• Physics for health policy wonks

    “Has everyone in here seen an integral? Good. Because I didn’t have a backup plan” — Ramamurti Shankar (Word document).

    This blog’s readership is undoubtedly dominated by health policy wonks. How many could possibly also be physics geeks? Perhaps just me (BS 1994, Applied & Engineering Physics, Cornell University). I can’t think of a good reason why a health policy wonk should study college-level physics, but I’m going to blog about it anyway because Ramamurti Shankar’s Open Yale Courses in physics are too good not to.

    I already raved about Shankar’s Fundamentals of Physics I. His Fundamentals of Physics II is no less praiseworthy. Though he excels in explaining all course topics (including electricity and magnetism, circuits, optics), the best lectures are at the end, covering quantum mechanics.

    It’s not easy to make quantum fun and it’s impossible to make it intuitive. But Shankar does a superb job at explaining the origins of corpuscular-like and wave-like properties of particles. I’ve never heard or read quantum illuminated so clearly. It’s not too surprising that Shankar rocks quantum. He wrote the book on it.

    Shankar is also funny, really funny (well, for a physics prof, that is). The evidence is on his website. See, in particular, quotes from his lectures (Word document). His students seem to have a sense of humor too. For example, here’s how Shankar began lecture 22.

    So I got an interesting email this weekend from two of your buddies, Jerry Wang and Emma Alexander. The title of the email is this. It says Casaplanka, so I already know these guys are up to no good. And the question is the following. They said, “You’ve written a wave function ψ(x) [psi of x] and [ψ](p) [psi of p]. There seems to be no reference of time, so where is time in this,” and they couldn’t stop there. That would be a good place to stop but they went on to say, “Are you saying the ψ [psi] is just a ψ [psi] as time goes by?” So that’s the kind of stuff that appeals to me, so I don’t care if you don’t learn any quantum mechanics, but if you can do this kind of stuff I’m not worried about you.

    For the three of you still reading, here’s something I realized while listening to Physics II. The history of my college (physics, as I said) and graduate school (statistical image and signal processing) academic careers can be described as “following the complex exponential.” If it isn’t the most useful function (operator) in all of science and engineering, my professors led me astray. Probably Shankar would agree.

    I’ve got to be honest though, health policy is much harder than physics, and no more yielding to intuition than quantum. If science and engineering are largely about the complex exponential, health and health policy are exponentially complex. Probably Shankar would agree with this too. After all, he said,

    I’ve gotta be nice to my students, because one day one of you could be my physician. I could be lying flat on my back, and you could be coming up to me with a mask on and a knife in your hand. I’d say ‘What about my anesthesia?’ and you’d say ‘What about that formula sheet you promised me?’, so that’s why I try to treat you guys nicely.

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  • New Open Yale Courses

    Yay! Yale just rolled out ten new, free, online courses. I’ve “taken” many classes from Yale this way and reviewed each one on this blog. I’m a big fan of Open Yale Courses (OYC)!

    The email from OYC reads,

    Dear Friends of Open Yale Courses,

    We are pleased to announce the release of ten new offerings on Open Yale Courses. 

    New to the Open Yale Courses curriculum:

    Economics 251: Financial Theory (John Geanakoplos, James Tobin Professor of Economics), http://oyc.yale.edu/economics/financial-theory/

    Environmental Studies 255: Environmental Politics and Law (John Wargo, Professor of Risk Analysis and Political Science), http://oyc.yale.edu/environmental-studies/environmental-politics-and-law/

    History 116: American Revolution (Joanne Freeman, Professor of History), http://oyc.yale.edu/history/the-american-revolution

    History 234: Epidemics and Society in the West Since 1600 (Frank Snowden, Andrew Downey Orrick Professor of History), http://oyc.yale.edu/history/epidemics-in-western-society-since-1600

    History 251: Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts (Keith Wrightson, Randolph W. Townsend Jr. Professor of History), http://oyc.yale.edu/history/early-modern-england

    Physics 201: Fundamentals of Physics (Ramamurti Shankar, John Randolph Huffman Professor of Physics),

    Political Science 118: The Moral Foundations of Politics (Ian Shapiro, Sterling Professor of Political Science), http://oyc.yale.edu/political-science/moral-foundations-of-politics

