September 29, 2006

Articles or books?

This article in Perspectives is welcome news that leading historians may be giving more weight to articles than books. My view has long been that historians publish too many books and not enough articles, while economists have the opposite problem.

Posted by eroberts at 6:57 AM

September 28, 2006

Griak cross-country pictures

My photos from the 2006 Roy Griak Invitational meet are now online. Results for the meet are available. Higher resolution copies of any pictures available on request.

I have a renewed appreciation for the sterling work Alison Wade does at eliterunning.com with her photographs. While it's easy (there is software) to load a directory of photos and create a catalog of them, the captions take time if you want to get them right.

Not only that, I have a great appreciation for the quality of Alison's photography. I've posted the bad ones here, most of them come early on in the set. It was a while since I'd taken many photos of running, and it's tough to get right. For the record I was using my Olympus OM-1 with 400 ASA film, a 70-210mm zoom lens which I typically had at about 150mm, and shooting at 1/500 second. The weather was overcast as you can probably tell from some of the photos. You may wonder "Why not digital?" I have a digital which is mostly great for snapshots, has a great movie function, does wonders in archives, but is really not great for sports photography. The OM-1 is 30 years old, but after a thorough overhaul a decade ago has given me ten years of great use. Digital photography is great, but I'm willing to bet you your Leica that it will take several decades before they make digital cameras that last as long as even a mid-market SLR like the OM-1. Film ain't dead yet, though Kodak's stock ticker shows it's not going to be a mass market for much longer.

Posted by eroberts at 8:23 PM

Drink up in school. It pays.

Kids who binge drink in high school are more social, and get better paid early in their careers. There is no real moral to this story, since it's driven by "unobserved heterogeneity." Kids who are more social drink more, and do better early in their careers for that reason. If you're shy anyway it probably doesn't pay to drink more in high school, unless by going to the parties you improve your social skills.

We estimate the relationship between 10th grade binge drinking in 1990 and labor market outcomes in 2000 among National Educational Longitudinal Survey respondents. For females, adolescent drinking and adult wages are unrelated, and negative employment effects disappear once academic achievement is held constant. For males, negative employment effects and, more strikingly, positive wage effects persist after controlling for achievement as well as background characteristics, educational attainment, and adult binge drinking and family and job characteristics. Accounting for illegal drug use and other problem behaviors in 10th grade eliminates the unemployment effect, but strengthens the wage effect. As the latter is not explicable by the health, income or social capital justifications that are often used for frequently observed positive correlations between adult alcohol use and earnings, we conjecture that binge drinking conveys unobserved social skills that are rewarded by employers.
Posted by eroberts at 3:27 PM

September 27, 2006

Raising an army

"You have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want." (Donald Rumsfeld, December 2004)

There's a grain of truth to that, but the "only" thing stopping America having a bigger army is the political decision to create one. Three and a half years since the invasion is plenty of time. In three and a half years America expanded the size of its armed forces about six-fold during World War Two. You can see this for yourself right below. Remember this next time you wonder why there appears to have been little forward progress in Iraq in two years.

From Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1957

Posted by eroberts at 2:55 PM

September 22, 2006

Secure _and_ open

'Nuff said.

Posted by eroberts at 7:39 AM

Modern times

Where I do my long run now is, a lot flatter but no less scenic in its own way. The views are less grand for their lack of elevation, but the confluence of the Minnesota with the Mississippi is a special place. And its prettiest season is upon us right now. It's an early fall that you can't quite see in this photo from a week ago, but down amongst the trees it is starting.

Posted by eroberts at 6:42 AM

September 21, 2006


Good interview with a guy from my former running club who has enough natural talent to run a 2:18 marathon on the flat (and 2:13 down a hill), but "only" after years of patient training. It's people like Matt that are more of an inspiration to even less talented people like me, because I've seen the work they put in and the gradual rewards for their hard work.

For what it's worth in the perennial debate about "how fast to run your long run", Matt was a 2:20-low marathoner / 30:30 10k runner in the summer of 1999/2000, and I was running around 34 minutes for 10k at that point. Yet the long runs we did as a group round the south coast of Wellington (see below) were totally comfortable, probably well over 7:00/miles, though they had typically been preceded by a 3000m or 5000m race the day before (me and others) or a tempo run (Matt and others). My point is not that one should never belt out a faster long run, but that 2:30 over hills and trails at 90 seconds/mile over marathon pace is good enough on a regular basis for a 2:20 guy, so it's probably good enough for the rest of us.

Posted by eroberts at 2:30 PM

September 20, 2006

All or 4?

What determines whether an intersection where all four approaches have to stop becomes a 4 way stop or an all way stop. My mind is not supple enough to work it out ...

