## The parable of the post

And which type of post would that be? A blog post, or a wooden post, or a foreign office post, or a mail post, or a guard post? All will be explained in due course.

I am currently at the brussels airport (enjoying internet connectivity that does not occasion reminiscences of the “how many baud do you have?” variety), returning from work on my project in liberia. I realized just before leaving that it may be my last time there, depending on how things go. Although to be quite frank it is pretty low on the list of countries I’d recommend visiting, it’s still a sad thought after five or six trips during the last several years, meeting people and getting to know monrovia.

This time around did not start auspiciously: my multiple entry visa from last year was due to expire the day after I arrived, and it wasn’t clear to me whether that was legal or not — in some countries it is and in some it isn’t, but naturally nobody could tell me about liberia. Thankfully our staff in country secured me an airport visa to be waiting upon arrival, and given that the immigration folks were not inclined to let me into the country until I mentioned it, this was fortuitous. Of course I had to exit security and the airport (unaccompanied, sans paperwork) to pick up the actual visa from our driver, which somehow didn’t seem to bother anyone. Ah, liberia.

My luggage, alas, had not made the tight connection in dulles and therefore wasn’t on my flight to brussels nor the flight to monrovia. Fortunately they were on the next flight. Which was two days later. I was able to pick them up the day after that. Since my entire stay was only four days, this was also the day before I left. Hence I found myself in the air brussels office in downtown monrovia, both picking up my delayed bags and simultaneously checking in for my return flight!  I had called the local air brussels baggage phone number a day earlier to make sure that everything was on track, and the woman who answered agreed that it was, after apologizing for her child crying in the background, since this was apparently a mobile phone that she simply had with her. I said it was no problem, really. Ah, liberia.

Driving along we passed Alfred’s business center and then the competing God is Good business center. One also notices a lot of public service messages, on billboards but also stenciled onto walls. These range from “Please pay your taxes to Mama Liberia” to “Only dogs can pepe here” to (less-than-reassuring, and illustrated) “Rape is very serious – You will be prosecuted – Don’t do it”. My new personal favorite, which I hadn’t seen before, is: “Don’t bury dirt”. Dirt, it seems, connotes trash. Ah, liberia.

Meanwhile our office also has some interesting reading material: “Introductory Econometrics” on the shelf next to “Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book” next to “Just Give Money to the Poor” next to “Constructing Grounded Theory”. Since some of the admin staff apparently did not find these sufficiently compelling, they spent quite a bit of time surfing the web. In order to cut down on this, our office managers had to block facebook as well as several search keywords… such as “sports” and (wait for it) “church”. That’s right: they were frittering away time not on porn but on religion. Ah, liberia.

One afternoon I had a meeting with the deputy minister for youth and sports. After discussing youth employment…

Category: Development, Travel

## Hardrock 2011 report

[Er... finally back to blogging!  Apologies for the delay. This first post back is appropriate, given the circumstances.]

Since I will be running the Hardrock 100 mile endurance run in less than a week, I figured it was about time to post a report from last year’s race. Pathetic, I realize, but better late than never? Naturally this will be an incomplete report, more a pastiche of a few salient memories.

Getting in to the run is difficult enough to begin with; see info here (which is actually changing for next year). I have now (2012) tried to get in with each number of lottery tickets between 0 (using the “equivalent mountaineering experience” standard, which was unsuccessful) and 5. I failed with 0, 1, and 4 tickets but succeeded with 2 (off the waitlist), 3, and 5 tickets. In 2011 I had 3 tickets and was very happy to be directly accepted.

And so the training started, although I only did three longish runs leading up to hardrock: the TARC spring classic (a mostly flat trail 50k; finished in just over 5 hours), an informal group running of the Nipmuck Trail Marathon (somewhat hilly), and my first time around the pemi loop, an extremely hilly / rocky ~50k circuit in the white mountains of NH — perfect training for hardrock. I also tried to exercise my hill muscles by doing shorter runs in the local blue hills, as well as going up and down (and up and down) the 117 steps in the porter square T station. I hadn’t done lots of mileage (even by my modest standards) or vertical, but it was fairly consistent and I felt about as strong as at just about any time in the past.

