Math on a plane!

Paul Alper pointed me to this news article about an economist who got BUSTED for doing algebra on the plane.

This dude was profiled by the lady sitting next to him who got suspicious of his incomprehensible formulas.

I feel that way about a lot of econ research too, so I can see where she was coming from!

All jokes aside, though, this made me realize how different plane travel is than it used to be.

OK, let me explain. The first time I ever rode on a plane was in 1978—it was a family trip to Disneyland, and I was super excited! I supply the date just to establish that I have only flown during the modern era of mass air travel, crowded planes, cramped seats, stale air, and all the rest. I’m not mourning for the so-called golden age of air travel, which I never actually experienced.

No, the change I’m talking about is in the interactions with the strangers sitting next to me. As I remember it, you’d typically have a bit of a conversation with your seat-mate, sometimes a pretty long one. Once I even got a woman’s phone number! (True story: I was flying to D.C. and she opened with, “Do you fly the shuttle often?”) But, forget about that, there’d usually be a bit of chitchat, where are you flying to?, etc. If the people nearby had kids, some peekaboo or whatever.

In recent years, though, not so much chat. It could just be me, that I’ve become too lazy to engage in conversation with strangers, but from my general impressions it looks to be more general, that people feel less of a need or desire to have these little conversations.

Anyway, back to economists on planes. In August 1990 I flew from Boston to San Francisco to start my new job at the University of California, and my new life as a non-student. I would’ve driven, but my car had been having problems with its starter motor and during the summer I was often having to push-start it. This was no big deal—the car was a ’76 Corolla which was so light I could even push it up if the incline was slight enough, and it was no problem to maneuver it to a flat space, get out and push it alongside the driver’s seat with the door open, then jump in and pop it into second gear—sometimes it would even stall at a traffic light and I could still hop out and get it going without delaying the cars behind me—but my dad convinced me, sensibly enough, that I’d only have to have one mishap on some hilly road somewhere and I could ruin my back forever, so I decided to sell the car. Of course you can’t really sell a car with an intermittent starter motor—if you tell the potential buyer of the problem, the sale’s off, and if you don’t tell them about it, you’re being unethical—so I got the car repaired. I’d tried to get this problem fixed earlier but with no success but for some reason this time it worked. So now my car was ok! But I’d already bought the plane ticket so I sold the car anyway (for $500, which was not much more than the cost of that repair job). The day before I sold it, I was stopped for having an expired registration! I explained the story to the cop, though, and he didn’t ticket me.

So . . . here I am on the plane, and I get to talking with my seat-mate. I told him I was moving to Berkeley to teach in the statistics department. It turned out that he taught economics at Berkeley. His name was Barry Eichengreen. We got to talking about research and I told him about our paper on estimating the incumbency advantage. The paper is here, and I didn’t realize it at the time but in retrospect I’d have to say it’s the most econ-friendly paper I’ve ever written. It has an unbiased estimate, it has estimators, it has proofs, it even has tables! Eichengreen gave me his card (I think; or maybe I just wrote down his name) and he asked me to send him a copy of the incumbency paper.

In retrospect, it’s funny that he didn’t ask me to just come by his office. So now I’m thinking we must have had this conversation on an earlier flight to San Francisco, maybe the flight I took that summer to go and find an apartment to rent.

In any case, one thing I remember clearly is that he asked me to send him a copy of the paper, and then he said something like: Really, I’d like to see the paper, I’m not just being polite. And I was like, sure, of course, I’ll send it to you, thanks for your interest.

I never bothered sending him the paper. I guess I could do so now, but I’m guessing he’s forgotten the whole incident. Eichengreen’s a well known economist but back then we were both nobodies; I just happen to remember the incident because (a) it was cool that someone wanted to read one of my papers, and (b) I was all keyed up to be flying out to my new job. It’s funny that I didn’t send him the paper; usually I’m pretty conscientious about this sort of thing.

20 thoughts on “Math on a plane!

  1. I have two hats, one as an astronomer and another as a statistician.

    So when I’m going to a meeting and want to work on my talk, and the person next to me asks what I do, I tell them that I’m a statistician, which usually results in “I hated my statistics course” and they leave me alone for the rest of the flight.

    When I’m returning, I say “I’m an astronomer,” which results in an interesting conversation.

    This usually works. But once I was going to a meeting and told the woman who asked me that I was a statistician. She replied, “Oh, I’m in operations research!” and so I didn’t get anything done on my paper that flight!

  2. Andrew claimed the article was about “an economist who got BUSTED for doing algebra on the plane.” Actually, rather than algebra, he was BUSTED for something even more heinous:

    “Yes, math. A differential equation, to be exact.”

    Unfortunately for him, Guido Menzio, an economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has dark skin thus unnerving a fellow passenger:

    “They might even have discovered that last year he was awarded the prestigious Carlo Alberto Medal, given to the best Italian economist under 40. That’s right: He’s Italian, not Middle Eastern, or whatever heritage usually gets ethnically profiled on flights these days.”

