There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune



Hoşgeldiniz, Papa

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The Pope arrived in Turkey today, prompting worldwide headlines. Also, my mother called a few days ago to warn me not to go near any mosques (because a handful of protesters have also garnered headlines). I live in a part of the city which, although relatively new compared with the Byzantine portion, has been settled for at least 500 years. There is a small mosque which I pass every day on my way to work. Last night at a buddy's birthday we dined in the old city, in a former Ottoman mansion which sits adjacent to an old mosque. Basically, avoiding mosques is not a practical option.

I will place my chips on civilized culture and the rule of law preventing any serious shenanigans.


Congratulations Dr. H

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My friend Dr. H has, in addition to his Bachelor's degree in finance from the Wharton School, a PhD in physics from CalTech. He is a true scholar. So, it is fitting that, as Double Barrel reports in a one-line email, he and his bride entered the wedding reception serenaded by Tupac Shakur's masterpiece "California Love".

Good show, my friend, good show.


My winter reading list

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Here is what is on my bookshelf for the winter; expect these to be reviewed in due course:

Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases
, Kahneman, Slovic and Tversky. My buddy S-Dub notes that this is the classic decision theory text. Kahneman won the Nobel in Economics for some of this stuff.

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins. This one got a lot of press when it came out. A militant atheist, Dawkins might be tilting at windmills, but he is a serious scholar so deserves to be read.

The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy
, Buchanan and Tullock. I loved Buchanan's papers when I was in college and I'm amazed I haven't yet read this book. This is the definitive book on public choice theory.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, Daniel C. Dennet. Dennet is an analytical philosopher who specializes mainly in cognitive science. In this volume he explicates natural selection from his perspective as a philosopher of science. Unfortunately my copy of his other interesting book, Freedom Evolves, is in storage.

Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, Steven Pinker. In his latest book, Pinker examines irregular verbs to tease out elements of our cognitive architecture.

I am posting this list mainly to give you an idea of my current interests. These include cognitive science, evolutionary biology, the philosophy of science, behavioral economics and public choice theory. If you know of something I should be reading, please leave a comment or email me.


A few short book reviews

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What I've read recently:

Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond
This is an interesting, albeit flawed book. Written by a biologist, it seeks to examine the root causes of the striking disparities in relative fortunes of Eurasian versus non-Eurasian societies. When he sticks to this topic, he provides a compelling thesis backed by an abundance of evidence. When he strays from his sphere of competence, a few problems emerge. For example, he occasionally resorts to a cloying political correctness - explaining that one should dismiss theories of racial or cultural superiority because they are morally repugnant (and, by the way, untrue). Now, as a scientist, he should stick to science. One evaluates a theory based on its predictive power and its explanatory value. One rejects a theory when it is falsified by evidence which results from empirical inquiry. Moral repugnance is not a scientific criterion.

The other major flaw I found occurs at the latter part of the book, which, as Double Barrel dryly noted, descends into an advertisement for the author's consultancy and speaking services. Diamond makes some initial attempts to bring his analysis to bear on contemporary society, ignoring the fact that we have already been doing this for over 200 years. Not one mention of The Wealth of Nations or endogenous growth theory - inexcusable.

Finally, I should mention that I've read comments from others suggesting he tends to ignore or omit evidence that contradicts his grand vision. Despite these flaws, this remains an engaging read.


The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game
, Michael Lewis
Lewis' overriding strength is his flair for storytelling. Despite its subtitle, this book is not Moneyball for football; rather, it is primarily a touching human interest story regarding a disadvantage inner-city youth who improbably becomes adopted by a wealthy suburban family. There are a couple of sparse chapters regarding football strategy and tactics (the chapter contrasting Parcells and Walsh is worth the price of the book) but readers seeking a more analytical treatment of football should read The Sports Economist or articles such as this one by Eagle fan Mike Tanier at Footballoutsiders.com.

Stumbling on Happiness
, Daniel Gilbert
This is the best book I have read since Pinker's The Blank Slate (which, by the way, I highly recommend). Writing from the perspective of an experimental psychologist, Gilbert skilfully weaves the strands of cognitive neuroscience, psychology, behavioral economics and philosophy to provide a detailed explanation of how and why we make systematic, predictable errors regarding our own happiness. For somebody who was raised on the assumption of the rational utility-maximizer, this is powerful stuff. Indeed, it is the type of book that really excites anybody who is interested in human behavior. Additionally, Gilbert writes in an entertaining, jocular manner which allows him to efficiently convey some subtle, complex concepts to the lay reader. The book's main conclusions deserve their own post, which I promise will come soon. Seriously, stop reading this silly blog and buy this book now.


