Welcome!

I am a PhD candidate at the University of Rochester specializing in international relations and formal theory. I am currently on the academic job market. If you want to know more about me, feel free to look around, download my CV, email me at wspaniel@ur.rochester.edu, or use the links below as a cheat sheet:

Manuscripts

Book Review: Naked Ecomoics

Book: Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan
Five stars out of five.

A few months ago, I wrote a post on how game theory has led to a variety of counterintuitive results. People apparently find that kind of thing extremely interesting—that post accounts for about a quarter of all traffic in this website’s six year history. At some point, I am going to write a book on the subject. I’m still probably a couple years away from actually doing that. But to prepare, I’ve made a list of pop-economics books to read through to get an understanding of what makes them tick and why they were so successful. Naked Economics is the first of my list.

Why Naked Economics? Purely by chance, I saw a thread on Reddit a couple months ago about the nefarious reason that stores often offer you a free meal if you do not receive a receipt with your purchase. Do you think the store owner is being generous and trying to make sure you receive the best possible service? Hell no. They are worried that the cashier is going to pocket the cash. The offer effectively employs the customer as an extra pair of watchful eyes. This deters the cashier from stealing. The owner has successfully retained his rightful share of the money, and it didn’t cost him a dime.

And that Reddit post? It was a picture of the page from Naked Economics explaining this. I immediately put the book in my queue.

Yes, my queue. I borrowed the book from the University of Rochester’s library. Someone already had it on loan, so I had to recall it. Soon after I checked it out, it was recalled again. It’s apparently that popular. I’m now stuck writing this review without actually having the book on me, but I digress.

Anyway, Naked Economics is a layman’s introduction to micro and macroeconomics. There is no math. That’s a good thing to promote a greater understanding from a wider audience. It’s a bad thing because it will lead people who don’t understand economics to falsely believe they do. To wit, one of the top reviewer comment on Amazon as I write this says that the reviewer uses it as his textbook for his economics class. That’s pure silliness. This is not not NOT a textbook. At all.

Rather, Naked Economics is an infomercial for why people should study economics. It contains insightful analysis of critical social, political, and economic phenomenon from recent times. Why is mackerel used as currency in some prisons? In the book. Why did our economy melt down in 2008? In the book. Why are insurance markets such a problem? In the book. Why is dirty money (that is, physically unclean money) not worth anything in India? In the book. Why is it hard for developing countries to retain intelligent workers? In the book.

So if you like understanding why the social world works the way it does, you can’t ask for a better start than Naked Economics. That’s why I’m giving it five stars. But please don’t read this book and think that you know economics as a result.

Fun with Incentives: Baseball Contracts Edition

Continuing in the long line of “why do people structure these things in such a crazy way” posts, we have the sad story of Phil Hughes. Hughes is a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins. Like many other players, Hughes’ contract has specific benchmarks that reward bonuses. One in particular gives him $500,000 if he pitches 210 innings this year.

209 2/3s innings? Worthless! Who needs someone who pitches 209 2/3s innings?

But 210 innings? Yep! Definitely worth a half million dollars.

You can see where this is going. The Twins were rained out on Friday. He pitched in a double header today. However, this pushes his next start back a day, his start after that by another day, and so forth. Due to some unfortunate timing, this will ultimately mean he will (probably) end up with one fewer start than he should otherwise. Extrapolating a reasonable expectation of number of innings per start, losing this one start will likely mean he will not reach the 210 inning threshold and thus not receive a $500,000 bonus.

For completeness, this post might all be for nothing. If Hughes averages 7 2/3s innings per start for the remainder of the season, he will reach 210 innings and the point will be moot. But it seems doubtful that this will happen for two reasons. First, the Twins have him under contract for two more years; with the team eliminated for the playoffs, it makes little sense to stretch him out when a younger pitcher in greater need of MLB experience could get those innings. Second, if you were the owner of the team and could reasonable limit his innings for the rest of the season, why wouldn’t you save yourself a half million dollars?