I flew to denver on the monday 11 days before the race and drove out to boulder. Tuesday I went rock climbing in eldorado canyon with guide and friend Peter Doucette, where one route was called Icarus and (I kid you not) we were trying to finish it before the sun hit that side of the canyon and caused our fingers to become too slippery.

The next day we did the keyhole route on Long’s Peak in rocky mountain national park, with beautiful views of the Diamond and much of the colorado rockies. That got me over 14,000 ft and started the acclimatization well, although it was slow going and a long day – beginning with a true alpine start at about 2am. Somehow we managed to add some easy (5.5ish?) technical climbing as well, since whatever we did definitely wasn’t class 3. Note the stone ‘house’ on the left side of the first picture…

Toward the end of the week I drove down to silverton and checked in to my usual place, the friendly Prospector Motel (where I am also at this very moment). Enjoyed the amazing 4th of July fireworks display (fantastic in the natural amphitheater of the mountains surrounding the town, which made the thunderous claps even louder). Here are a couple of pictures I took my first time there in 2009:

I also did the two days of trailwork, which was a good chance to get outside, get a bit more altitude (though not much), catch up with some hardrockers and meet new people, earn an extra lottery ticket for this year, and see some of the…

Category: Running

## Flying first class

I just got back from california, and the trip was relatively more enjoyable for being able to sit at the front of the cabin. I don’t often fly up there, but it’s nice when it happens. In this case I was using a mileage ticket, but they didn’t have any saver economy awards (25,000 miles for a domestic round trip), and the standard awards are 50k. But the saver first class awards are also 50k (or business class in a 3-cabin aircraft), so frequent flier tip of the day: if you are going to have to fork over the higher amount anyway, always check to see if you can fly first for the same rate!  [This all also applies to each half of the trip separately; sometime you can get a saver award in one direction only, but mixing and matching works fine.]

One of my father’s favorite stories from flying first class back in the day (which he used to do regularly when he worked at the world bank) is that they once gave out a free bottle of champagne to anyone who had a hole in their socks… which naturally he did. But I now have a great story from my LAX-ORD flight today. I was boarding near the beginning, but after most of first class. My seat was 5E, which is an aisle (AB_EF was the configuration). There was an older balding man just in front of me, who was putting his things in 6B. Another man wearing a vest was just in front of him and was rather desperately looking around.

As I enter the scene, I hear Vest say to the flight attendant that he’s willing to pay for that (whatever that is). She tells him to at least start by asking and then we can see. It slowly becomes clear that Vest is supposed to be in 6A but wants an aisle seat instead. He tries to verbally offer $200 to Baldy for 6B, who makes a noncommittal response. The flight attendant presses, asking Baldy if he’s willing to give up his seat, but Baldy says he wants an aisle. Not clear if Baldy didn’t understand the offer, or didn’t believe it, or just wasn’t interested. I helpfully say that I’m happy to give up 5E for 6A, and I am indeed happy to do so. Vest is very pleased and accepts immediately. He offers me the$200. I say it’s really fine, no thanks (and I’m being sincere). He says it would only be fair, given that that was the offer on the table to Baldy. I think he also says something at some point about being willing to pay $1000 but only having$200 on him at the moment. I hesitate, admitting that it would make a pretty good story. He takes a money clip out of his pocket and peels off two hundreds. I ask if he’s sure. Yes. Is he truly positive? Yes, he can afford it. Okay then. I take the cash and slip it in my pocket, settling in to 6A. Only in first class?

