Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Economics and economists

For a very long time, I've held a dim view of economics as a "science" and economists in general. It's funny, because I had never taken an economics course. Not in five years as an undergraduate; nor the two extra years I stayed at my alma mater picking up my MA in math. This, in spite of the fact that I had become quite interested in voting theory1.

Not only had I never taken any econ courses, I knew precious few economics majors and almost never talked to them about economics. Off the top of my head, I can remember only one - a fellow who shared a first name, a fencing hobby, and for the first half of his freshman year, an intended physics major with me. He was doing badly in physics and so dropped down into economics because it was easier.

What I did know is what I read about economics and economists. I was familiar that the justification for right-wing economic policies - including a number that seemed to fly in the face of countervailing empirical evidence, such as the old Reaganomic rattle about tax cuts stimulating growth2.

I read biting critiques of economists by philosophers and Richard Feynman. I even read articles by economists trying to demand more respect for their field, but remained totally unimpressed. I did not study economics, and from what I saw, economics was not even a science.

I also thought that economics education seemed to be all about learning how to agree with standard doctrines3. The handful of different approaches to economics, Wikipedia and other sources informed me, were hostile to each other as schools of thought and mainly differentiated by choosing the appropriate sorts of assumptions to back up a particular political faction4.

I knew there was actually some pretty cool stuff in economics - some neat results here and there - but I dismissed economics. I've been frequently heard to declare that economists aren't scientists, but bad mathematicians attempting to do philosophy.

And now?

So instead of trying for a doctorate in physics or pure mathematics (I had funded offers for both), I decided to go California and get a doctorate in a cross-disciplinary institution. I'm still a math man at heart, but my funding comes through the school of social sciences, and in the last year and a half, I've had more interaction with economics, economists, and econ majors than in the rest of my life put together.

I TAed an econ course my first quarter here. I'm taking my first econ course this quarter. At least half the students in my research group come from an econ background.

So here's what I know now. There are economists who are scientists, good ones who believe in the scientific method every bit as much as Feynman did. They seem not to be a majority of the field, but they're actually testing theories of economics. The good ones are studying and applying psychology to understand why people act as they do and then explaining the collective irrationalities we seem to engage in.

Many economists are critical of economics and other economists. Econ graduate students and economists themselves are usually fairly bright. There are a lot of smart economists out there doing a lot of good work trying to figure things out.

While some econ majors are surely the immediate predecessors of the bright, smart, and motivated grad students I meet with on a weekly basis, most of them aren't. If anything, econ majors seem to be wholly different creatures on an entirely different plane of competence. They're terrified of the math that is necessary to get anywhere interesting, and seem to have relatively little understanding of the scientific method.

I'm not sure that my oft-repeated claim about bad mathematicians trying to do philosophy isn't true of the bulk of economists, or economics viewed as an academic field in practical terms. But now that I know some people with economics degrees sitting beside their names who don't fit neatly in that pigeonhole, the fun's gone out of saying it. It just seems like a cheap shot now.

1. It started when I as an undergraduate got to participate in a seminar field-testing this book. It's a field that's been largely populated with economists for the last half-century.
2. That one is a very hard sell for someone who started following the news in the early 90s, watched economic growth follow the Clinton tax hikes, and then watched the economy flatline during the Bush years after being "stimulated" by tax cuts.

3. I actually didn't get that notion from reading articles like that one. I got it from reading between the lines in articles written by economists trying to defend their field, and also from students who'd found economics courses disagreeable.
4. To this day, I believe this is how people who don't make a living in economics decide what school of economic thought is best - take the conclusions that they like and work backwards to justify the assumptions that school swears by. I suppose this may also be true of some economists.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Chess variations: The life of the party

For those of you who know me personally, you know that I like chess.

You also know I'm not actually that good at chess (granted, I did go undefeated in Martian chess in high school, for the handful of matches that we played) - but I like to have some fun with it. And I also like to spice it up so that all those people who usually don't have much fun with chess will be having a blast.

There are several major variations and hybridizations of chess. One that's good for all ages is Bughouse - partner the best player with the worst player and see how the middle team does. For the athletic crowd, there's chess boxing, which we could use as a template for any martial sport hybridized with chess, but I'm not a big fan of that one.

For the 18+ crowd, there's also strip chess, and for the 21+ crowd, shot glass chess. House rules on how to play these two games vary and are, on the whole, poorly documented, so I'll explain how to do them correctly. And by correctly, I mean this is going to be a fun game that can get played several times in a night without people complaining it's unfair.