    Political Science 270: Capitalism: Success, Crisis, and Reform (Douglas Rae, Richard S. Ely Professor of Management, Sociology, and Political Science), http://oyc.yale.edu/political-science/capitalism-success-crisis-and-reform

    Sociology 151: Foundations of Modern Social Theory (Iván Szelényi, William Graham Sumner Professor Emeritus of Sociology), http://oyc.yale.edu/sociology/foundations-of-modern-social-theory

    Spanish 300: Cervantes’ Don Quixote (Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature), http://oyc.yale.edu/spanish-and-portuguese/cervantes-don-quixote


    The full set of courses is available at http://open.yale.edu/courses.

    I will be listening to at least a few of these.

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  • Yale’s Physics 200: Less Dismal Science

    Economics is not physics, and that bothers some people. Such physics envy seems odd to me. It isn’t the fault of practitioners that economics models don’t correspond to reality with the same fidelity as physics models. A system of humans and human institutions is just fundamentally harder to model. It’s not time invariant. People are not particles. In some respects physics is easier.

    In Fundamentals of Physics, freely available as part of the Open Yale Courses program, Ramamurti Shankar masterfully reveals just how easy and fun it can be. My prior knowledge of Shankar is through his excellent quantum mechanics book, which I read as a Cornell undergraduate majoring in Applied and Engineering Physics. So, I’ve taken a lot of physics courses and enjoyed nearly all of them, but few as much as Shankar’s. What makes it so good is that he develops all concepts presented from first principles yet finds astonishingly short and simple–but correct–paths to results.

    For instance, he patiently led his students toward the correct interpretation of Newton’s F=ma and each variable in the equation. How does one measure acceleration? What about force? What does each side of the equation mean? Why is it not tautological? How would you find the mass of an object? (The answer is not, “Put it on a scale.”) When one really ponders these questions seriously, as Shankar insists, one finds they’re surprisingly deep. Yet the answers are simple, once you understand what you’re after. Then you’ve learned something!

    Shankar is also very funny, both in class and on his website where he lists the following among his accomplishments:

    Discovered a small parameter that justifies most calculations performed in physics: 1/ego, where ego is the author’s ego.

    Identified a new dangerously irrelevant variable: Sarah Palin.

    Beyond just explaining physics well, Shankar brings the subject to life by relating some of its history. For instance in the seventh lecture, on Kepler’s Laws Shankar says,

    By the way, Newton took a long time to publish this Law of Gravitation. Does anybody know why he was holding back for a long time? …

    [O]riginally Newton had a law of gravitation between two point objects, namely point-like. The distance between them is unambiguously the distance between the points, and he got this law. But in the end, he wants to apply it to the Earth and the apple; they are close enough for you. You cannot pretend the Earth looks like a point from where I am. It looks like a big, fat thing. You cannot say it’s point-like. So, what you really should do is divide the Earth into tiny pieces, each one of which is point-like, find the force on each from each chunk of the Earth, using this law, and add it up. And if you’re lucky, it will look as if all the pull is coming from one point at the center, carrying the entire mass of the Earth. So, what branch of mathematics do you have to use to get that result? …

    [H]e had to then invent integral calculus also. So, if he felt that no one around him was doing any work, it was probably justified because they just dumped the whole thing on this kid and said, why don’t you do [integral calculus too]? That’s why it took him a long time to verify, using integrals, that the sphere behaves like a point particle at the center. … [T]hat’s what held back a publication.

    As with this bit of history, most of the material of the course was familiar to me, though Shankar’s novel presentation style made it fresh. Some of the details of Special Relativity were new to me, however. Somehow, in my education, I missed (or completely fail to recall) the packaging of variables (time and space; energy and momentum) into four-vectors and how doing so facilitates manipulation and solution of problems. Seeing (hearing, really, as I “took” the course aurally by iPod) that topic presented in this fashion cleared away much of the confusing clutter of Special Relativity and let me focus on some of its wonders.

