Archive for the ‘blogs’ Category

The Ruling Zeitgeist is Dead

Long live “The Ruling Zeitgeist!”

This blog is moving to my official site at www.jeff-holmes.com/blog. The blog as it exists here will not be deleted, but neither will it be updated. The past 4.5 years of archived content is already over at my new site, just as it was here (minus the random broken video embed). The new RSS feed is here, so please update your bookmarks.

Since moving to Atlanta I’ve had no luck acquiring a full-time job, not least because neither my potential employers nor I are sure what to make of my eclectic background*. Luckily I’ve so far been able pay my bills freelancing as a writer, researcher, and production assistant. Embracing that the forces of nature do not wish me to have a steady job with paid benefits and vacation time, I am consolidating my vast online presence into one site (still being tinkered with, FYI). This will, I hope, help to rationalize what I’ve done with my life so far and generate more work for myself by making it easier for folks to figure me out and witness my idiosyncratic swathe of skills.

*Suspected additional reason: gigantic world recession.

There are also attitudinal changes behind the move. When I first starting blogging, I kept my online activities in semi-anonymous silos and was mainly interested in providing value for myself. Monetizing my musings was not a priority. I often blogged like the tenured econ professors I still love to read, but I am not an academic and my blog posts on economics don’t get me columns in the New York Times or invitations to TED. My focus now is on creating content that gets me paid one way or another. Moving the blog to an official “me” site helps, as does being selective about time and topics. I like many of the econ-nerd posts I did here, but unless I go back to school, it feels self-indulgent to do many more. New site, new start, even if it’s the same blog.

I appreciate your continued readership. Please visit the new site, subscribe anew, click around. Experts agree there’s something fun for everyone.



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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s excellent Twitter feed directed me to this story:

Electronic cigarettes don’t burn and don’t give off smoke. But they’re at the center of a social and legal debate over whether it’s OK to “light up” in places where regular smokes are banned. Despite big differences between cigarettes and their electronic cousins, several states, workplaces and localities across the country have explicitly included e-cigs in smoking bans.

Here’s a video overview for a typical e-cigarette:

The article notes that e-cigs are designed to “address both the nicotine addiction and the behavioral aspects of smoking — the holding of the cigarette, the puffing, exhaling something that looks like smoke and the hand motion — without the more than 4,000 chemicals found in cigarettes.” Since the smoke that is emitted is actually water vapor, users call the activity “vaping” instead of smoking.

So if it’s just water vapor, then how could e-cigs fall under smoking bans (about which I’ve written critically here). Well, the FDA says the liquid nicotine cartridges contain “detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals to which users could potentially be exposed.” Not saying much really, but if even if e-cigs were toxic, smoking bans are ostensibly about second-hand effects, so what’s the harm in water vapor?

There’s no research to say if any of the ‘detectable toxins to which users could potentially be exposed’ might also potentially expose third-parties, but that’s not stopping the awesomely named American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. In their view, e-cigs should be banned until it’s proven they “do no harm.” In that case, says the spokesperson with courageous unambiguity, “we’ll have to revisit” the ban.

Several days ago, Robin Hanson blogged about how the status of a risky activity seems to affect our desire to regulate it: climbing Everest is a deadly activity and no one thinks to call for a ban, but the far less dangerous lawn darts? Fuggedaboutit! This status-driven impulse might apply to smoking bans as well.  Smoking, while once considered classy and cool, has become so low-status that smokers often feel the need to apologize for their behavior every time they want to light up. Sure, there’s a defensible public health argument for smoking bans, but then how to explain this anecdote at the beginning of the article?

That’s not smoke coming out of Cliff Phillips’ mouth.

But that hasn’t stopped others from cringing, making remarks, waving their hands in their faces and coughing at the sight of the vapor from his electronic cigarette.


Some e-cig users have even taken to “stealth vaping,” a method in which they hold the vapor in their mouth long enough for it to mostly dissipate or exhale the vapor discretely.