Addendum - the Coase-Friedman story, accurately

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My former public policy professor, who is gracious enough to indulge ex-students by reading their self-indulgent blogs, writes via email:

"I remember the story a little differently, but not in any truly important respect: Coase gave the paper in a workshop, during which Friedman, George Stigler (also later to win a Nobel prize), and others argued with Coase that he was surely wrong. After the workshop they continued the conversation at Aaron Director’s house (Rose’s father), with the room full of some of top living economists all convinced that Coase was wrong, and Coase, who was relatively unknown at the time, holding his ground. During the long night, one by one Coase convinced the doubters. Friedman, predictably, was the last to change his opinion. But he did, finally conceding to Coase that he was right and Friedman had been wrong. Friedman left the evening one of Coase’s strongest supporters, convinced by Coase’s superior logic on this point.

"George Stigler later described this as the most intellectually exciting and gratifying evening of his life, watching an unpopular idea triumph through the force of reason and the willingness of brilliant, but strong-willed skeptics to bow to the force of a superior argument."


Farewell, Uncle Milty

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Professor Milton Friedman, Nobel Laureate, Senior Research Fellow at the august Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Chicago, founding member of the Mont Pelerin Society, best-selling author and tireless advocate of human liberty, passed away yesterday at the age of 94.

A self-described economist by vocation and policy entrepreneur by avocation, Professor Friedman was rare indeed: a specialist in science who reached the top of his field and a gifted public intellectual who popularized his insights, thus profoundly influencing debate. He was both paragon and polymath. His technical contributions to economics in the twentieth century were broad and deep: he produced the permanent income hypothesis of consumption, the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, the negative income tax and monetarist theories of inflation and business cycle history.

In various obituaries, he is described as a “conservative”, a label he repudiated. How many conservatives would argue, during the Vietnam war, against the draft? How many conservatives favor decriminalizing heroin and prostitution?

For a comprehensive description of his contributions to public life and the field of economics, see the links I have included below. I will restrict myself to some personal reflections:
  • When I was about twelve years old, I was bored at Ace’s parents’ place in Montreal, and picked up “Free to Choose” off his father’s bookshelf. This was my first introduction to Professor Friedman’s lucid and engaging style.
  • Years later, as a student in Paris, I came to the realization that all of my beliefs and prejudices were inexorably influenced by my environment and upbringing – what I took to be random variables. As such, I commenced the arduous task of stripping these cherished beliefs down and rebuilding my views from first principles. One evening, in a smoky bar in the Quartier Latin, I found myself arguing with a garden-variety college lefty and a Wharton Reaganite. More than that, I was arguing with myself. “One one hand,” I was describing the best arguments for greater government intervention in a certain sphere. I continued, “But Milton Friedman would reply…” My Reaganite friend paused for a second, broke into a wide, maudlin smile, and replied, “Good ol’ Uncle Milty!”
  • Back in Philadelphia a few years later, my Public Policy prof was explaining to us how revolutionary the Coase Theorem was in its day. According to the story, when Professor Coase first proposed the idea, it caused consternation amongst the faculty at the U. of Chicago. So they set aside a day where they could challenge the theory and Coase would be obliged to defend it. By and by, it got late and so they all retired to Uncle Milty’s house. There, they stayed up all night (I imagine they were drinking bourbon) discussing the matter. In the wee hours, after all the other professors had tried their attacks, Professor Friedman spoke up and began an intensive cross-examination of the witness. When day broke, Coase was still standing, and having survived Friedman’s inquiry it was apparent to all that his idea was important, correct and thus revolutionary. If you could withstand Friedman’s critiques, your idea must have been good. In this particular case, it was Nobel-Prize-winning good.
  • A couple of years later in San Francisco, Double Barrel and I were poring over his copies of the Hoover Digest. “Shazzy,” Double Barrel announced, “we need to find out where Milton Friedman hangs out and buy him some drinks!” Sadly, we never achieved this goal.
  • Lastly, in July 2004, I donned my tuxedo and attended the award-giving ceremony for The Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize For Advancing Liberty at the Ritz-Carleton. True to form, Uncle Milty was both insightful and witty. After the dinner, I was waiting for the valet to get my car, when I turned to my left and was surprised to see the Professor with his wife Rose, a distinguished economist in her own right. She gave me a warm smile, and as I helped her into her limo, I whispered “thanks for all your hard work.” I couldn’t bring myself to address Uncle Milty himself. I mean, I’ve met celebrities, billionaires and Nobelists before. But this was Milton Friedman!
Rest in peace, Uncle Milty - you deserve it.

