shooter gets to try his hands at killing the average shooter. If he fails, the sharp shooter will immediately kill him and that once again, leaves the mediocre shooter with a chance of 30% to kill the sharp shooter. The somewhat counter-intuitive strategy of shooting at no one raise the chances of the mediocre shooter winning substantially.

The principle alluded by this example is that if you’re a weak player; it is wise to allow the stronger players to make their moves and get rid of all each other before making a move and fire your best shot at the one left standing. Now that we surface the principle, the logic of such a choice becomes more intuitive.

Thinking Strategically is a great read for students who likes to think and don’t mind re-reading some of the statements in the book a couple of times to understand the explanation behind some strategic moves. It teaches an important skill of looking forward and reasoning backwards and shows you the power of its application in all sorts of “games”. The book might make you feel like you’ll become smarter but trust me, it’s not that easy to apply strategic thinking that quickly in real life and often, we need a degree of foresight that we would almost definitely lack.

Random Issues

Scrooge
The father of Humbug...

In this holiday season, The Economist discusses Joel Waldfogel’s Scroogenomics with a little humour. Of course, the signalling effect of gifts is once again ignored.

Emily Yoffe writes about sibling’s “rivalry” on Slate.com. The article explores the love-hate cycles that siblings undergo through the lifetime and considers the influence of parents. In general, the article’s inclinations is that having siblings is generally better than not having any; children benefits from unintended ‘guidance’ from older siblings especially through even the mildest verbal bullying. It helps to have someone close to your age beside you most of the time when you’re young because it prepares you for social interaction and also helps you understand the mind of another. Perhaps most importantly, having a sibling makes an ego that blooms out of a single child less possible.

The small number of psychologists who study sibling relationships say that their intensity in childhood helps prepare us for the adult social world we will someday need to navigate. After, all every day siblings teach the necessary, if painful, early lesson that you are not the world’s most important person.

Pop-Science seem to be poking fun at Avatar; suggesting that the film is made possible by technologies and science that would be impossible in a world that is implicitly advocated in the film. It is interesting to note that several of the film’s actors have signed on for potential sequels and as my sister rightly points out: these actors, like Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldaña are not exactly going to appear in the future films since they’re all Na’vi anyways and merely helping to generate the computer graphics if not offering their dubbing services as well.