Monthly Archives: September 2015

Wasteful academic travel

Academics fly around the world to meet coauthors, go to conferences or present seminars. These things could easily be done by videoconferencing, saving money, travel time, environment and productivity lost to jetlag. An objection I have heard is that video calls are not the same thing. What other senses besides sight and hearing do people use to communicate with their colleagues? A handshake maybe. Then build a robotic arm that gives haptic feedback to imitate any person’s hand and that can be used to shake hands at a distance.
If a wall-sized screen disguised at the edges is put in a seminar room and the audience walks in together, it would be a challenge to distinguish a real speaker at the front of the room from a speaker shown on the big screen. Eye tracking software can adjust the screen image as the viewer changes position to give the impression of 3D. Or the audience can wear virtual reality glasses like Oculus Rift.
Other than habit, commitment may be a reason for physical travel. If a person has travelled to give a seminar, the audience would feel embarrassed for not attending. This would be felt less if the presentation is via video and could be recorded. Then the option to watch it later would give people the excuse to constantly postpone watching. If an academic travels to a conference, there are fewer distractions than at home or at work, so a greater chance of actually going to the presentations.
The proliferation of laptops, smartphones and tablets is undermining this commitment – one can attend a talk and not pay attention, checking email or surfing the web instead. Google Glasses would have an even stronger effect: the eyes can be pointed towards the speaker while actually watching and listening something else.

A random world as an argument against fanatism

Theoretical physicists may debate whether the universe is random or not, but for practical purposes it is, because any sufficiently complicated deterministic system looks random to someone who does not fully understand it. This is the example from Lipman (1991) “How to decide how to decide…”: the output of a complicated deterministic function that is written down still looks random to a person who cannot calculate its output.
If the world is random, we should not put probability one on any event. Nothing is certain, so any fanatical belief that some claim is certainly true is almost certainly wrong. This applies to religion, ideology, personal memories and also things right before your eyes. The eyes can deceive, as evidenced by the numerous visual illusions invented and published in the past. If you see your friend, is that really the same person? How detailed a memory of your friend’s face do you have? Makeup can alter appearance quite radically (
This way lies paranoia, but actually in a random world, a tiny amount of paranoia about everything is appropriate. A large amount of paranoia, say putting probability more than 1% on conspiracy theories, is probably a wrong belief.
How to know whether something is true then? A famous quote: “Everything is possible, but not everything is likely” points the way. Use logic and statistics, apply Bayes’ rule. Statistics may be wrong, but they are much less likely to be wrong than rumours. A source that was right in the past is more likely to be right at present than a previously inaccurate source. Science does not know everything, but this is not a reason to believe charlatans.

Politeness levels transformed in translation

Different languages use different phrasing to express the same level of politeness, formality or familiarity. Directly translating the words from one language to another may result in a sentence at a different (usually unintended) level. This creates the impression that the speakers of a language (usually coinciding with people from a particular country and culture) are all polite or all rude. They simply translate their thought to another language, where the phrasing is above or below the intended level of politeness. This is one way that stereotypes about a nationality’s modesty, assertiveness or formality are created.
As an Estonian in the UK, I was considered rude, because I answered “yes” or “no” instead of “yes, please” or “no, thanks.” In Estonian at the time, “no, thank you” would have been formal or ironic (mockingly formal) and I just translated my ordinary reply to English.
The level of formality in a language changes over time and with social class. A good example is TV series about 19th century Britain, where people say things like “you are too kind, Sir”. In modern times, this would sound strange.

Empirical project ideas with econjobmarket and AEAweb JOE

The websites and AEAweb JOE are centralized job finding sites for economics PhDs. These have databases of application materials of thousands of job candidates, and the interviews many of them got. The subsequent jobs and publications of the job candidates are listed on the web. There are many empirical projects that can be done with this data, for example how certain keywords in recommendation letters predict the job that a candidate gets, or how the CV at the time of job application predicts future performance. One comparison that has been done in the sciences ( is how recommendations of male and female candidates differ, i.e. what words are frequently used for one gender that are not used for the other. It is likely that economics recommendation letters contain similar biases.
The professors of top universities who have access to the databases of the job market websites have an advantage in hiring. They can predict which candidates perform well in the future and offer jobs to those. The employers without access to the databases are left with less promising candidates.