E-cigs are made to look like regular cigarettes, but functionally they are little alike.  In fact,  e-cigs are quite similar to nicotine inhalers.  If e-cigs were identical in every way except for the emission of water vapor, would they be causing such a hubbub? Or what if manufacturers agreed to model e-cigs to look like pieces of excrement? That way those who enjoy vaping can do so in peace, and restaurant and bar patrons can still look down their blissfully non-irritated noses at the habit.

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Good blogs are rarely drippy diaries nor are they dry op-eds, having more personality than the latter without the self-indulgence of the former. When I started this blog, I thought it would be more diary-like than it’s turned out to be,  but like those of many mice, my best laid scheme gang agley. Though I’m a pretty whimsical fellow in person, the subject matter tends to be staid, even if I usually write with the intent of eliciting at least a smile or two in any given post.  I’m satisfied with the overall mix, but a downside has been the exclusion of personal detail, and I’m now at a point where I need to catch up readers to what’s been happening with me since coming back to the US in late July, so here’s the past 9 months in a paragraph:

When I returned from Germany, my plan was to renew old contacts in Columbia and work for about a year while I took placement tests and sent off applications to various graduate programs.  Soon enough I took a job working at USC (the original one, for all you thinking westerly) doing a few different research projects for the business school. At the same time, I was looking at grad schools and studying for the tests, but lacking the peace that usually accompanies my big decisions. Needing guidance, I went and saw a former professor/mentor/thesis advisor, and after talking with him I was redirected away from graduate school and back towards foreign soil.  I was then referred to another professor who led classes to Africa, and after one conversation with him acquired several business cards for companies in Rwanda. As luck would have it, the first company I contacted expressed interest, and though the details of the arrangement have changed over the intervening months (this all began last November), at 6 AM tomorrow morning I’ll be catching a flight to Kigali to begin a six month initial stint.

What exactly I’ll be doing is not a question I can answer easily; one of my Ivy League educated friends called it “new business development” when I explained it to him, but my more prosaic description is “helping a few expat entrepreneurs build profitable companies.” One of my first projects at any rate will be developing the plans for a coffee-themed eco-tourism lodge on Lake Muhazi.

Here’s a map of Rwanda, and here’s my favorite map of Africa. Here are the contents of Africa according to the rest of the world.

My future abode is said to have internet, and Kigali is anyway a well-connected place, so blogging should continue apace once I’m settled.  If the personality of this blog changes as a result, it should be for the better–but much as I’d like to engage in more self-indulgent speculation on the matter, I’ve got bags to pack!

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If I’m not mistaken, this has been the longest unplanned break in TRZ posts since blogstart–it has not been for want of material. Here were some the topics I considered and dropped at various stages of development.

  • A primer on monetary policy as it relates to my finding $1500 in various forms of cash in my parents’ bedroom.
  • The sleeping habits of OECD countries,
  • The eating habits of OECD countries,
  • The power of culture in the efficacy of national institutions.,
  • Other stuff I’ve forgotten,
  • And one more thing I’ll write about tomorrow (or the next day, or…)

Once I get that last post written, you’ll understand why I’ve been focused on other things despite having ample free time.

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Today Felix Salmon highlighted some Chuck Norris facts pertaining to his experience in banking:

# Little-known Chuck Norris Fact: Chuck Norris does not mark to market. The market marks to Chuck.

# More: Chuck Norris does not go bankrupt. Chuck Norris ruptures banks.

# Source of hedge fund survivorship bias?: Funds that pay Chuck Norris 2 and 20 survive; others don’t.

# Private equity: Chuck Norris does not believe in leverage. Chuck Norris believes in crowbars.

# Investment banking: No-one defers Chuck Norris’s compensation.

# Capital structure: No-one subordinates Chuck Norris. All his equity is preferred.

# If Chuck Norris devised the bank stress tests, not even the Treasury Department would survive.

Felix then invited readers to submit their own in the comments, so I gave it a shot and came up with these:

