Parking tickets in Providence, rents for farmers

I got a ticket over a month ago for parking in an unmarked bus stop.

I sent in a letter to the court showing irrefutable photographic evidence that there were no signs marking a bus stop visible from where I was parked. In response, I got a court summons. It’s for 8 a.m. on the Friday of Spring Weekend. The letter also came with an extra envelope, just in case I’ve changed my mind about refuting my ticket. Oh, and for my convenience, I can also pay online or over the phone. Something tells me the city is very interested in seeing more money from my hands go into its groping fists.

I remember a question on one of my exams for David Weil’s Economic Growth class. The question was along the lines of: A farmer works his land, and he has to pay an exorbitant rent to the landowner. He could work his land more productively it weren’t for this rent-seeker. Is the rent inefficient? That is, does it reduce the total size of the pie for society?

I and several others said yes; now the farmer can’t produce as much crop. But the rational answer is that it depends on what his rent money is going toward. If it goes toward buying the landlord booze, then the rent is inefficient. If it goes toward investing in worthy endeavors, there is nothing inefficient about that use of money. Perhaps the size of the pie would even grow.

Let’s be honest. Providence needs to close a budget shortfall, and this parking ticket is more of a desperate tax than a parking ticket. A part of me wants to say it’s okay just to go ahead and pay the ticket — sure it’s $30 out of my pocket, but it’s not like I’m wasting it by throwing it into the toilet.

On the other hand, a growing part of me remembers that test question, and I am beginning to wonder whether this really is the inefficient sort of rent — the type of rent that would do more good for society in my hands than in the irresponsible ones of the city. Just something to think about.

I’d also be curious to know how many people take off from work or school to attend 8 a.m. court over a $30 parking ticket. That just sounds like extortion to me.

How to pronounce Stata

Because it’s come up with so many ECON1620 students I’ve talked to this semester.

From the Stata FAQ:

4. The names Stata and Mata

4.1 What is the correct way to pronounce ‘Stata’?

Stata is an invented word. Some pronounce it with a long a as in day (Stay-ta); some pronounce it with a short a as in flat (Sta-ta); and some pronounce it with a long a as in ah (Stah-ta). The correct English pronunciation must remain a mystery, except that personnel of StataCorp use the first of these. Some other languages have stricter rules on pronunciation that will determine this issue for speakers of those languages. (Mata rhymes with Stata, naturally.)

4.2 What is the correct way to write ‘Stata’?

Stata is an invented word, not an acronym, and should not appear with all letters capitalized: please write “Stata”, not “STATA”. Mata is also an invented word, not an acronym.

PawPrints from a Macbook

Update: You can now also use PawPrints from any computer by following these instructions from Brown. They’re probably much easier. Also, the print driver is already installed on the latest Mac operating systems anyway.

Audience: The intended audience of this post is Brown students who have CS department logins and use Macs, and from time to time need to print at the libraries. I suspect this strategy can be adapted for Windows users or for similar systems at other schools. Let me know if you have anything to share.

If you have a CS department account and SSH set up on your laptop, you don’t need to bother searching for a free computer in the SciLi next time you need to print. If you run Mac OS, copy the script below into an empty text file (or you can download it here.) You should name the file “pawprint” (with no extension) and change my CS department username (ambell) to your own.

The file should be put in /usr/local/bin. If your account doesn’t have have admin capabilities for your laptop, you may need to use a command like “sudo mv pawprint /usr/local/bin.” Then navigate to that directory, and add executable permissions to the file: type into the terminal “sudo chmod +x pawprint.”

To print a file from your Mac to PawPrints, just navigate to the directory where your files are and type pawprint filenames. You can type as many file names as you want at a time from your laptop, then walk over to a print station. If you entered multiple filenames, I believe PawPrints will bundle them all into one print item, named after the first file.

Thanks to Chris Sulawko for suggesting a few days ago that I try printing to PawPrints over ssh!

#!/bin/bash

echo “starting print of:” $@
scp $@ ambell@ssh.cs.brown.edu:~
ssh ambell@ssh.cs.brown.edu lpr -P pawprints $@
ssh ambell@ssh.cs.brown.edu rm -f $@
echo “files have been sent to pawprints”
exit

Translation:

  1. Tell the user the parameters passed to the function
  2. Copy the files to your home directory on your departmental account.
  3. Order the print of the files.
  4. Remove the files.
  5. Tell the user that the files have been sent.