    For example, I found myself marveling at the photon. Why does it get to be so special? It gets to travel at the same speed for all observers. It gets momentum and energy without mass. It just doesn’t seem to belong in the same model as other particles. In fact, it’s the wave nature of light that shows up in the four-momentum for photons. In the class, the form of the photon’s four-momentum is just asserted. I could almost feel Shankar restraining himself to explain that further when he covered waves.

    Likely he’s saving it for the next class, in which he covers electricity and magnetism and quantum mechanics. But that class is not available via Open Yale Courses right now, sadly. The class I listened to covers classical and relativistic mechanics, including brief introductions to waves, fluid mechanics, and thermodynamics. If/when Yale posts Shankar’s next class I’ll listen eagerly.

    (See also my review of Yale’s Astro 160.)

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  • Yale’s Psych 123: Food for Thought

    We spend a lot of time thinking about food at my house. We read about food. In particular we are fond of Michael Pollan’s work on the subject. So, we’re very aware of the dysfunctions of food culture, economics, politics, and policy, particularly in the U.S. (for thoughtful posts in those areas visit Ezra Klein’s Food Archive).

    So it seemed likely I’d enjoy Yale Psych 123, Kelly Brownell’s course on the psychology, biology, and politics of food. And I did. But I recommend starting with Pollan’s books The Botany of Desire, In Defense of Food, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (I see he now has another book on food I haven’t yet read: Food Rules). They will provide most of the background that Brownell covers in the first half of his course but in a personal, narrative style that I found a little more engaging. With Pollan’s work as background, you can jump to lecture 12 of Psych 123.

    I admit I listen to podcats in general and Open Yale Courses (OYC) content in particular for entertainment, not just for information. (All my reviews of OYC offerings are under the Yale tag.) Brownell’s course is packed with information and took a more entertaining turn in the second half in which his passion for his subject comes to the fore. His strong opinions about food policy are evident in later lectures, and a good way to entertain is to take a strong position.

    Two parts of the class stood out as particularly interesting to me. The first occurred in the  seventh lecture when Brownell described the starvation that occurred during the World War II siege of Leningrad. He read from The Great Starvation Experiment by Todd Tucker, which is worthy of a lengthy quote:

    It was November 1941. The people of Leningrad were beginning the hungry winter, the coldest winter ever in the city with a proud history of miserably cold winters. … Hitler formulated an elegant plan, … [a] siege [that] would last 872 days….

    As the siege dragged on, the temperatures plummeted to -40 degrees. The people collectively remembered that some wallpaper paste was made from potatoes. Wallpaper was stripped away from the living rooms and parlors of Leningrad, the paste scraped into pots and boiled into soup, a soup that tasted much more like paste then potatoes. Leather too could be boiled into a gelatinous mess that could briefly satisfy the sharpest pangs of hunger.

    By 1943 the siege entered its second year, all the animals, wallpaper paste, and leather had been consumed. The people descended into a rare kind of hunger, a hunger that tested even the most fundamental taboos, people began eating corpses. …

    By the beginning of 1944 as even corpses and children became scarce there were reports of people cutting off their own body parts and eating them in a desperate attempt to stave off hunger. The Red Army broke through the German lines on January 27, 1944 and the siege was lifted. In all, a million Soviets had starved to death in that city, more then a thousand per day. People were forbidden both officially and unofficially, from ever speaking of the cannibalism that took place during the siege. The Soviets had learned, to a frightening extent, how much the availability of food allows civilization to occur.

    That’s powerful stuff. Much less powerful but just as interesting is the guest lecture by Stephen Teret (number 19), an expert in the application of litigation as a tool for the promotion of public health. He’s a very entertaining lecturer and tells some humorous stories. Listen to his lecture alone for a bit of edu-fun.

    I also like one of Brownell’s final assignments. He asks students to write and try to publish an op-ed on a food-related issue. As someone who believes in the power of the 650-word blog post/op-ed, I think this is an excellent assignment. If you can’t make the case for one idea in a piece of that length you’ll have a hard time getting anyone to pay attention to you. (I write this with awareness that this post is approaching 900 words. We can’t win them all.) If any of Brownell’s future students wish to publish their op-ed on this blog, send it my way and I’ll consider it.