So why oh why are contract structured in this way? I don’t have a good answer. It would be exceedingly easy to simply structure contracts so that the incentive pays a pitcher a fixed amount per inning. This ensures that teams will use pitchers for the number of innings that is economically worthwhile and do not face the incentive-twisting discontinuity between 209 2/3s innings and 210 innings.[1] Transaction costs could conceivably force actors to accept these discontinuities, but that does not seem to be a problem here. Instead, agents and players seemingly accept these contractual terms despite the obvious conflicts of interest they create.

[1] To be fair, the contract has something like this built-in. Hughes receives quarter million dollar bonuses for 180 innings and 195 innings. But there is still no good reason to create these discontinuities.

Just Say No to Beamer Navigaton Buttons

Presentation slides should be minimalist—the more the viewer has to scan, the more time he will take looking at the slide, and the less time he will spend actually listening to you. Minimalism is learned, and it is something I still struggle with. I’m getting better, but I can still improve.

Today, though, I’m taking a simple step to simplify the rest of my slides forever: I’m removing Beamer’s unnecessary navigation buttons.

What navigation buttons? These navigation buttons:

nav

You have almost certainly seen these before. In fact, there is a chance you put them into your Beamer slides without actually knowing what they do. (I spent a good 18 months using Beamer without ever experimenting with them.) The buttons allow you to navigate between slides, subsections, and sections of your presentation.

For my money, these buttons aren’t particularly useful. Most people use clickers for presentations, which rules out the buttons entirely. Even if you are working from the laptop, you can navigate slides using left and right keys. Meanwhile, jumping subsections or sections is usually too disorienting to work efficiently.

Indeed, I have seen someone click navigation buttons during a presentation exactly once—and that was only because the person evidently did not know you could (more efficiently) use the right key instead.

So, in sum, I hate navigation buttons. If you also never use them, then they have no reason to be in the slides. They are just taking up room for no reason.

Fortunately, the fix is simple. Immediately below your \begin{document} command, simply add the following line of code:

\setbeamertemplate{navigation symbols}{}

Now your slides will look like this:

nonav

Much cleaner! Thus, unless I rediscover the navigation buttons as being extremely handy, I’m taking them out of all my future presentations.

And if “Arms Treaties and the Credibility of Preventive War” sounds like too scintillating to ignore, you can see the full presentation here and read the paper here.

My APSA 2014 Presentation: Policy Bargaining and International Conflict

If you are looking for something to do on Friday from 10:15 to noon, head over to the Marriott Jefferson room to see my presentation on Ideology Matters: Policy Bargaining and International Conflict. It is based on a joint project with Peter Bils. Here is the abstract:

Studies of bargaining and war generally focus on two sources of incomplete information: uncertainty about the probability of victory and uncertainty about the costs of fighting. We introduce a third: ideological preferences of a spatial policy. Under these conditions, standard results from the bargaining model of war break down: peace can be inefficient and it may be impossible to avoid war. We then extend the model to allow for cheap talk pre-play communications. Whereas incentives to misrepresent normally render cheap talk irrelevant, here communication can cause peace and ensure that agreements are efficient. Moreover, peace can become more likely when the proposer becomes more uncertain about the opposing state. Our results indicate one major purpose of diplomacy during a crisis is simply to communicate preferences and that such communications can be credible.

If you can’t make it, you can download the paper here, view the slides here, or watch the presentation below:

Multi-Method Research: The Case for Formal Theory

Hein Goemans and I have collaborated on a new research note on formal theory and case studies. Here’s the abstract:

We argue that formal theory and historical case studies, in particular those that use process-tracing, are extremely well-suited companions in multi-method research. To bolster future research employing both case studies and formal theory, we suggest some best practices as well as some (common) pitfalls to avoid.

Since the research note is short by nature, I won’t spend too much extra space discussing it here. You’d be better off skimming or reading the note itself. In essence, though, we argue that formal theory and case studies are natural methodological allies. We also advocate for serious interpretation of a model’s cutpoint into the informal analysis. Manuscripts that combine formal theory with case studies too often spend considerable time developing the model only to ignore it when they begin discussing substance. They should be tied together.

