December 20, 2012

A letter from a third-year student from my college

This is a letter from now a senior at my undergraduate institution. At the very start he wanted to pursue graduate school in economics, and sought advice from me often. At the beginning of the fall semester he asked me whether he should quit one of the math courses that I recommended him to take and is of great importance to his future graduate studies, because he felt he couldn't understand any of it and was afraid he was going to fail. I encouraged him to hold on to it, and told him that only if he can handle such stress and difficulty can he eventually make it through grad school, if admitted by one at all. Eventually he followed my advice and handled several of the harder courses in mathematics in one semester. Here is his thank-you (with original formatting and style) and my reply.

Hello, fj, 
How are you?
Sorry for replying you so late. The reason why I haven't sent you my thanks after your last message has nothing to do with my busy schedule, and I've never intended to ignore your words. I just want to make sure I can bear all those coursework before saying thank you.
I'm glad to tell you that I've just finished all my final exams of this semester, including the ones of MA1, ODE, Statistics 1 and Optimization Theory and Techniques. I won't believe it if someone told me two months ago: "Hey! There's no problem with undertaking 4 maths courses at the same time. You needn't drop any of them!" But I do can break my extreme, with supports from you and some others.
The time when I told you my concerns on ODE, I was also asking for advise from professors and students. Opinions varied. If I ever decided to withdraw ODE, I must had been persuaded that I cannot comprehend it thoroughly without sufficient background knowledge in mathematics. Luckily, I followed your ideas at last.
As you've been reminding me all the way: a PhD program in Economics is much harder than what I'm experiencing. If I cannot insist on taking mathematics now, it's little likely to go through the graduate study. You did reveal the essence of academic study: it's not enough to be just intelligent and gifted, perseverance also matters.
And it's only the beginning, I know. As you've mentioned, such barriers are common in the future. I believe I'll do what is  the same as today. Last but not least, thank you again for all your patience and help. It's really lucky to have someone determine my heart on pursuing my ideal career. And wish you all the best with your studies:)
Best wishes


Hi abc, 

I'm very glad to hear that. Congratulations! You are right, perseverance and strong-mindedness matter - way more than gift. I am also glad to see you took Optimization as well. It will be very useful once in grad school. Anyway, you should feel proud of yourself. Good luck! 
Happy holidays! 

October 24, 2012

Advice to students thinking about grad school in economics

In this article I lay out some advice on the preparation that students may need before applying to the economics graduate programs, and eventually going to grad school, basing on my past experience and what I've learned from other fellow graduate students. This is most applicable to international undergraduate students interested in economics doctoral programs in the United States. Much of the advice here of course applies to (economics) graduate programs in other countries and for prospective students with different backgrounds as well.
  • Read David Colander's The Making of An Economist, Redux, to get an understanding of what grad school in economics is really like, and see for yourself if it is the right idea for you to pursue grad school.
  • Even though it is always better to learn more math in college, the undergraduate math preparation is generally sufficient with Real Analysis (on top of Mathematical Analysis) and ODE. Of course you'd need substantially more mathematical knowledge than these eventually, but in which areas of mathematics should you further your study depends on which field of economics you eventually choose. Just cramming in all the math you can take does not always justify the cost. On the other hand, you can always extend your math skills once in grad school or even later in your career. But everything said, ceteris paribus, more math is always potentially helpful.
  • While you're busy taking courses from the math department, make sure you also study mathematical economics, i.e. the area of mathematics that economists most frequently use, which can be sufficiently different from what the standard undergrad math department sequences offer.  Take an advanced mathematical economics or optimization theory course if you can. Make sure you read Simon & Blume as much as you can (preferably finish it) before grad school - particularly Chapters 15 (IFT), 18 (Kuhn-Tucker Theorem), 20 (Homothetic functions), 23, and 24 (difference/differential equations). Alternatively, you can read Dixit's Optimization in Economic Theory which is appropriate for college students as well. During my first year in grad school, I also found Varian's Microeconomic Analysis very helpful and a pleasure to read.
  • When applying, try to diversify your choices by applying to Business Economics and Public Policy / Political Science programs as well, if you have an interest in any of these. These programs are essentially economics programs with a particular focus. Their methodology will be economic, and many of the faculties members in these schools have PhDs in economics. Sometimes even business school economists may work on some theory if that's what you are interested in. If you are not sure, read the CVs and publications of the faculty members before you apply.
  • Confidence is always important regardless if you're still a prospective student or you are already in grad school. Sometimes you cannot understand some hard materials simply because you don't believe you can. Most of the things you are faced with in grad school are not as hard and profound as you imagine them to be. If you don't understand it, read it again - and again.
Further readings:

October 12, 2012

Messenger apps on Android

I have been trying out different messenger apps on Android; but it seems none of the mainstream apps I've tried serves my purpose well.

