:::: MENU ::::

Commemorating Aaron Swartz: fight the NSA

A year ago today, Aaron Swartz died. If you are unfamiliar with the case, try this extended bio in the New Yorker.

Since, contrary to reports on #pdftribute, I didn’t know him personally, I don’t know whether it’s a good depiction of him or not. But I know so many people who could be described this way.

There are a million different ways in which people have chosen to commemorate the loss. Lawrence Lessig is marching across New Hampshire. Anonymous hacked MIT. And one of the things that appealed to me the most: trying to fight the NSA. I think this will be a harder fight than against SOPA/PIPA. But it’s worth the effort. If anything can make an impact, it’s this.

Paths to development and “The Second Machine Age”

Was fortunate enough to attend an event with Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee yesterday discussing “The Second Machine Age” (coming out Jan. 20).

It’s in the same field as Tyler Cowen’s “Average is Over”, discussing how technological advances might reshape society – with emphasis on “might”, as they see room for current decisions to affect future outcomes.

I think we’ve heard a lot about how as machines get smarter and take over more cognitive jobs, the big question is what those displaced workers will do. As much as this will affect workers in America, the question is frankly even more relevant for developing countries. Developing countries often compete on the basis of low-cost labour. What will happen when that path to development is cut off? While a small fraction of those in the U.S. can be expected to benefit extraordinarily from the new system, we can expect even fewer from developing countries to reap such rewards.

Highly important topic for anyone interested in development.

“Slacktivism” appears to be a real phenomenon

Struck by several things in Mario Macis’ presentation today at ASSA. He reported results from an experiment in which half of participants were randomly given the option to broadcast their donation activity to friends on Facebook using an app, “HelpAttack!”.

First item of note: out of more than 6 million Facebook users reached through advertizing, there were 2,000 likes and only 18 processed pledges. How sad!

Second: there were 0 additional pledges through network effects.

Additional results in the paper, but these stood out to me. It’s possible that one needs direct solicitation from one friend to the next in order to observe peer effects. Petrie and Smith, Jonathan Meer, and Catherine Carman have also apparently studied this question in alternate settings with more positive results.

I must admit to being disappointed at how, during the two crowdfunders AidGrade has done, people would routinely sign up to be notified when more data came out but at the same time would not be willing to contribute to the production of said data. It’s completely natural but a bit sad.

Open access at ASSA 2014

Attended an interesting session this morning on open access.

Several papers examine the effect of open repositories of academic articles. Davis et al. (2008) find no effect on citations; McCabe and Snyder (2013) find a very modest effect and Kim (2014) also finds a small positive effect.

Interesting comment by David Card: is the increase in citations driven by something about Google search (i.e. does it help you FIND the articles?) or something about “access” (i.e. can you READ it more easily?)? Particularly relevant as most people don’t read the papers they cite….

Overall, it was nice to see economics catching up to some of the other disciplines in caring enough about open access to have a session on it. I suspect benefits to having openly available papers vary depending on the discipline as there are equilibrium effects.

Bitcoin as a function of increasing inequality

Now that rewards accrue more and more to those at the very top, it’s understandable why people would speculate on bitcoin: “Go big or go home.” Not to mention having the disposable income with which to do this.

Predict bubbles to rise as inequality grows and doing a little better isn’t good enough.

All that said, and while recognizing that the cryptocurrencies are a dangerous game, I think there’s one thing missing from the analyses of the currencies. They’re fun. I built a bitcoin mining rig in 2011, not thinking I would earn much money, but because I wanted to learn how to put together a computer from components and run it using Ubuntu. I don’t see what the big deal is with people getting bitcoin just to have some and not using it in transactions. Would you spend a good book or use it to transact? No, but it doesn’t mean your book is useless. I’m pro-bitcoin, even if it’s a bubble, without being into drugs or anti-government.

BTC: 1J8BBZcybM1LB5o9yydjdjoUWUnhcbitEn

Do randomized controlled trials engage in less specification searching?

An excerpt from on-going work based on AidGrade’s database of impact evaluation results in development economics.

These are results from caliper tests which essentially compare the number of results just above a critical threshold (t=1.96) with those just below a critical threshold. You can vary the width of the band; for example, a 5% caliper would look at the range 1.862 – 2.058. If you see a jump at 1.96, you might suspect specification searching is going on, in which researchers only report the results they like, biasing the results.

   Over     Under   p-value   * 
All studies        
2.5% Caliper 45 26 0.02 <0.05
5% Caliper 73 51 0.03 <0.05
10% Caliper 127 117 0.28  
15% Caliper 182 185 0.58  
20% Caliper 220 231 0.71  
2.5% Caliper 24 14 0.07 <0.10
5% Caliper 35 28 0.22  
10% Caliper 64 68 0.67  
15% Caliper 97 107 0.78  
20% Caliper 119 134 0.84  
2.5% Caliper 21 12 0.08 <0.10
5% Caliper 38 23 0.04 <0.05
10% Caliper 63 49 0.11  
15% Caliper 85 78 0.32  
20% Caliper 101 97 0.42

Okay, there seems to be a jump. Possibly more among quasi-experimental studies than among RCTs.