Posted by eroberts at 9:47 PM

September 15, 2006

1938 and all that

If you follow politics you'll recall that a couple of weeks ago Donald Rumsfeld compared the current fight against "Islamofascism" to the fight against the Nazis, and implicitly compared opponents of the Bush administration's strategy to Neville Chamberlain's 1938 "peace in our time" appeasement of Hitler. A lot of virtual ink has been spilled on why, whatever your views on the current administration's actions, this is just a bad analogy.

One aspect that I have not seen discussion of is why this is a particularly ironic cudgel for Rumsfeld to use, coming from an American and a Republican.

The first irony is, of course, that when the war against Germany began in 1939 America wasn't there. In fact, the United States waited until 1941, and let Germany declare war first. It probably escapes the notice of most Americans, but at the time this was the cause of some disparagement of the United States in Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (probably in continental Europe too). There is the joke that after being late to both of the World Wars, America is now in a hurry to be first up for all the next wars.

There are well known and understandable reasons why America didn't hurry herself along to participate in either of the World Wars, most of which come down to domestic politics. And here is the second layer of irony. If there was any party that represented the isolationalist strain in American politics it was the Republican party. It wasn't for nothing that Montana pacifist Jeanette Rankin was a Republican member of Congress. You can hear the echoes of this Republican isolationism in Bob Dole's 1976 complaint about "Democrat wars."

Think what you will of present policies, but historically it was the Republican party that was denser with appeasers and isolationists. Historical analogies are always a choice of people in the present, and say more about the present than the past.

Posted by eroberts at 8:39 AM

September 13, 2006


Posted by eroberts at 2:41 PM


Posted by eroberts at 2:29 PM

September 12, 2006

Not original, but effective

At the risk of losing readers by making my first sentence here in a week a reference to obscure, foreign elections ... I'll do it anyway. In 1972 the Australian and New Zealand (remember, different countries!) Labo[u]r parties won elections in succeeding weeks after being out of power and irrelevant for decades. They used the same slogan. "It's Time for A Change".

This was an effective slogan because it captured the spirit of the time, and was a phrase that you might use yourself in everyday life. The idea in the slogan, because it captured a mood already out there and easily picked up in polls and by journalists, was reinforced by its repetition and simplicity. None of these things can be said about the lame-o slogan of the Democratic Party for the 2006 elections "Together, America can do better."

Now I confess that not being American myself I may lack some crucial insights into the way Americans think and vote, but I'm pretty sure no one is out there thinking "Together, America can do better" on their own. Perhaps "We can do better," but not "Together, America can do better." It's the comma, you see. It is probably not written down anywhere, but one of the first rules of effective slogans is "No commas." Now I was about to expand that and write "No punctuation," but that's wrong. A question mark (preferably for a rhetorical question) or an exclamation mark, where appropriate, are fine. Perhaps no punctuation that qualifies your statement. "It's Time For a Change" is not original, but it would do far better service for the Democrats that "Together, America can do better."

In the interests of fair play I would offer some advice to the Republican Party from Australasian political history. But the GOP don't appear to need it. After winning office in 1975 both Labo[u]r parties lost in 1975. The New Zealand National Party put out one of the most effective political ads ever, the [in]famous Dancing Cossacks ad which implied Labour's superannuation scheme would lead to creeping Communism.

Of course, no American politician would ever imply their opponents were Communists, would they?

Update (5:37pm): Another alliterative slogan that did good service for its creators was "compassionate conservatism," which they're discussing in a review of Bush's presidency over at TPM Cafe. For the purposes of this discussion, who cares that it was a crock and has scarcely been uttered by Bush since the campaign. The phrase apparently resonated with what a crucial (if perhaps small) part of the electorate was looking for, and summed up what Bush chose to emphasize as his priorities during the 2000 campaign.

Posted by eroberts at 1:59 PM

September 7, 2006

Learning something new everyday

newform. When you want to pad lines in a big file. Not something you'll want to do every day, but when you have to, now you know.

Posted by eroberts at 12:34 PM

September 5, 2006

Foreign accent thing

Reason no. 269 I want all call-centers out-sourced to India right now ...

I called a firm today, and lacking my ID number took the automated voice up on the option of saying and spelling my name to confirm my identity. The courteous automated voice then asked

Have I got that right?
Last name: R-A-B-B-I-T
First name: E-V-A-M

How cute. When you say "EVAM" it does sound like you are speaking with a lisp like we imagine rabbits do.

Posted by eroberts at 5:08 PM

September 3, 2006

Miracle off 34th St

Papers around the country are leading, or at least leading their business sections, with the story of how Federated is changing venerable old stores like Marshall Fields, Kaufmann's, and Foley's into Macy's.