    Throughout the class, but particularly in the final lectures, there is much made about the parallels in the evolution of culture and policy between food/obesity and other threats to public health like guns, alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes. Brownell and other champions for better nutrition through policy view victories in other arenas as models for what might one day be achieved for food.

    Perhaps. But food is fundamentally different from those other threats. Everyone must eat. Not everyone must use a gun, drink alcohol, use drugs, or smoke. Moreover, food choices are intricately bound with socio-economic and cultural forces in ways that differ from some of the other threats mentioned. For these reasons, changing the culture and policy of food will be more challenging than that of, say, cigarettes. I’m glad folks like Brownell and Pollan are trying, but I think victory is a long way off. A good first step is for more people to pay attention to their work, including you.

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  • Yale’s Astro 160: From Epicycles and Back

    With Yale’s Astro 160 (Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics) I’ve now completed my first semester at Yale, so to speak. It’s the fifth class I’ve taken by podcast, and in my day five classes was a full load. It’s been a semester full of good courses (all reviews under the Yale tag). Moreover, they’ve been free of tuition and with no homework or reading required. I did miss the parties though.

    Like Philosophy 176, Astro 160 tackles some very deep questions, albeit of a physical as opposed to a metaphysical sort. Also like Philosophy 176, the subject of Astro 160 is specific yet motivates an enormous amount of the broader field (physics) upon which it relies. The ostensible subjects of Astro 160 are three rapidly developing areas of astronomy: the search for and discovery of (1) planets outside the solar system (exoplanets), (2) black holes, and (3) dark energy.

    Professor Charles Bailyn, an expert in black hole discovery, approaches these topics by reviewing major milestones and controversies in the history of work in these areas. His first class begins with the failed theory of Ptolemaic epicycles in which the Earth is the center of the universe and the motion of celestial objects about it are modeled with circular motions embellished with ever more complicated wiggles and variations in speed. The theory eventually collapsed from its own weight and was replaced with the far more sensible heliocentric model.

    In summarizing the evolution of the frontier of astrophysics over the centuries, Bailyn draws out the stylized lessons–parables really–that scientific culture has drawn from each controversy and breakthrough. The parable of the epicycle is that of Occam’s razor: simple models are better. The class more-or-less continues in this way right up to present day. Bailyn succeeds in explaining the current state of astrophysics while avoiding much of the technical and mathematical formality that would otherwise make recent work inaccessible to a non-specialist. That’s not to say the class is free of technicalities or mathematics. It has both (expect a lot of calculations in scientific notation), but in simplified form with no calculus, and hardly any trigonometry. Anyone comfortable with algebra can follow it.

    I’m a former physics geek, but I hadn’t encountered material such as this in 15 years. (Back in the day I worked a summer for David Wilkinson, a pioneer in the study of cosmic microwave background radiation. He and his work get brief mention in Astro 160.) This time around I viewed it (listened to it) with mature eyes (ears). I was struck by just how much could be known–is known–about the most distant objects and about the most distant moments of the past. With our reason, a few empirical techniques, and some ever-increasingly precise equipment we can judge the distance and composition of stars, the size and orbital shape of exoplanets, the presence of black holes, and ultimately the origin, evolution, and fate of the universe. Amazing!

    The third section of the class covers dark matter, which is mysterious enough, and dark energy, the properties of which are so unknown it sounds like a joke. It was in these lectures that I missed the visual most. Complex transformations of lines on graphs were occurring that I couldn’t fully follow aurally. (Video, lecture notes, and transcripts are available online but I didn’t look at them.) The class ends with a plot in which there is some significance of three lines intersecting at a single point. I didn’t get it in detail. But, in some sense neither does Bailyn or anyone else. The axes are the density of dark matter and the density of dark energy.  In Bailyn’s words,

    So, what we are plotting in this wonderful plot where everything works out so nicely is the density of something we don’t know anything about versus the density of some other thing that we don’t know anything about. And so, in a certain sense … the fact that we’ve got these two axes means we don’t have any idea what’s going on.

    Bailyn goes on to suggest that the lack of understanding of dark matter and dark energy smells of epicycles. In a sense, astrophysicists have invented these two ideas so that observations fit theory. But the theory doesn’t predict much because we don’t understand the ideas. They’re really just fudge factors, like the wiggles on circles of a geocentric model of the universe. A new idea, a breakthrough, either in theory or observation, is needed to move astrophysics forward. If it comes during his professional lifetime, no doubt Bailyn will discuss it in class.