Facebook messenger has terrible Internet connection. It frequently fails to send out messages, and pops up notifications of failed trials in delivering messages. To make matter worse, Facebook messenger does not automatically attempt to send out stalled messages once the signal gets better, and the user need to manually initiate retries on the same message again and again. I have had the experience of repeating the process for more than ten times for a single message. I think Facebook messenger should really try to build this functionality into the app itself.

Google Talk does send messages automatically once the Internet connection gets better; but it lacks an important function of being able to copy messages sent and received. This function is useful when the recipient does not see a message you sent previously (for a variety of reasons) and you need to send the message again. It is much easier to just copy and paste the message instead of to type up the exact same message once more, especially when the message is long. Copying messages also becomes useful when there are important information contained in the message you received and you'd like to copy it to some other program (e.g. a GPS address). In comparison, Facebook messenger does allow you to touch and hold on a message to copy it to clipboard. Less importantly, the Google Talk app on Android has a plain and dull interface compared to the new Facebook messenger app, which looks more modern and friendly. The twin sister of Google Talk, Google+ messenger, basically does the exact same thing as Google Talk.

The other app I've tried is WhatApp. It has more functionality in general. It allows you to copy messages easily, and delivers stalled messages whenever the Internet gets connected. It even shows whether a message has been delivered to the server or received on your friend's device. The user interface looks nicer than Google Talk as well. The main disadvantage is that it does not have a phone-computer integration, i.e., I cannot continue a conversation started on the phone using a computer program, or vice versa. This is extremely useful when you started the conversation while outside, and now you have got home and can type much faster and easier on your computer keyboard.

To sum, there is not yet a mainstream instant messenger app that satisfies all the needs I've discussed above. I know that there are probably third-party messenger apps on Android that has everything here, but for a variety of reason (not the least of which are security and trustworthiness), I'd rather have these functions on an app that's been tested and used by a wide user base.

April 4, 2012

Why the car seatbelt once had such difficulty in gaining acceptance by the public

I read this paragraph in Levitt and Dubner's Super Freakonomics (highly recommended), on the initially difficult introduction of car seatbelts to the general public, despite that it could save thousands of lives each year in America alone:
The brilliant ration-alist [Robert S. McNamara, then working at Ford] had encountered a central, frustrating tenet of human nature: behavior change is hard. The cleverest engineer or economist or politician or parent may come up with a cheap, simple solution to a problem, but if it requires people to change their behavior, it may not work. Every day, billions of people around the world engage in behaviors they know are bad for them - smoking cigarettes, gambling excessively, riding a motorcycle without a helmet.
Why? Because they want to! They derive pleasure from it, or a thrill, or just a break from the daily humdrum. And getting them to change their behavior, even with a fiercely rational argument, isn't easy.
Precisely. This might as well be the single most deadly weakness of human nature at large.

April 1, 2012

Google: Human beings can finally change the weather as they wish

After aeons of dealing with the immense costs from the unpredictabilities of Nature, human beings finally mastered the skill to manipulate the weather as they would like to. Now, just google "weather", and you will see a control panel of your local weather:

But more power also calls for more responsibilities:

Unfortunately, this service of Google probably only lasts for today, so hurry up and make good use of it!

March 25, 2012

LaTeX Tips: Basics

LaTeX Tips: Basics

A nice and succinct article introducing the basic philosophy and typesetting rules of LaTeX.

January 6, 2012

Happiness, Fulfillment, and Meaning

I received an email from a sort-of pen pal a few days ago asking about living one's life and success.

I do not value short-term happiness very much. Happiness is good; but it is like the instantaneous utility function – whatever its magnitude, at every point in time it has only zero measure, and once past, it wouldn't mean anything anymore. What I pursue is fulfillment, or long-term happiness, which is only realized after a long period of fermentations and meditations. I think the process of achieving this fulfillment should feel like the experience Cal Newport describes in his blog post today. I am not implying that short-term happiness does not provide me with utility; it is that I only slightly discount happiness in future periods, that the joy at this moment wouldn't seem as significant as it may.

When I was a kid, I started thinking about the meaning of my own existence. The life time of a human being, a hundred and twenty years at most. There are so many people on this planet, and your own being would not mean much at all. The world is still the same whether you are here or you are not. Once you are gone, you are gone forever; even your descendants probably will not know your name two hundred years from now. Whatever you have accomplished, once you are passed, they wouldn't mean the slightest to you. The utility beyond the capital T is always null. I thought about death at this point, but still there was a little unwillingness, as if I was denying myself of my own conclusion, and trying to spend more time seeking the deeper meaning of life that I hadn't realized. If you will die one day certainly, and everything will be lighter than the clouds once you have passed, why not devote your life to work on something big, something larger than yourself. That was why I once resolved to become a writer. I think writers are a group of most influential people. Even when emperors and kings were forgotten, the names of writers still resound in people's languages. The legacies ancient writers and philosophers left us are still guiding the advancement of modern society. I chose my career in academia also because I wanted to leave something to mankind, and contribute a little bit to the advancement of our understanding of the world and of ourselves, and to leave my trace in my limited life.