I leave the last word to the pithy Baroness Thatcher: "He was an intellectual freedom fighter. Never was there a less dismal practitioner of a dismal science."

Further reading:
Professor Goolsbee's New York Times commentary
Samual Brittan's FT Obituary
Professor Mankiw's 1998 article "The Economist Of The Century"
Then-Governor Bernanke's 2003 Speech
The Cato Institute
The Hoover Institution Press Release

Tyler Cowen's Initial Take

Ideachannel's list of speeches and documents


The 28th Annual Intercontinental Istanbul Eurasia Marathon

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Yesterday, upon awaking from a fitful slumber, I perceived, outside the window, thick snowflakes descending at a near-horizontal angle. This is the type of weather that I'm told Eskimos (or Inuit, if you prefer) refer to as "bloody shite". I had a decision to make: should I register myself for the 15 km event at the 28th Annual Eurasia Marathon, the only footrace that spans two continents?

I knew that:
  • I was suffering from residual jetlag.
  • The weather, as described, was terrible.
  • For various complicated reasons, over the past month, I had trained as many times as I had smoked a cigar (once each, respectively).
Mulling over these points, I was sorely tempted to throw in the towel. But we Canadians are made of stern stuff, and, besides: 1) it's only a bit more than nine miles, which doesn't exactly require assiduous training and 2) how often does one get to start a footrace in Asia and finish in Europe?

And so, a couple of pasta meals later, I awoke to a clear blue sky (technically, I was up slightly before dawn, but after my shower and morning cup of tea, the sky was scintillating). Perhaps a tad nippy, but all in all, a perfect day for a run. While warming up at the Start, I saw a Kenyan fellow limbering his muscles, and I remembered my mother telling of guys who would run hundreds of miles through the bush in order to make it to qualifying trials for the national team. This gentleman looked like a winner.

We started on the Asian side
of the Bosphorus and the first leg took us across the Bosphorus Bridge back to Europe. The views from this bridge are stunning, however, under the circumstances, it was very difficult to properly appreciate the magnificence. As most of you know, the autumn wind is a pirate; the Bosphorus incarnation chilled my extremities to the point where I just wanted to get off that bridge as soon as I could.

The rest of the race took us through the main boulevards of central Istanbul, causing traffic snafus throughout the day. The organizers didn't provide mile or kilometre markers; we just had to pace ourselves by feel. Wary of my fitness level, I started conservatively, taking it up at the 35 minute mark, then with approximately 3 miles to go, I felt good enough that I opened up the throttle and started to really move. Unofficially, I finished at a 7:15 /mile pace, which wasn't bad considering my lack of training. I know from past results that given proper training I should probably be under the 7:00 mark for such a distance, so there's added incentive for next year.

It was pretty interesting to participate in an athletic event in a city which views such pursuits with a mixture of insouciant disdain and downright hostility. My cabdriver, for example, was aghast that I would actually pay 30 Lira (~$20) to run 15 km. Just another instance of how human beings often look at others' behaviour with ill-disguised astonishment. By the same token, I couldn't for the life of me understand how he, in his chosen profession, could not have known that many of the city's major arteries would be closed for most of the day. I mean, they've been doing this every year for decades. Don't they have newspapers or television in his world?

All in all, a fun day.


Regular Service Resuming

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Apologies for the prolonged absence; I had been busy with work, then with travel. But as a result, I have a couple of (hopefully good) stories I shall be posting over the next few days.

Until then, here's a theory of the factors which lead to certain areas having an abundance of attractive women (courtesy of Tyler Cowen). Ace and I have spent countless years carefully studying this phenomenon, and I'm glad someone has at least proffered a reasonable hypothesis.


About me

  • I'm Sunset Shazz
  • Living the dream in Istanbul, Turkey
  • I grew up in the hardscrabble streets of suburban Ottawa, Ontario, committing petty crime, insulting the elderly - basically the classic misspent youth. When I was 19, I moved to West Philly, where I put myself through the Wharton School by dealing crack and hustling. After stints in Paris and London, I eventually graduated and moved to San Francisco, where I put in eight years hard labor working for The Man. But now I pop bottles with models, deciding cracked crab or lobster - who says mobsters don't prosper?
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