Additional random thoughts: the flight attendant claimed that she arranged the deal and should get a cut, although I’m not convinced. She seemed to be mostly joking but not entirely. I think Vest offered her $50 but neither knew how seriously to take the endeavor and nothing happened. It occurs to me that Vest thinks almost nothing of$200; I’m quite pleased with $200 in the circumstances but frankly it doesn’t change my expected lifetime wealth too much, and I’m not liquidity constrained,… Continue reading Category: Travel ## Big running year I’ve already discussed this briefly on facebook and on the ultrarunning email list, but might as well make it formal: I had a guaranteed entry to UTMB (the race which circumnavigates Mont Blanc) if I wanted it, from having not gotten in last year… and I made it through the hardrock lottery, which is getting rarer and rarer… and I convinced Laz to let me in to the barkley again… so I figured why not go all out this year? In addition to those three, I signed up for the Plain 100, which I’ve wanted to try ever since getting into this game. And at some point during the year I’ll go back and try the maine 100-mile wilderness section of the appalachian trail (which I failed last year) with a couple of other guys. First up is barkley in a little over a month; then hardrock in early july; UTMB at the end of august; Plain one week later (!); and the informal maine wilderness adventure at our discretion. The maine run is the easiest on paper (certainly the least elevation change, and follows a fairly well-marked trail throughout), but it’s pretty remote and my goal is to do it completely self-supported (i.e. only taking water from natural sources; no other aid). Plain and barkley are mostly self-supported (aid only every 10-15 hours), while hardrock is, well, hard (but incredibly beautiful). UTMB has by far the most support of all these (and over 2000 runners! an order of magnitude more than hardrock and two orders of magnitude more than the other three), but plenty of elevation change and fun trails and great scenery. Since I have no chance of actually finishing barkley (maybe a fun run??), I’m calling the other four my ‘Mountain Wilderness Slam’ for 2012. Barkley is a warm-up, or a bonus, or crazy, or something. Wish me luck. To get the year started, I thought I’d share my current collection of running shoes, Imelda Marcos style. This is a bit misleading, because I just got two new pairs and am about to get rid of at least one old one, but to be honest it’s not too far off of steady state. Do you think I have enough? Five of these are 3-5 years old, so it’s not like I’m going through a pair of shoes every month, but I realize it’s still a lot. Each actually has its place in my rotation: casual road running shoes; casual trail shoes; lightweight shoes for short races; shoes for long races; minimalist shoes for strengthening my feet; etc etc. In the middle row on the far left (new balance MR790, tragically no longer available) and far right (inov-8 flyroc 310) are my two most trusted pairs, which have been through a lot with me. Others are still on probation… Category: Running ## Paying for [no] sex My friends Berk Özler and Sarah Baird (and coauthors) just published a very nice paper in The Lancet. They study adolescent girls in malawi, where the randomized intervention is cash transfers, either unconditional or condition on school attendance. They find that, compared to a control group which received nothing, the cash transfer group (whether conditional or not) had significantly lower rates of both HIV and HSV-2 (i.e. herpes). See also a nice write-up in The Economist. In the meantime, I and many coauthors have a new paper in BMJ Open, an open access spin-off of the british medical journal. We study both male and female young adults in tanzania. The intervention is a conditional cash transfer, where participants only receive the money if they test negative on a suite of STIs (chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomonas, etc). Anyone who tested positive received free treatment and was eligible for the reward at the next testing four months later, which is one reason (along with low incidence rates) that we did not concentrate on HIV as an outcome. We find lower incidence of the suite of STIs in the treatment group as compared to a control, but only at 12 months (not at 4 or 8 months) and only for the high-reward arm ($20 per round vs. \$10 in the low-reward arm). The fact that we only see an effect at 12 months is not particularly surprising or problematic, since it may have taken some time for participants to trust the fidelity of the intervention. However, it was quite surprising to me that we only saw an effect with high rewards, since my guess would have been that any non-trivial amount would be both incentivizing and (probably more importantly) salience-enhancing.