Overall, though, this jump is actually quite small. Gerber and Malhotra did the same kinds of tests for political science and sociology. They used different selection criteria when gathering their papers, essentially maximizing the probability they would see a jump, but take a look at their numbers:

Political science:

   Over     Under   * 
A. APSR      
Vol. 89-101      
10% Caliper 49 15 <0.001
15% Caliper 67 23 <0.001
20% Caliper 83 33 <0.001
Vol. 96-101      
10% Caliper 36 11 <0.001
15% Caliper 46 17 <0.001
20% Caliper 55 21 <0.001
Vol. 89-95      
10% Caliper 13 4 0.02
15% Caliper 28 12 0.008
20% Caliper 21 6 0.003
B. AJPS      
Vol. 39-51      
10% Caliper 90 38 <0.001
15% Caliper 128 66 <0.001
20% Caliper 165 95 <0.001
Vol. 46-51      
10% Caliper 56 25 <0.001
15% Caliper 80 45 0.001
20% Caliper 105 66 0.002
Vol. 39-45      
10% Caliper 34 13 0.002
15% Caliper 48 21 <0.001
20% Caliper 60 29 <0.001


   Over     Under   * 
ASR (Vols. 68-70)      
5% Caliper 15 4 0.01
10% Caliper 26 15 0.06
15% Caliper 47 17 <0.001
20% Caliper 54 19 <0.001
ASJ (Vols. 109-111)      
5% Caliper 16 4 0.006
10% Caliper 25 11 0.01
15% Caliper 41 14 <0.001
20% Caliper 48 18 <0.001
TSQ (Vols. 44-46)      
5% Caliper 13 4 0.02
10% Caliper 22 7 0.004
15% Caliper 26 11 0.01
20% Caliper 30 20 0.1
Combined (recent vols.)      
5% Caliper 44 12 <0.001
10% Caliper 73 33 <0.001
15% Caliper 114 42 <0.001
20% Caliper 132 57 <0.001
ASR (Vols. 58-60)      
5% Caliper 17 2 <0.001
10% Caliper 22 5 <0.001
15% Caliper 27 11 0.007
20% Caliper 30 15 0.02

Wow! Economics is not doing so badly after all! (Some public health papers are also included, but results are comparable if you break it down.) To match Gerber and Malhotra, these are all reporting number of results rather than number of papers, and sometimes papers report more than one result, so there are some subtleties here that I get into in the longer working paper. Data are still being gathered, and there is much more to be said on this topic. If you’d like to see more of this kind of work on research credibility, please support us in the last few days of our Indiegogo campaign!

Google Glass review

It was fun.


If you haven’t had the chance to play with it yet – it’s buggy and unable to do much yet. However, it seems like this is one of the times where the software can really make it. (What are e-readers without books? A laptop without software?) And I know of a lot of cool things being developed, like a Wii sports-like app from Alex Foster.

I like it and I’m excited for future, despite its current early stage. The price will have to come down substantially before it can take off, not the least because you don’t want to wear something so expensive while walking down the street.

Apart from that, I’ll quote my friend Vinci (of econometrics videos fame):

What’s it good for:
- HUD clock. Seriously, this is surprisingly useful.
- Directions. Works just like Google Navigation and makes you feel like a jet pilot.
- Calls. Which you can initiate with voice command. If you’re looking for a Ghost In The Shell experience, you got it.
- Snapping photos and videos. Quality is acceptable for Facebook.
- Google search. Too slow and voice-recognition is too inaccurate for practical use.
- That’s it, seriously. There is a reason why it’s for early adopters only.

AidEconomics.com now redirects here

It was time to consolidate and to follow the lead of many other eponymous bloggers.

I still think aid is interesting; I still think one should take a very broad definition (including trade agreements, etc.).

Will migrate old posts over here shortly. As a perk, the site gets a more modern look.

Random families

A recent NYTimes article discusses “the families we invent”. I always thought families were so arbitrary and that someone should make a website which randomly matches people into “families” to extend the concept a bit further. Many wouldn’t catch on or be maintained but it would make a good statement.

The World Bank cancels 2014 Young Professionals Program

The Young Professionals Program is the main recruitment tool used by the World Bank. About 10% of its professional staff came in through that process. In my 2011 cohort, there were 35 of us. The program has been cancelled for 2014, though they say it will return.

I am trying to get the story on what is going on. Currently, this seems to be the best guess:

1. With the bank re-structuring into 14 “Global Practices”, there’s confusion over where the YPs would fit in, and/or who would decide on them and be (in a token way) responsible for them

Usually, the VPs all vote on the last set of candidates, and if you support someone’s application you are nominally responsible for taking them in if they can’t find a placement.

2. The head of the YP program left a couple of months ago, making it harder to coordinate

Much worse: there are rumours she will not be replaced. This makes me worry that it’s perhaps not just a transient shock. Especially given:

3. There are some senior people not so fond of YPs (word on the street)

This all still sounds like a temporary thing. Hopefully. If there were ever a group of people not to cut, it would be your young people with the latest skills. The World Bank has a lot of old people. In my experience, the young brought in a lot of new ideas.

P.S. Check out a new Indiegogo relating to what we know and don’t yet know in development.