Brown’s new president reflects growing academic interests of students (with graphs)

Brown’s Chancellor Tom Tisch announced yesterday to an impromptu horde of students and staff in Sayles Hall that Princeton economist Christina Paxson would replace Brown’s President Ruth Simmons at the end of the year. A professor of Economics and Public Affairs, Paxson is also dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She chaired Princeton’s Economics department from 2008-2009.

Paxson might not be on the types of high-profile boards outgoing president Simmons sat on (Goldman Sachs, Pfizer, and Texas Instruments), but she has been elected to serve a year-long term as vice president of the American Economic Association and is a director of the non-profit social research group MDRC.

She is in the top 5% of the world’s economists ranked by citations (#401) according to RePEc‘s rating system. Her areas of interest according to her Princeton bio are health policy, child well-being, and economic development. (When I have more time, I hope to look over some of her papers, listed at the RePec link above.)

Ties like hers to economic research organizations are new for Brown’s presidency, but with a quarter of Brown undergraduates concentrating in Economics or International Relations, it seems that Paxson is a fitting choice. Not long after the announcement came out, I heard at least two comments from students seeking to get recommendations to the Woodrow Wilson School from Paxson. As best I can tell, she is the first Brown president to call herself an economist, judging by Brown’s biographies of past presidents and other online sources.

Plus, from what she said in her acceptance speech in Sayles yesterday, she seems already familiar with the Brown way:

“My big brother, this clean-cut, studious kid, went off to Brown and came back at Thanksgiving vacation to Pittsburgh,” she said. “He had long hair, he was listening to new music and he argued with my mother about the ethics of eating meat.”

Below are a few quick-n-dirty graphs of Brown Econ(-related) and IR concentrations completed by year; data is from Brown’s Institutional Research Office.

 

Providence: Don’t bite the hand that wants to feed you

I remember reading a provocatively headlined article over winter break stating that Brown had “reneged” on a deal with Providence to shell out some extra cash ontop of the payments in lieu of taxes it already makes. GoLocalProv obtained a copy of the letter from Providence’s mayor to Brown’s president. I found the tone of the letter striking; here is their description:

“Unfortunately, our agreement never reached the Brown Corporation for their consideration,” Taveras writes in the letter. “Instead, the Corporation approved two of your agenda items – ROTC and athletics—as well as received $34.2 million in gifts to the University. The Corporation also received news that Brown’s endowment grew to a market value of $2.5 billion. The future of Brown and Providence was never discussed or voted upon.”

Taveras said that a Dec. 15 letter from Simmons was “substantially different from our December 12 conversation and a far cry from our original agreement which provided for close to $4 million annually and valued at $39.5 million over 10 years with a view towards an additional 10 year extension.”

Near the end of the letter, Taveras said that the city must obtain $7.1 million from the tax-exempt universities and hospitals and the money expected to come from Brown is an integral part of its budget. He also made it clear that the city will take legal action to pursue the funds that were agreed to if the Corporation does not sign off.

“If that is the case, the City will pursue that revenue from Brown using alternate legal pathways,” the letter states.

Earlier this month, Taveras began not-so-subtly intimating that Providence could be the next to follow nearby Central Falls into the b-word (bankruptcy — quite the buzzword in RI nowadays).

A few weeks ago, when Providence’s Johnson and Wales University tripled their concessions to the city, the mayor spoke as if JWU was the only one who cared about the city. Try to picture him scowling up the hill at Brown while he says this.

“I am pleased to announce this new agreement with Johnson & Wales, and am grateful to the university for being a strong partner to the City of Providence,” said Mayor Taveras. “Johnson & Wales and all of our city’s major tax-exempt institutions provide great economic and cultural value to Providence. At the same time, our tax-exempts cannot thrive if our city is in continual fiscal crisis. This agreement helps to address an unsustainable structural imbalance in our city’s finances caused by the great and growing percentage of tax-exempt land in Providence.”

As a Brown student and as someone who has spent a year covering the top-brass beat for Brown’s newspaper, I can assure any reader that President Simmons and the rest of the Brown administration do care about Providence, and they do realize Brown will feel ramifications of a crippled Providence. And Brown doesn’t necessarily mind contributing money and resources to Providence, which Brown already does voluntarily.

What the people up on College Hill don’t see eye to eye on with the people down across the river is how to avoid that. Taveras needs to understand that when you court potential investors, you can’t just size them up for what they’re worth then shake them down. A more amenable approach to any investor, especially the people who run this university, would be presenting them with some sort of business plan for the city: a way for Brown to contribute more, but to see increasing returns.