All of the stories, though locally written and not from the wire services, have the same basic structure. They note the historic (centuries old!) roots of the store, and then use the occasion of the change-over to Macys to quote "retail consultants" saying things like

department stores have become dinosaurs ... [t]he department store model is eroding. Business models don't last forever

and (these are different people)
The whole department store base is questionable today

the power of such plans to inject new life into traditional department stores will prove out only over time, just as the segment took many years to decline

Color me just a little sceptical of the near-uniform pessimism about the prospects for department stores from "retail consultants." Now, it's not as if every business takeover story is revealed to be far-sighted prescience, but if the prospects for department stores were that bad, why would Federated be doubing down its investment in the sector?

A little historical perspective on this goes a long way.

Been here before
This is also a newspaper story I've seen before. If the department store is dying it is taking a mighty long time. You can read similar predictions from 1930s retail consultants when Woolworths was growing rapidly. When did you last shop at an American Woolworths? Quite a while ago. That's right.

Department store consolidation began in the 1920s, in the sense of consolidated ownership. But operations, from the name of the store to purchasing, were not really co-ordinated across these groups until computerized point-of-sale systems became both common and reliable. So, there is something different to what is going on today with greater centralization of purchasing and management by Federated.

As to whether department stores will survive, it's a basic point, but easily forgotten by some business journalists that just because you aren't growing doesn't mean you can't be consistently profitable. Now, department stores have had trouble being consistently profitable, but it's still worth remembering down the road. Department stores might not be the newest thing on the block, but they can rake in a steady cash flow which is no small advantage in any business.

What do department stores do, anyway?
Nearly all of the press coverage pits department stores against Target and Walmart, because they're all large and sell a variety of goods. Well, so does Home Depot if you think about it like that.

Let's start on the demand side. The demand for stores which sell a wide variety of apparently, and often genuinely, unrelated products is fundamentally a demand to save time. That's why the "big box" retailers have grown rapidly recently--people can and do buy 96 rolls of toilet paper at a time because the fixed time involved in buying 12 is about the same. Same goes for department stores, whose early business model was all about encouraging the idea you could get everything you wanted there. This had a lot of appeal before World War II when work hours were significantly longer than they are now.

On the other side of the market, the shopping mall has eroded some of the advantages of the department store. It is possible to visit multiple stores, and get all the goods you might have previously purchased at one department store.

One of the advantages department stores had over competitors (and some still do) is that situated downtown they were at the hub of public and private transport networks in their city. Not so much anymore (though there are exceptions in Chicago and New York, at least) in the United States. The real story here is the slow decline of downtown shopping in the United States, a decline aided and abetted by politicians and private business over a long time. Perhaps, perhaps, if gas prices stay high and American cities develop public transport that people feel comfortable using for shopping this will reverse. Downtowns have not died everywhere, and still have enough physical and locational capital invested in them, that they may revive.

To put it more simply, one shouldn't confuse the decline of the downtown department store with the decline of the department store itself.

On the other side of the market, department stores are fundamentally about aggregating a range of functions that have some scale economies when combined over a diverse selection of products. The most obvious are real estate management, labor relations, financial control, and advertising. Consolidation of stores into larger chains merely continues that search for scale economies further up the management hierarchy.

The Federated/Macy's expansion has better prospects of succeeding than previous attempts, if for no other reason than the previously cited change in technology. Historically department stores did rely on the local intelligence of department managers and salespeople to determine what to buy and sell because accounting systems were paper-based and communicating information across a large number of people, or across the country, was relatively slow and expensive.

Federated claims that one of their changes will be to target discounts and sales to customers who have an account with them, and reward them for shopping with the store. While this was possible back-in-the-day, it's cheaper to do on a large scale now, and makes sense. What department stores offer is not exclusive, you can get it elsewhere, and "loyalty" schemes are a rational attempt to bind customers to particular stores.

The key, as it probably ever was, for department stores is the merchandising side. If they can compete with the specialty clothing and housewares stores on the merchandise side, and offer the benefits of saving time, and accumulating loyalty rewards across combined purchases, department stores will probably survive. There is still a place for the salespeople, however, and I don't say that just out of misguided affection from having studied them.

While it's true that Sears and Montgomery Wards started in mail order, and that some department stores did well at mail order (the internet shopping of 1913), department stores' competitive advantage right now is going to be in selling goods people like to try on, touch, and experiment with before buying. It's just more difficult to try on pants online, right? In the end what department stores will be selling, over and above the goods, is what they always claimed to be in the business of providing: good service. If your pants don't fit quite right, you can come back and get them exchanged by an actual human being who is paid to pretend to care in a more convincing way than the person on "live chat" at the internet store.

Department stores are not the hot new business innovation of tomorrow, but they'll be around in some form for decades to come.

Posted by eroberts at 3:03 PM