Note on publishing: we had submitted the paper to the BMJ itself, who gave it guarded reviews and asked for a revision. We responded and were hopeful that it would be accepted, but sadly the further reviews were not sufficiently positive and the editor rejected it. Fortunately, they immediately solicited it for BMJ Open, where it was accepted on the basis of the existing reviews. What makes this all somewhat unusually interesting is that everything is public: the reviews (including names) and our response. See the full history here. One amusing critique that particularly caught my eye is in the second-round review:

Calculation of P-values between randomized groups at baseline is illogical – the P-values indicate the probability that differences have occurred by chance – as all differences are created by randomization, they must have occurred by chance, so why calculate a probability? What is important is the magnitude of the differences, not the P-values. Please remove the P-values from Table 1 and the baseline data section of the results.

Most readers here probably won’t care, but this was jarring to read since the practice is quite standard. On the one hand, he’s right that it’s a bit silly to calculate p-values when we know full well that assignment to treatment was perfectly random. And some of you will remember that I am the first to implore folks to focus on magnitudes rather than p-values.

But even I think this reviewer may be asking a bit much. Technically he’s wrong, despite being a professor of biostatistics: the p-value tells us the probability that a distribution of numbers at least this far apart would be observed via random draws conditional on the null hypothesis that the treatment and control groups have the same mean. It is only a property of the numbers, not of how they…

Category: Economics, Research

## Economist’s take on austerity regimens

That’s The Economist (not exactly a notoriously pinko rag), and the article was really more of a takedown. I found it interesting, both in terms of policy substance and in terms of the socio-anthropology of the characters involved. I also found it mostly convincing, although not 100%.

It’s worth clicking through to read Cochrane’s full post, which says a lot more than what they quote (although they don’t at all misrepresent the part they include). He gets pretty upset at Krugman for name-calling (all these guys seem to go back and forth a lot, although in my limited reading Mankiw is a bit more reasonable on that front than Krugman, Delong, Cochrane, and even Tyler Cowen – whom I expected more from), but Cochrane really does seem to come out substantively on the side of stimulus in the normal sense of the word. That is: in a recession, when people and dollars are otherwise idle (NB: this is a technical term, not a character aspersion), government should take up the slack and put both to work. It shouldn’t do more than that (i.e. nothing “additional”), but that’s already a lot if you ask some people.

Of course I would pass his hypothetical infrastructure test at the beginning: bring on the chinese!  One of the hypocrisies that some conservatives seem to fall for (not including Cochrane, I’m sure) is the claim that they love free markets and believe americans are the bestest at everything, but then want to close the borders and impose tariffs. Let the people compete for their jobs. By the way, I say this having had to compete with (and regularly lose to) the best economists in the world since I started grad school: less than half our entering class was american; an even lower percentage is american among top faculties at US universities; and even at the Fed there are researchers from Turkey, Israel, China, Argentina, Switzerland, Ukraine, Spain, Italy, Uruguay, and so on.

[\end rant]

I’m not sure I understand the micro fallacy that Cochrane posits:

We all lambaste mayors who tax small businesses (or borrow against future taxes) to build showpiece “jobs” projects. This way lies Buffalo. Yet for the economy as a whole, stimulus says, it’s true.

If that small business was sitting on a bunch of cash and not hiring / investing / expanding (because of low expected demand, or because they were idiots, or for any other reason), then taxing them more (and spending the revenue) would absolutely benefit the economy. Might or might not be ethically right, and might or might not change incentives for others, but would certainly help the economy in the short run. This is the equivalent of a recession at the macro level, which is the only time that stimulus applies in a keynesian worldview, as I understand it. If the business is going gangbusters, don’t tax it more than absolutely necessary — just like if the US economy is going gangbusters (not just GDP-wise, but employment-wise… or at least median-income-wise), the federal government should probably take a backseat. No contradiction involved.

The upshot, again from my limited knowledge of macro, is that we can debate the value of the multiplier all we want, and frankly no one seems to know. The empirical studies are all ugly, which isn’t their fault (it’s macro after all, where exogeneity is a fairy tale), so someone has to guess. This matters a lot for how much government spending we do, so I hope that someone is guessing well.