Shot Glass Chess

To the right, you can see a shot glass chess game in progress. The author (cream, right-hand side) has just finished capturing a rook (empty 2.5 oz tumbler on the side of the board) from his opponent (green, left-hand side) with his queen (miniature hurricane glass, 4.5 fl. oz). The result of this move is that the author was obliged to drain a 2.5 oz tumbler of Midori sour.

That's the simple rule of shot glass chess: All the pieces are drinks, and when you take a piece, you take the drink. At the end of the match, the loser drinks his or her own king, as the penalty for losing. In the event of a draw, both players face the ignominious result of draining their own kings.

The only tricky part of shot glass chess is setting up the match. There are two types of shot glass chess sets. The type that's easy to find has glasses all of the same size with pictures of the pieces stamped on them. The other type has different sizes and types of glasses for the different pieces, like the one above. Although they're harder to find, you can put one together yourself.

If you want to play great games of shot glass chess, and you don't have a good set, the important thing to know are the piece point values. If you're using the same size glasses, you can either fill the lesser pieces partway up (this works very well with tall, narrow glasses, but not so well with wider glasses), or use drinks of varying strength. Here are the recommended point values.
  • Pawns are 1 point each
    0.5 oz, 4.5% ABV, 1 part liquor to 8 parts mixer, or just a little splash in the bottom of the glass
  • The "minors," knights and bishops, are worth 3 points
    1.5 oz, 13% ABV, 1 part liquor to 2 parts mixer, or fill to one third
  • The "majors," the rooks, are worth 5 points
    2.5 oz, 22% ABV, 1 part liquor to 1 part mixer, or fill to a half
  • The queen is worth 9 points
    4.5 oz, 40% ABV, straight liquor, or filled to full)
  • The king does not have a point value, but should match the queen in size and contents.
If a player manages to graduate a pawn, don't add more liquor - just pour the pawn into the replacement piece. If you're using the listed volumes, the whole chess set is 48 ounces of liquid. 1 oz shot glasses with the mixtures listed above will give about 5 ounces of liquor on each side of the board. Fortunately, the entire board is rarely cleared in a chess game, but it often gets close. Consider using weaker mixtures for smaller opponents, or when playing repeated games.

Strip Chess

Strip chess, unlike shot glass chess, doesn't have a very good set of existing rules. To be fair, it has been marginalized in favor of strip poker, a more psychological and less intellectual game. There are numerous existing variations of strip chess, some of which have actually been played. They generally involve setting up a correspondence between capturing the pieces on the board and removing clothing. One such codification can be found here. Oddly, few of them take the obvious step of simply setting a ratio of points per article of clothing (I would say 5 is about right).

I think, however, this misses how we can add additional depth to the game. In shot glass chess, this depth is provided by automatic handicapping. I propose, instead of assigning point values to clothing, these three rules, which add to ordinary chess the dimension of embarrassment:
  1. If a player loses the match, he or she must remove one article of clothing - chosen by his or her opponent.
  2. At any time, a player may remove an article of clothing - of his or her own choice - in order to return the board to where it was before his or her previous move.
  3. If a player is offered bad advice by one or more bystanders, which results in removal of clothing under rules #1 or #2, the bystanders must each also remove a corresponding article of clothing.
I think it is subtle enough and simple enough to be played as a party game - and amenable to the addition of drinking and the atmosphere of poor decisions at parties. Play chess at a party and you'll be distracted, often wishing you could take back a move.

Rule #3 is optional, but allows for an intermediate level of group participation between team matches (where moves are resolved by committee) and individual matches (where spectators have little to do, but will probably be offering advice - some good, and some bad). One final footnote: You may want to treat "paired" items, such as shoes, as a single item - both in this, and in other strip games.

Strip Shot Glass Chess

It's possible to combine the above games. Why not? Capturing pieces leads to inebriation. Inebriation leads to mistakes. Mistakes lead, in turn, to removing clothing. Chess then becomes your guide to the complete classic party experience. The game you play then has the following additional rules from ordinary chess:
  1. Capturing pieces: If you take a piece, you drink the piece.
  2. Penalty for losing: If a player loses the match, he or she must drain his or her king and then remove one article of clothing - chosen by his or her opponent.
  3. Taking back moves: At any time, a player may remove an article of clothing of his or her choice in order to return the board to where it was before his or her previous move.
  4. Bad advice: If a player is offered bad advice by one or more bystanders, which results in removal of clothing under rules #1 or #2, the bystanders must each also remove a corresponding article of clothing.
There arises a natural question on rule #3: Should taken pieces be refilled with the same alcoholic beverage when the move of their capture is undone? I recommend refilling them with water or juice of the appropriate color to remind players of their mistakes without putting them over their originally intended alcohol consumption. However, if you are using a weak set, you might be able to get away with playing it the other way.