  • Chuck Norris’ tears would solve all the banks’ liquidity problems. Too bad he’s never cried. Ever.
  • Chuck Norris is too big to fail.
  • Some think deposit insurance is what prevents a run on the bank. It’s not–it’s the fear that Chuck Norris is lurking in the vault.
  • Basel rules stipulate that if Chuck Norris is within 100 feet of a bank, he can be counted as Tier 1 capital.
  • The risk-free rate is not computed using US treasuries, but the length of time it takes Chuck Norris to complete a roundhouse.
  • Chuck Norris doesn’t target interest rates, he pummels them into submission.
  • Whenever Chuck Norris visits a country, yields on that government’s debt fall 150 basis points.
  • Only Chuck Norris can issue secured debt. The rest is at his mercy.
  • Beta is just a measure of Chuck Norris’ mood.

They are admittedly geeky, but they were funny enough to get a shout-out by Felix. My 15-minute joy was tempered, however, when a banking friend forwarded along this article from September 2007:

A famous series of jokes uses the actor Chuck Norris, martial artist and star of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” as a paragon of masculinity and omnipotence. ..

Similar thinking can be applied to the current state of financial markets. Here, then, is the world of money recast in Chuck Norris terms.

Chuck Norris doesn’t target inflation. He roundhouse-kicks it until it begs for mercy.


The tears of Chuck Norris would supply enough liquidity to solve the credit crisis. Too bad he never cries.

I’m pretty sure I never saw this article before, so I plead innocent to plagiarism. The real sting comes from realizing that my humor wasn’t quite as original as I thought it was. Of further humiliation is that the tears I’m crying now are good for nothing. *Sniff*.

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Two members of the GMU mafia who have done much to shape my worldview in the past few years, Robin Hanson and Tyler Cowen, did a Bloggingheads “diavlog” together (quite the portmanteau, diavlog, no?). Here’s a taste of the topics:

Tyler vs. Robin on the merits of cryonics (12:23)
Does fiction weaken your grasp of reality? (06:52)
Are economists evil? (12:10)
How to estimate the value of a person’s life (06:04)
Will prediction markets ever really take off? (08:06)
Has fame made Tyler boring? (02:27)

Vodpod videos no longer available.

They both have PhD’s in economics and are tremendously intelligent, but whereas Robin has more of the cold analytic attitude consistent with his background in physics and computer science, Tyler, the bearded one, is a self-described “cultural omnivore” who reads and travels voraciously and has written a popular ethnic dining guide to Washington DC.

For most the video will probably be esoteric and dry, but I watched it straight through with a dumb grin on my face as soon as I discovered it. This is partly because they talk about things I have an interest in, but mainly because I’ve read and interacted with these guys on their blogs and Facebook for several years now and so I feel I know them in a way seemingly belied by the fact I’ve never met them personally; there’s something wonderfully 21st-century about reading the acknowledgments section to a book and being as familiar with the names and relationships described therein as one of the author’s academic colleagues might be.

But generally, the video also reminds me of how much value from internet access I get above what I pay. I’ve often tried to guesstimate what my consumer surplus for internet is, and it’s easily in triple figures.  Friends may consider me a pretty miserly guy overall , but I would gladly let an ISP gouge me out the wazoo as long as the connection was fast and always on.

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Blognitive Dissonance

Wired tells me I’m a late adopter:

Thinking about launching your own blog? Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t. And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug.

Writing a weblog today isn’t the bright idea it was four years ago. The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge.

An assumption in the article is that blogging is only worth it if one can attract large amounts of readers. By contrast, my main incentives are personal. Blogging helps me focus my thoughts, write better, and stay productive. It’s cathartic and has kept me sane. I’m also quite proud of my blog’s content; in fact, I’m far prouder of this blog than I am of my undergraduate thesis (as a side note, I have a book in the library and didn’t realize it until just now, yippee!) These factors are largely independent of having an audience.

Readers do matter–I would have stopped blogging long ago if I had zero readers–but it doesn’t matter as much as the article implies. Blogging is like the Speaker’s Corner of the web: it’s more about having something to say and a forum in which to do it than having an audience. So what if the professionals are beginning to elbow out the proletariat–the internet is a lot bigger than Hyde Park.

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