Monday, September 7, 2009

Selected Links: September 7

Selected Links and Thoughts 7 September 2009:

Inside Apple's OS X 10.6
James Fallows pointed to an interesting article by John Siracusa about Apple's newest operating system. The article is substantial; after some opening discussion about marketing it jumps into technical details about the design of the operating system. I'm not an Apple user, but I was fascinated by this article. I'm particularly excited by the the potential of the Grand Central Dispatch framework. This is a framework that permits the easy parallelization of blocks of code in order to take better advantage of multi-core processes. Writing programs that can correctly run concurrently is notoriously difficult--something is of no surprise to anyone who has ever dined with multiple philosophers. GCD doesn't really remove the problems inherit in concurrent process management. Rather, it offers an extremely friendly syntax that identifies program blocks that the operating system may send off to different threads at run time. The hope seems to be that without the pain of POSIX threads developers will make better using of multiple threads. I highly recommend Siracusa's article. It is a wonderful example of technical writing.

How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?
In this New York Times Magazine piece, Paul Krugman offers an analysis of academic reactions to the recent (ongoing?) economic collapse. There have been many wonderful articles and radio programs explaining what exactly happened last fall, and why. Here, Krugman offers a more academic perspective in terms of deep rooted divides among academic economists and the seductive power of beautiful but ultimately unreal models:
As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth. Until the Great Depression, most economists clung to a vision of capitalism as a perfect or nearly perfect system. That vision wasn’t sustainable in the face of mass unemployment, but as memories of the Depression faded, economists fell back in love with the old, idealized vision of an economy in which rational individuals interact in perfect markets, this time gussied up with fancy equations. The renewed romance with the idealized market was, to be sure, partly a response to shifting political winds, partly a response to financial incentives. But while sabbaticals at the Hoover Institution and job opportunities on Wall Street are nothing to sneeze at, the central cause of the profession’s failure was the desire for an all-encompassing, intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess.

Unfortunately, this romanticized and sanitized vision of the economy led most economists to ignore all the things that can go wrong. They turned a blind eye to the limitations of human rationality that often lead to bubbles and busts; to the problems of institutions that run amok; to the imperfections of markets — especially financial markets — that can cause the economy’s operating system to undergo sudden, unpredictable crashes; and to the dangers created when regulators don’t believe in regulation.
In the article Krugman touches on many topics. His short description of the lessons learned from a baby-sitting coop reminds me to link to his wonderful description of the problem and economics. The anecdote is essentially an introduction to macroeconomics. After working through the implications of the story you will have a much clearer understanding of the economy.

Krugman also references Larry Summers's paper on Ketchup Economics. Don't confuse this with Malcolm Gladwell's classic article about ketchup. The Summers's paper, from the 1980s, has gotten a fair amount of attention in the blog world recently. As Krugman describes, Summers's basic point is that internal consistency in a model does not mean that the model actual says anything meaningful or true about the world.

Krugman's piece recounts a brief history of macroeconomic thought, described divides in the academic community and summarizes what happened last fall. Over the past 18 months I feel as if we are all economists now. This article is a worthy addition to the must read stack when it comes to understanding what is going on.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Civil War
Coates, the newest addition to the blogger lineup at the Atlantic, has been producing writing that I look forward to reading. His series of posts on the US Civil War over the past few months have been remarkable. Long-form, high-quality, and challenging writing on a blog. Wonderful.

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