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  • Yale’s Philosophy 176: Deep into Death

    God made mud. God got lonesome. So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”  “See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.”  And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around. Lucky me, lucky mud. I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done. Nice going, God. Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn’t have. I feel very unimportant compared to You. The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and look around. I got so much, and most mud got so little. Thank you for the honor! Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep. What memories for mud to have! What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met! I loved everything I saw!

    –Kurt Vonnegut (Cat’s Cradle)

    From time to time my mind turns to death, though certainly not in an obsessive, suicidal, sociopathic, or gruesomely morbid way. Rather for reasonable amounts of time and on occasion I find it useful and productive to contemplate what my death means for me and those I care about, or about what the death of a loved one will mean for her and those she cares about. Thoughts along these lines motivate me to get more out of life and to prepare for the inevitable (see, for example, my series on estate planning).

    I’m not alone in finding it of value to think about death. So too does Shelly Kagan, the Yale philosophy professor who teaches a course on the topic–Philosophy 176–available to all for free through Open Yale Courses and iTunes U. So Kagan’s course was a natural one for me to take next (after Yale’s Econ 252, Econ 159, and Psych 110, reviews of which can be found under the Yale tag).

    Philosophy 176 is an introductory course so it does not presuppose any background in philosophy. That’s good because I recall very little from the few philosophy courses I took 15 or more years ago or the reading of philosophy I did as a teen. Perhaps because I was a bit rusty at waxing philosophic I had a some difficulty getting accustomed to the style of the course, but I did warm to it. And I liked it more as it progressed.

    Part of the challenge initially was getting comfortable with the fact that in philosophy nearly everything is debatable and, in an almost because-it-is-there sense, it is debated. But of course that’s the point. It is the nature of the subject to pursue every nuance of argument, to poke and prod every assumption, to go down many rabbit holes. The discipline, as it turns out, and at least insofar as death is concerned, is mostly holes–deep six footers. Indeed, it seems more holes than terra firma. There’s not that much to cling to beyond one’s own beliefs and a reasonable, but far from air tight argument or two.

    That’s the course: one long argument, with many detours and dead ends, with much backtracking and reworking. Ultimately Kagan aims to teach the art of philosophy but also to convince his students that conventional notions of death–that it is bad, frightening, to be avoided for all time at all costs, among others–are not reasonable.

    In doing so the course surveys some great questions: Is there an immortal soul? Is immortality desirable? What does it mean to say that a person has died? Is death bad? Is it frightening? Is suicide rational or moral? How does the knowledge of one’s mortality affect how one lives or how one should live?

    These are great questions. No. They are THE great questions, and well worth thinking about while you still can. Their relevance and urgency was reinforced upon Kagan’s roughly 20 year old students and me in two poignant moments in the class. One was when Kagan recalled a student with a terminal cancer diagnosis who had been taking this very class on death a few years prior. The student’s goal in life was to complete his Yale degree. When his illness forced him from the classroom mid-semester Yale found a way to honor his desire. He was awarded his bachelor’s degree on his death bed.

    The other poignant moment came during the class following the one in which Kagan quoted the Kurt Vonnegut passage above. He had done so without knowing Vonnegut had passed away the night before. What better lesson could there be on the only type of immortality we’re likely to achieve? Vonnegut’s brilliant illustration of the arbitrariness of life and our great fortune to partake in it is no less true and beautiful now than it was before his death.

    In Philosophy 176 Kagan succeeds in making the important lessons clear: live fully and thoughtfully because for many of us death may come too soon. And for all of us death is, of course, inevitable, unstoppable, and in Kagan’s view, completely final. His concluding words were to encourage his students to “face death without fear and without illusion.” No doubt he hopes that they also feel at the end of life what Vonnegut expressed: “What memories…I loved everything I saw!”

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  • Interview with Ben Polak

    I learned of Ben Polak through his course Econ 159, available online through Open Yale Courses (see my review). In addition to being a superb teacher, Polak is an expert on decision theory, game theory, and economic history. His work explores economic agents whose goals are richer than those captured in traditional models. His contributions to game theory range from foundational theoretical work on common knowledge, to applied topics in corporate finance and law and economics.