But it seems like…

Category: Economics, Policy

## Cape Cod Fat Ass 25k

Just before 6am on saturday morning, I headed out the door to drive south for the cape cod frozen fat ass race. A fat ass is simply an informal race with no entry fee, no t-shirts, pot-luck food, etc. This one was tremendously well organized, with plenty of food (even warm soup at the end), maps of the course, someone keeping track of our finish times, and so on. I had been meaning to try it for a couple of years, in part because my buddy Jeff List had run it several times and encouraged me to join the fun. Even the drive was stimulating, since I was finally getting around to Born to Run — in the audiobook version.

As it happened, I also knew a couple of other folks there (Joe Wrobleski, David Boudreau, and at least by name Adam Wilcox and Pete Stringer). It’s fun to start feeling a part of the local ultra community and seeing the same faces popping up at various events. This was also the first time that anyone who wasn’t already a friend of mine has ever told me that they read this blog, so that was a minor milestone and was much appreciated. A couple of people also recognized my name from posts to the ultra list, especially a recent one outlining my ambitious race plans for 2012, which I’m going to be writing much more about here. “You’re Julian Jamison? Hmmm… well, good luck.” Uh-huh.

The weather was quite good this year: about 30 deg at the 7:30am start, beautiful ocean views, slight breeze. Or perhaps it was more like a wildly whipping wind, but we’ll get to that. The course is a sort of figure-eight 25k double loop, which you can do either once or twice. I had decided in advance to be wimpy and only do the 25k, partly because I wanted to get home and see friends who were only in town for the day. On the plus side, it meant that I could push a little harder and see where my training stood. I decided to wear my Hoka Bondi B’s, which worked fine except that I think the toe box is a little small (at least for me), so I bruised one or two toes under the nails — I may try to hold these shoes for smoother and/or shorter runs. I decided to wear shorts at the last minute (which was a good call), along with a long-sleeved short (from nipmuck), light gloves, and an earband. After the first five-mile loop I ended up dropping the accessories and switching into a short-sleeve shirt (hardrock 2011!). I was moving well enough to generate plenty of heat, especially with the sun now up above us.

We started off for 2+ miles on the beach, with everyone trying to figure out the best path: somewhat hard-packed wet sand near the water? small gravelly stones higher up? or following tire tracks in the softer sand furthest inland? I ended up mostly on the ‘hard’ sand but not right next to the water. There were about 70 people across the two race distances, with the defending champion Gregg Stone immediately taking a noticeable lead off the front. I settled into 11th place (I could see everyone in front of me) and we turned left off the beach and then left again for about a mile of trail paralleling the ocean back the way we had come, but with small dunes now separating us from the beach proper. I had been looking…

Category: Running

## No Really, I Don’t Vote

One of the reasons to have this blog is as a place to point people when I don’t have time to give a full answer to a question. Every election season it comes up that I don’t vote, and I often get asked why, so here is the answer. It doesn’t have to be my final word, and I’m curious to hear rejoinders, but I’m guessing I’ve already heard most of them and will try to address some of those below.

I had meant to write this out and post it months ago, but am finally doing so now for two reasons: was just in liberia (a very recent democracy) during the inauguration of “Ma Ellen” Johnson Sirleaf, and because I was asked to write something for the Harvard College Economics Review. What appears below is a slightly edited (and slightly unexpurgated) version of that piece, which I hope they don’t mind me using again here.

One of the classic problems in political economy (i.e. studying political science with the eye of an economist) is the paradox of voting: given the extremely small chance that any individual vote will make the different between one side winning or losing, why do people vote? After all, even with absentee ballots, it does take some small time and effort to vote, all the more so for anyone inclined to actually educate themselves about the issues. There is quite a bit of work devoted to this question, with some reasonable answers out there, but rather than trying to summarize the entire literature I’ll just present a framework for studying the question, along with a partial solution as I see it.