    However, what I found most jarring in the article was the following:

    “He was wearing navy Diesel jeans and a red Lacoste sweater – a look he would later describe as ‘simple elegance’”

    “Diesel” and “Lacoste” mean nothing to me and indicate I ought to reevaluate my wardrobe.

  3. Obviously it is a sorry state that people are being profiled in this way. But I’d like to chip in for the lady who raised the alarm.

    The basis of my doing so is this: The irrationality of fear.

    I am a scientist, I know a thing or two about probability, and yet I am still scared of flying planes. Not super scared but enough to understand how people who have a phobia feel. Of how, once you are in panic mode, any story you tell yourself can seem 100% true.

    In fact, I once dated a girl with a real phobia of planes. She would take all kinds of drugs before boarding the plane. Still, as soon as the air turbulence started she would want to unbuckle and jump out the emergency door.

    In the past people feared air turbulence and mechanical failure. Now, it is any odd looking passenger in the plane. Where “odd” is seen through the distorted lenses of primal fear. Once a passenger is in panic mode you can convince them that _any_ or indeed _all_ of the other passengers are terrorists in disguise.

    • Actually, I have to admit that Guido looks like a possible terrorist to me. He should have done more than put on Lacoste and whatever Alligator or whatever jeans he wore to project elegance. When I want to not look like a terrorist, I have a three, no four, step procedure: (a) shave with Gillette triple razor blades, (b) put best shirt on, bought in Manchester, (c) put good French jacket (bought in Paris) on, (d) put black leather shoes (bought in Tokyo) on. It’s not just enough to put on Alligator jeans and Lacoste T-shirts.

  4. I’m still reeling at “I would’ve driven, but…”. Google Maps tells me that journey is just shy of 5000 km and 46 driving hours!

      • Back then, you just drove west, and stopped when you hit the ocean. A few hours, a few days, who knew?!

        About conversations: I think I have chattier seatmates than you, Andrew. I’ve definitely noticed, though, an increased willingness to talk (either by me or by others) when the plane is close to landing, rather than at the start of the flight. This makes sense — there’s no risk of getting trapped for hours, or of having to awkwardly shut down the conversation, when you’re going to land in 15 minutes.

  5. OK, let me explain. The first time I ever rode on a plane was in 1978—it was a family trip to Disneyland, and I was super excited! I supply the date just to establish that I have only flown during the modern era of mass air travel, crowded planes, cramped seats, stale air, and all the rest. I’m not mourning for the so-called golden age of air travel, which I never actually experienced.

    Deregulation of the airline industry happened under the Carter administration. In fact, the act wasn’t passed until 1978 ( The point is that flying in 1978 was still part of the “golden age” (hint–it never was such, unless you call getting a meal “golden”–though the seats weren’t so jammed together so I suppose the absence of torture is “golden”), so Andrew “experienced” it.

    As far as the economist go, I agree with the general principle of holding economists responsible for their behavior (such as idiotic theories which have little basis in reality, creation of a insular community where duckspeak is the currency of the trade, helping collapse the world economy–think I’m too harsh–see I just would assign zero probability of one blowing up a plane that they were on (now one they weren’t on…). Incidentally, an economist would have sold the Corolla without revealing the starter problem.

      • I suppose the “golden age” was really the transatlantic propeller jobs (or even transcontinental), where it took twice as long to fly to a destination as a jet and you realistically couldn’t keep people cooped up in a small seat for 10-12 hour, longer for a transatlantic flight (see for a discussion–incidentally, the airlines didn’t realize how you could really cram people in but the CAB wouldn’t let them in any case). As commercial jets came into service in the later 50’s early 60’s, that’s probably near the end of the “golden age’ (Panam (the tv series) was set in the early 60’s and it featured jets). My first jet flight was in 1961 or so and there wasn’t anything like the lounge you link to on the jet I flew in.

      • Any idea when this picture was taken? It makes me wonder what the interior of the planes my father took on business trips in the late 1940’s looked like.

    • “Incidentally, an economist would have sold the Corolla without revealing the starter problem.”
      And an economist buyer would have assumed the existence of a starter problem or similar in the absence of a warranty, so the transaction would have been fair. And thus did Janet Yellen’s husband win a Nobel Prize. (Yes, I know… Shut up.)

      • I like the theory where people choose to starve rather than work below their reservation wage. Though how that is reconciled with the existence of Giffen goods (and imagine all those Irish choosing to starve rather than work at a wage below their reservation level) I have no idea.

    • It wouldn’t be just the economist involved, economics is just one piece of the puzzle, they design the financial product the market expects. Greed wins, there’s still a lot of selling happening in the listing of derivative instruments like collateralized debt obligation, notwithstanding a potential failure on legislation.
      Risk wouldn’t be ignored by qualified observers.

  6. “I feel that way about a lot of econ research too, so I can see where she was coming from!”

    Hahah, so we were saved from the next economic crisis, triggered by an obscure formula, which was just about to be scribbled on a plane… Blonde flip flop lady is our accidental hero!

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