    Most recently, he has made contributions to the theory of repeated games with asymmetric information. Other research interests include economic inequality and individuals’ responses to uncertainty. Professor Polak is currently engaged in an ambitious empirical project that tackles questions of industrial organization in the setting of industrial revolution in England. For a list of his achievements, awards, and selected papers visit his Yale School of Management page.

    Polak was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail.

    Austin Frakt (AF): The overarching hook of Econ 159 was to build toward a game theoretic model of human cooperation. In doing so, more and more aspects of human behavior were discussed and incorporated. What is the current and historical relationship between game theory and behavioral economics? How has one influenced the other?

    Ben Polak (BP): Some of the best work in behavioral economic theory is directly about games, Matt Rabin’s work for example.  Behavioral economics naturally introduces some new game-theoretic issues. For example, in many behavioral models, the agents’ preferences are not “dynamically consistent”.  This means that what they may want to do tomorrow may not be what they want today for themselves to do tomorrow.   If the agents anticipates this, then they are going to be playing a game with themselves.  Many of the ideas from the class – such as backward induction – take on a new importance.  The agent now has to anticipate and roll back what she will do tomorrow to decide what she should do today.  And ideas like commitment take on a new role: agents may want to commit themselves not just influence others choices (like burning the boats) but simply to control the scope of their future selves’ choices.

    AF: Nash is so closely associated with game theory. How much of the content of Econ 159 was pioneered by him? Which is due to the more recent work of others? Where is the frontier today?

    BP: Nash introduced the notion of Nash equilibrium but, at the time he was working, most of the work was on cooperative game theory rather than non-cooperative game theory.  So, for example, bargaining over a pie was analyzed on the basis of normative axioms rather than strategic choices.  One of Nash’s major papers was on normative bargaining solutions but another paper introduced a game in the sense we discuss in the class, and showed that the outcome suggested by normative criteria would be the outcome that would result in this game.  That paper set off a whole literature called “the Nash program”: the attempt to find games that produce particular ‘desirable’ outcomes.  The last Nobel prize given to game theorists (that given to Maskin, Myerson and Hurwicz) was given for studying “mechanism design” which (in a sense) is the field that descended from Nash’s first paper.   The early pioneers of game theory – Nash, Shapley, Shubik, von Neumann, Scarf – were (and are) extraordinary minds.

    AF: The game theoretic problems approached in 159 are, by necessity, simple enough to understand and analyze “by hand.” No doubt there are vastly more complex problems and models for which one requires the aid of computer. What are the common computational packages and approaches? Are there parameter estimation algorithms that one could say are the analog of standard econometrics? What are some really big and important problems that are addressed with such things?

    BP: Here I am a bit out of my field when it comes to specific packages.  But one of the main advances in econometric economics in the last two decades has been the introduction of so-called structural models.  Typically, these models are game-theory based and the econometric techniques use features of equilibria to help identify parameters in the model.  Two major examples are the econometric models used to estimate demand first for items such as cars and second behind bids in auctions.  These econometric models have revolutionized empirical studies of industry.  Hand in hand with this is a literature on computing equilibria in (possibly complicated) games.  Again, one use is in analyzing the data.

    AF: Do you teach other classes at Yale and might they one day be available via Open Yale Courses? (Would it help if I begged?)

    BP: Well, for my sins, I am about to take over as chair of economics at Yale.  Once that is over, I would like to develop a new course and (if it works well) I would like to try to have it added to the open courses.  In the meantime, Bob Shiller’s wonderful course on Financial Markets is available [reviewed on this blog].  And we are hoping that, one day soon, John Geanakoplos’s superb course on Financial Theory will be available.  John is one of the most inspiring teachers at Yale, so I am looking forward to it.

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  • Yale’s Psych 110: Your Brain on Bloom

    Psych 110, Introduction to Psychology, was the third Open Yale Course I listened to by podcast (others reviewed in posts listed under the Yale tag). In it, Professor Paul Bloom surveys the broad field of psychology, including topics such as what infants know, the meaning of dreams, gender differences in sexual desire, non-human primate language acquisition, and other areas of human perception, memory, cognition, feelings, decision-making, and behavior.