I should state upfront that I don’t vote, which is a source of great consternation to many friends and relatives. I did in fact vote in the US presidential election in 1992, which was the first one for which I was eligible. It seemed like a fun thing to do at the time, and I certainly don’t regret it; nor am I necessarily trying to convince anyone else not to vote. My two best friends and I split our votes that year between Bush (Senior), Clinton, and Perot… which somewhat proves my point already!  Hopefully it also proves that I’m open-minded in terms of who I spend time with politically, although I’m not going to say who voted for whom.

Back to the general case, let’s start with a simple model: the utility that an individual gets from voting is roughly proportional to PP*ME + WG – C, where PP is the probability of being pivotal; ME is the marginal effect of the preferred outcome; WG is the warm glow of having done one’s civic duty (and perhaps being able to tell one’s friends about it by wearing a sticker that says “I voted!”); and C is the total cost of voting.

To be slightly more precise, PP is the expected probability that a particular voter X will change the outcome from A to B (where B is what X prefers), which is in turn the probability that all voters other than X split their votes equally between A and B, plus half the chance that the other voters choose A by one vote (in which case X induces a tie by voting). Meanwhile, ME is X’s utility for B minus X’s utility for A, i.e. what X gains by thereby changing the outcome. Multiplying these produces the expected increase in utility for voting. Since ME is bounded above, and PP is almost always extremely small, this product is usually smaller than C —…

Category: Philosophy, Policy

## One year

My first official post was one year ago today, on january 1.

On the whole it has gone well, I’ve enjoyed the process, and I definitely plan to continue blogging. My loose goal was an average of two posts per week, which hasn’t quite happened (64 for the year), but I was worried that it might be even fewer so I’ll take this. Plus it gives me an easy new year’s resolution…

Wishing a happy and fulfilling 2012 for everyone out there!

p.s. The most-visited page, other than the homepage and about me, was a short set of tales from liberia.

Category: Uncategorized

## Morality and religion

“Are the pious acts pious because they are loved by the gods, or are the pious acts loved by the gods because they are pious?” So asked Socrates (see headshot above, from my recent trip to italy), as quoted by Plato. The answer seems self-evident to me, but I’ll let Bishop Augustine of Hippo do the honors, in a slightly different context:

Six is a number perfect in itself, and not because God created all things in six days; rather, the converse is true. God created all things in six days because this number is perfect, and it would have been perfect even if the work of the six days did not exist.

I believe the Dalai Lama, among many others over the years, has also said that he believes right and wrong are prior to god. None of this is new territory, but I thought it was covered quite well recently in the NYT philosophy blog. What particularly caught my attention there was the argument that in fact morality has a lot more meaning if it exists independently of any deity.

This reminded me of the realization I had one day (obviously, again, I was not the first to think this) that only a true atheist can do purely good deeds. A theist believes that there is always someone watching, or at least always someone potentially watching, or someone who could find out what happened. So if a theist quietly fixes a neighbor’s leaky faucet, with nobody around, he still knows that god is aware of his behavior. Of course this doesn’t mean that he is only doing it to curry favor with god, or that he wouldn’t have done it had he been an atheist, but neither he nor anyone else can be completely sure – because he is certain that god is indeed out there. An atheist, on the other hand, can do a good deed under the belief that there is absolutely no chance that anyone will ever know about it.

Anonymous giving is especially highly praised in judaism; Maimonides writes that it is “a commandment fulfilled for its own sake”. But given the omniscience of god, this doesn’t quite hold water: it may be the highest form of charity available to a believer, but an atheist has a higher avenue open to her. Of course this assumes that there is indeed morality separate from religion. If you don’t believe that to be true, read the linked article again… or post a comment here.

Category: Philosophy

### Julian Jamison

I'm an economist, researcher, traveler, runner, and astronaut-in-waiting. I enjoy pondering human behavior, including both what we do and what we ought to do - either to maximize our well-being or in pursuit of some other goal.