Also, and something that I stress heavily in my book project on nuclear proliferation, we must be very careful in how we interpret those cutpoints. For example, a common fallacy takes the following form: the model says w occurs if x > y + z. The case study then goes to great lengths to prove that y was close to 0 or negative, therefore w should occur. This overlooks the values of x and z, however—even with y equal to 0, the inequality could still fail depending on the relationship between the other parameters. Put differently, and with certain notable exceptions detailed in the research note, we must think about the cutpoints holistically.

Again, you can read the full note here.

Mario Kart 8’s Most Popular Tracks

Mario Kart 8 has consumed most of my entertainment hours since it came out a couple of months ago. Its online play is great. When you queue, the game randomly gives you three (of thirty-two possible) tracks to pick from, or you can select random if none are to your liking. Social scientist that I am, I saw an obvious data collecting opportunity. So the last few weeks, I have painstakingly charted every single choice I have observed. This allowed me to create a rough ranking system of all the tracks in the game. Which track do people like the most? The least? Check below:

mk1

The numbers reflect the percentage of the time I observed players picking any given track, not the track the game randomly selected from those ballots. For example, over the many, many times Sunshine Airport randomly popped up in the queue, players selected it 48.3% of the time. The tiers simply cut the data into a top bucket of four and four other buckets of seven.

There are a number of important caveats to the image, so please read what follows before boldly declaring that Bone-Dry Dunes is the worst thing Nintendo has ever created.

  • I don’t claim that this is the be-all, end-all to Mario Kart track popularity. Rather, without any other metrics to rank the courses, I think that this is a useful first-cut at the question.
  • While I gathered a lot of data to do this, I am only one man. The number of potential picks ranges from 113 for Water Park to 258 for Bone Dry Dunes. We should expect such randomness from the queue selection system. However, it also means that some of these percentages are secure than others. I plan on continuing to collect data over time.
  • Be careful about making pairwise comparisons. Based on what I have, it is reasonable to conclude that players prefer GBA Mario Circuit (41.8%) to Electrodome (27.7%), but it is not reasonable to conclude that players prefer Electrodome to Mario Kart Stadium (27.5%).
  • With people duo queuing, I included both votes. I can see why people might think this should only count as one, but the choice from a duo queue (in theory) reflects the preferences of two people. So I count it twice. It would be very difficult to count them as one vote anyway; I would have to keep tabs on who is submitting at the same time, which difficult when I am trying to count so many things at once.
  • I collected the data as I rose from 2000 to 3100. So if you believe that preferences are different for this group than a different one, you are not looking at the image you may wish to see.
  • I did not count my votes. We want a measure of what people like the most, not what I like the most.
  • I excluded “forced” votes that occur if players take more than the allotted time to make a selection. These votes are pure noise anyway.
  • An active vote for random counts as a vote against everything else. For example, suppose the choices were Yoshi Valley, Royal Racewway, and Music Park. Three players select Yoshi Valley and one picks random. Then Yoshi has received three of four votes and the other two tracks have received none of the four. In other words, the “random” doesn’t magically disappear from the denominator in the data tabulation.
  • I only played worldwide games.
  • These were all races. No battles.

And now for a little bit of analysis:

  • I did some fancy statistical tests to see if a variety of track qualities (length, difficulty, newness) determines player preferences. All of the results were null. So whatever is driving these votes is highly idiosyncratic.
  • The new Rainbow Road was very disappointing. It was the last track I played when I went through the game for the first time. I was very excited until all I found was boring turn after boring turn.
  • Some might also describe the original N64 Rainbow Road as boring turn after turn, but it seems that Nintendo made a smart decision to turn the course into a straight-shot and not a five lap race.
  • I question Nintendo’s wisdom in putting Music Park, Grumble Volcano, Sherbet Land, and Dry Dry Desert in the game. What’s the point of having classic tracks if no one wants to play them?
  • To be fair, perhaps players actually wanted to see these tracks and just failed in the execution. But that still doesn’t explain why you would put Grumble Volcano back in the game. Its main course feature is that lava randomly shoots up and kills you for no good reason. I understand Mario Kart is full of randomness, but let that come from interactive item blocks and not from the computer.
  • I feel really bad for whoever designed Bone-Dry Dunes.

See you in the queues.