To my knowledge, Taveras hasn’t coughed that up. But if he did, I’m sure his talks with Brown would go very differently. It isn’t that Brown doesn’t want to shell out a few million dollars to help save the city. It’s that they don’t want to see a few million dollars go down the toilet in the hands of a city with a record of inflating pensions and mismanaging its finances.

I miss the days when David Cicilline would talk about the city’s need to work with Brown to develop his idea of the “Knowledge District,” a run-down manufacturing sector that planners aimed to revitalize by relocating I-195 away from it to make space for high-tech ventures, like Brown’s new medical school.

That was a partnership Brown could get behind. Taveras’ vague demand for sacrifices from every imaginable constituency — nonprofits, unions, Joe the Plummer’s — is not an endorsable venture. Nonprofits shouldn’t be bullied into that type of financial black hole without assurance that Providence’s situation will in fact better and that the city won’t become dependent on the temporary relief for its operating expenses.

Clock.ado

When you’re using large datasets, it’s not uncommon for your do-file to take several hours to run. Especially if you run it overnight, you might be curious how long it took to run. Stata puts timestamps at the openings and closings of logfiles, but maybe you want to know the time taken for a given command.

I remember one of my first tasks as a research assistant was to extract a few years’ records from a tremendous file for a data request (we later broke the file up into smaller files). Believe it or not, this task was well into the realm of “things so long and resource-intensive that you run them overnight,” and I was curious to know just how much of the time was spent simply loading the file into main memory, even before selecting the relevant years and projecting on the attributes requested then writing output to disk. Here’s a nice .ado file I’ve been using ever since. I think it’s an important command to help users find out which commands are the most efficient for their purposes, and I’m surprised Stata doesn’t include it.

program define clock

di “starting at ” c(current_time)
timer on 1
`0′
timer off 1
quietly timer list
di “finished at ” c(current_time)
di “total length was ” r(t1) ” seconds”
timer clear

end

A fun extension I was considering would be to have it write out to a simple comma-delimited log something like the current timestamp, the command run, and the time taken to execute. For those sharing a server with coworkers like I was, it would be interesting to see how certain commands’ efficiencies compare under different network conditions. For instance, I always wondered what the cost was of having two users load data from disk into memory at the same time, (perhaps) causing non-sequential disk reads with extra seeks. Users who don’t share resources might still be interested in evaluating efficiency while other programs are running.

The 411 on Home-Brewed Auto-Do Files: init.ado

If you know any Stata commands, then you know enough to make your own auto-do file. This walkthrough will create a simple ado file you can invoke that welcomes you to Stata and navigates to the directory you typically work from.

An ado file is a script that you invoke from Stata’s command line. One example of an ado file is “describe,” one of the first commands Stata learners use to see information about the variables in their dataset. In Stata, type “which describe,” and Stata gives you a directory path. When you invoke “describe,” Stata executes the script at that location (on my Mac, for example, “/Applications/Stata/ado/base/d/describe.ado”). If you pass parameters to an auto-do file, they are stored as local macros `0′, `1′, `2′, etc. Another post about clock.ado uses parameters.

If you open the describe.ado script in your favorite text editor, you’ll see something like:

*! version 2.1.0  25feb2010
program describe, rclass

version 9
local version : di “version ” string(_caller()) “:”
syntax [anything] [using] [, SImple REPLACE *]

… a bunch of other Stata code, just like a do-file …

end

Make a document called “init.ado” in any text editor, and save it in your “personal” directory you found from the sysdir command. It should be in a directory “ado.” If the directory “personal” doesn’t exist, make it inside “ado.”

For this fun ado file, we’ll use the “cd” command, which stands for “change directory.” Have Stata navigate to the folder you usually work from by typing “cd <directory path>” (eg, the path to a course’s folder). From there, you can cd into a subfolder (eg, the current problemset or project you’re working on), and use Stata’s “doedit” command to open the .do file there.

Add to your ado file any other helpful commands you tend to run, and you can even impress your friends by having Stata welcome you each time you type it.

program define init
cd /Users/Alex/Homework/Junior
set more off
di “Hello, Mr. Bell. What may I compute for you today?”
end

A helpful note on testing ado files is that Stata seems to cache them (it saves time not to have to look for an ado file every time you invoke it, but to store the script once it’s been searched for). That means if you write your ado file, test it, then go back to edit and re-save it, you’ll probably have to restart Stata to make it load the new version.