    To my mind, untrained in psychology, the course was a reasonably complete survey. As such, no topic received a great deal of attention. To some extent, just skimming the surface of so many interesting questions and topics was a bit unsatisfactory. But that is the nature of an intro, survey course.

    The instructor, Bloom, was a pleasure to listen to. A few of the lectures were given by his Yale colleagues and I missed Bloom in each one. He is a gifted lecturer, witty, very articulate, and with a command of language better than most. He ended each topic with a solicitation of questions. In response to questions he could not necessarily anticipate he almost always had a ready and nuanced answer, delivered in well-formed paragraphs. As someone who has spoken before a room full of students I know that is no easy task!

    Of the Yale courses I’ve listened to by podcast, this is the first that didn’t work well aurally. First, it is clear that only some of the course content was delivered by lecture, the rest through readings, which I did not have (nor would I have read if I had them). Second, about 20% of the content of each class was provided by in-class video, none of which was included in the podcast (copyright issues (?)). Finally, many topics in psychology are illuminated by demonstrations that rely on the visual: comparing two images, for example. I could see none of those, though likely they’re available on the video downloads.

    Given all of that, I missed some of what probably made the course a lot of fun. The up-side is that the audio podcasts are shorter than those of other courses (all under one hour). Plus there are only 20 classes. So, relative to the previous Yale courses I listened through, this was a brief one.

    In conclusion, Yale’s Psych 110 is a good way to survey psychology by podcast. From it I certainly learned some things about basic psychology and enjoyed my time doing so. But for the reasons explained above, as a podcast it falls short of the quality of the Yale econ courses I listened to previously (Econ 159 and Econ 252). If you missed intro psych in college, give it a try. If you’re looking for truly excellent podcast material though this is not the place to start.

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  • Yale’s Econ 159: Game Theory Made Fun

    There’s a reason I’ve posted a lot on game theory of late: I was taking a course on the topic, continuing my education by podcast. The Open Yale Courses (OYC) program makes it easy to turn your iPod or MP3 player into a classroom of sorts, with 15 Yale courses online and 30 more expected over the next three years. Each course includes lectures by video or audio, downloadable from the OYC website or available through iTunes.

    So far I’ve listened through Econ 252, which I reviewed previously, and Econ 159. The latter is Yale’s basic game theory course taught by Ben Polak. I don’t need to say very much about the content of the course since I’ve already given readers a large dose of basic game theory. In fact, all of the content of my game theory posts has been inspired by that of Econ 159.

    In this review I’ll comment on the style of the course and the quality of the instructor, Ben Polak. Polak is one of those virtuoso teachers. If you’re lucky you’ve had one or two such teachers in your life: the sort who entertains as he instructs, who presents his subject in such easy, digestible bites that one cannot help but learn it. In fact, Polak has won awards for his teaching. It helps that he’s also very funny and has a charming British accent.

    Game theory can’t be taught without use of a blackboard. There’s a lot of drawing of diagrams, graphs, arrays of numbers, and so forth. So one might think it impossible to learn the subject aurally by podcast. However Polak speaks what he writes so clearly I did not find it difficult to follow along and to “see” the visual in my head.

    I confess that there were details I could not keep track of (was that a “2, 1” payoff in the upper right of the array or the lower left?), but it didn’t matter. It isn’t the details that are important, it is the main concepts. Those Polak makes as plain as day, and they’re emphasized more than once so one cannot miss them.

    Polak told his students at the start of the class that the course was “moderately hard but moderately fun.” I think that’s fair. It requires a certain type of logical mind to enjoy game theory, and that is hard for some people. But Polak makes it about as fun as game theory is likely to ever be.

    In my review of Yale’s Econ 252 I wrote that its instructor, Robert Shiller, had set the bar high. Well, Ben Polak far exceeded it and Econ 159 is one of the best courses I’ve ever taken (and I’ve taken a lot of them). If you’re interested in learning basic game theory and/or if you’ve enjoyed my game theory posts, give it a try. Even if you only make it through part of the course you’ll still have learned something and probably had a good time doing so.

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  • Yale’s Econ 252: Shiller on Financial Markets

    I’m always looking for high quality audio content to enjoy via podcast on my long commute by foot and rail. On the suggestion of Josh Hausman by way of Brad Delong, I tried Yale’s Financial Markets course (Econ 252) taught by Robert Shiller. The course is part of Open Yale Courses, an online repository of course material including audio, video, and documents associated with fifteen Yale courses (as of this writing). Kudos to Yale for expanding access to higher education, and for free!

    Econ 252 works well as a podcast, at least for someone with passing familiarity with basic concepts in finance. Though Shiller used a blackboard during part of his lectures, I did not miss not seeing it. Presumably it is visible in the downloadable video. It was enough that he spoke the few equations introduced in the course. (One can learn a lot even ignoring the equations.)

    Shiller’s treatment of the course topics differed from any I’ve seen in the textbooks I’ve read. Of course he covered the basics of financial institutions (commercial and investment banks, the Fed, corporate structure, and so forth) and financial instruments (stocks, bonds, futures, options, and the like). But his presentation also reflected his interests in the morality of finance, behavioral finance, financial technology, and history of finance, topics he covers in great detail in his published books.

    Shiller framed the course with the moral motivations for the finance industry, talking at length on the topic in the first and last lectures. He emphasized the improvements in human welfare brought about by financial risk management tools and institutions. While he may be correct that the finance industry has improved social welfare, I do not think improving social welfare is what motivates many of its practitioners.

    Shiller repeatedly returned to the ideas of behavioral finance to explain why markets and individuals do not behave rationally. In particular, he comes down pretty hard on the efficient market hypothesis, leaving little doubt that he does not believe it holds in all market conditions and particularly not during the recent housing bubble.

    His enthusiasm for the history of financial innovation clearly shows in his lectures. He routinely reached way back to centuries or millennia in the past to provide the full context of development of financial technology (which includes the inventions of cheap wood pulp paper, filing cabinets, carbon paper, the typewriter, the internet, and a myriad of financial instruments). He brought ticker tape into class to show students how stock prices used to be communicated. Unfortunately he does not own an old ticker tape machine (Thomas Edison’s first invention, I learned). If anyone knows where to get one, let me know. Shiller may be interested and that may present an arbitrage opportunity for me, or now you (I’m joking!).

    The course included four guest speakers, two of whom I thought had particularly interesting things to say. In lecture nine David Swensen described his strategy in managing Yale’s endowment. Under Swensen’s leadership, the endowment had grown from about $1B in 1987 to about $23B in 2008 (it has subsequently lost 30% of its value). Swensen described how he diversified Yale’s portfolio in ways that managers of other university endowments had not considered, investing relatively more heavily in private equity, commodities, foreign equity, and shorting tech stocks (in the late 1990s) and mortgage backed securities (in recent years). Swensen made good arguments in favor of the fundamentals: diversification, sound asset allocation, and not timing the market (though I think Swensen is a market timer, and a successful one).

    Andrew Redleaf, CEO of Whitebox Advisors, a money management firm, spoke in lecture 14. He has a different perspective than Swensen arguing that it is reasonable to try and possible to succeed at timing the market. Redleaf also made a convincing case that markets are not efficient but are effectively so for small investors. (For more along these lines, see my post Efficiency and Rationality in Financial Markets.)

    The timing of the course I listened to (Spring 2008) was closer to the beginning than the end of the current recession and overlapped with the demise of Bear Stearns. Shiller devoted the better part of two lectures explaining the economic crisis and the government’s response to it (lectures 16 and 17). To anyone seeking an overview of the crisis I recommend listening to just those two lectures. They, and most other lectures, can be understood on their own, without having heard any prior material.

    Shiller’s other lectures were peppered with references to the origins and events of the housing crisis, something he has tracked particularly closely since the housing market is his area of expertise. It would be interesting to listen to some course lectures from subsequent years to hear Shiller’s perspective on the evolution of the economy, but I probably won’t do that. Always on the hunt for good podcast material, I’ll sample some of the other Open Yale Courses. I hope they’re as good as Econ 252. Shiller has set the bar high.

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