i was intrigued by this report in the Australian of a mathematical genius who can find the 13th root of 100-digit number in seconds. I was even more intrigued to learn that the number was “selected at random”. The odds against a randomly selected 100-digit number having an integer 13-th root would be a nice problem for a math genius to solve in seconds[1] so I wonder what is meant by this.

Maybe you only have to derive the integer part, which, if my workings below are correct, is an eight-digit number lying in a fairly narrow range. Someone who knew the first three or four places of their log tables and was quick at interpolation could probably manage the feat in the time described.

Or maybe the number is selected from a list of 100-digit 13th powers. This would make life a little easier since you can get the last digit free or cheaply (with preparation, you could probably get a good handle on the last two digits).

I’m not planning on trying this at home, though.
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Universities and diploma mills

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the idea of “teaching-only” universities. This discussion confuses two separate issues. The first is whether we should return to some variant of the binary system we had in the 1980s, with two kinds of universities. The research universities (the existing sandstones and some others) would carry on as before, while the teaching universities would drop research and PhD programs, and probably offer a somewhat different range of courses. In the Australian context, these would be low-status institutions, though the example of US “liberal arts” colleges shows that this need not be the case.

The other question is that of recently-arrived enterprises that don’t resemble universities in any sense except that they offer post-secondary education of some kind as part of their business. Examples are[1] Melbourne University Private also trading as Hawthorn English Language Centre and the various city centre “campuses” established by universities like CQU as well as potential commercial entrants from overseas, such as the “University” of Phoenix. In essence, these are trade schools offering business (and maybe computer) training along with English teaching to overseas students.
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Hoist on their own petard

Having been involved in the debate over schools policy for quite a few years, I’m enjoying a bit of schadenfreude following the publication of a couple of regression analyses showing that students at charter schools (publicly funded US schools operating independently from the main public school system) score worse on standard tests than students at ordinary public schools[1]. I don’t have a particularly strong view on the desirability or otherwise of charter schools, but I have long been critical of one of the most prominent rationales for charter schools and other programs of school reform[2].

This is the claim that “regression analyses show that students in small classes do no better than those in large classes”. If you believe this claim, you should believe the same claim with “charter schools” replacing “small classes” since both are supported by the same kind of evidence.
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Containers, full and empty

If you want to see why adjusting the balance of trade will be a painful task for the US, it’s worth reading this generally upbeat article about the revival of the port of New York, thanks to imports from Asia. The money quote, several pages in

After unloading 1,120 containers from the [Hyundai] Glory, the longshoremen reloaded the ship for the return trip. Of 667 containers to be sent back, 419 were empty, being returned to Asia to carry more goods back to the United States. Of the rest, most were stuffed with two of New York’s biggest exports: wastepaper and scrap metal.

Even on the most generous interpretation of comparative advantage, I don’t think returning packaging material and scrap to your suppliers can form a sustainable basis for trade.

If you want to keep up with this topic, bookmark General Glut and Brad Setser

UpdateA comparison with Australia. The picture at container ports here is much the same, which is one reason I always found the focus on improving waterfront efficiency so odd. I’m not a mercantilist, but it doesn’t seem to me that, for a chronic deficit country, our top economic priority ought to be improving the efficiency with which we import things.

For most of the 1990s, our deficit on manufactures (which mostly come in containers) was pretty much offset by surpluses in agriculture (shipped in bulk carriers) and some services like education and tourism. So, we had a roughly sustainable position, with trade in balance. The current account deficit reflected payments to foreign capital and was broadly consistent with a stable ratio of foreign debt and equity to GDP.

In the last few years, however, our manufacturing exports have fallen in a hole, while imports have boomed, producing large and unsustainable trade deficits again (though not as bad as the US). The growing CAD has mainly financed investment in housing, as far as I can see, which is not a good sign as housing services are mostly not tradeable.

The flight of the Kiwi

Tyler Cowen links to Martin Wolf (FT, subscription) on the failure of the radical free-market reforms undertaken by New Zealand from 1984 to the mid-90s. The results are even more striking when you observe that the only sustained period of growth has come after 1999, when the newly-elected Labour government raised the top marginal tax rate, amended the most radical components of the Employment Contracts Act, and undertook some renationalisation. I’ve written about all this many times, for example in this AFR piece and this Victoria economic commentary published in NZ (PDF file).
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At the suggestion of reader wbb, I’ve reorganised the sidebar, promoting recent comments to pride of place, ahead of the testimonials and recent posts. I hope this will prove useful both to regular commenters and to general readers, who will be aware that the comments here are often better than the posts. I also cleaned up some minor blogroll problems (thanks, PML!).

I’d be happy to hear what people think of these changes, and if there are any other suggestions.

Update Of all the testimonials on my page, Jason Soon’s inspired comparison with Britney Spears has been the popular favorite, even getting a run in the Oz. So, at James Farrell’s suggestion, seconded by others, it’s in pride of place, below the photo.

Also, I’d appreciate advice from readers for whom the sidebar doesn’t work, for example if it appears at the bottom of the page.

Arrivals, departures and returns

Following Chris Sheil’s recent departure, “Closed” notices have been going up around Ozplogistan. Among the departures, the intermittently brillianTugboat Potemkin and Paul Watson, supplier of comedy, media commentary and general Gen X bitterness. At the same time, Tim Dunlop is welcoming a flood of new arrivals. That’s great, but I still feel a sense of loss.

Whenever one of my favorite blogs shuts down, I feel guilty that I should have linked more to their posts. Then again I feel guilty about not linking to new bloggers and not updating my blogroll often enough.

On the other hand, lots of people seem to give up and come back, so maybe there’s not such a problem. Here, for example, is Don Arthur running a post that I was working out in my head this afternoon, and doing a much better job than I would have done.

Tips for Op-ed writers

Andrew Leigh has some tips for Op-ed writers (PDF file). Most of them are sensible, and I’ll add my own, which is that a good Op-Ed piece should contain, on average, 1.5 ideas. That is, the piece should have a main argument that is spelt out and defended in full (there’s an art to doing this in less than 750 words), and an offshoot from the main argument that is stated or hinted at, but not fully developed.

This isn’t a universal rule. A decent piece must have at least one idea (a large proportion of opinion pieces fail these test) and can have two or three. But 1.5 is a good average.

What I’ve been reading and watching (crossposted at CT)

Yesterday, I went to see Cry of the Snow Lion, about the Tibetan independence struggle. The film was interesting and well worth seeing, and jogged me to start on a post I’ve been meaning to write for some time on the question: How long can the current Chinese government survive?

It struck me, after watching the film, that the closest parallel is with the last days of the Suharto period in Indonesia. Among the themes suggested to me were

* the gradual decay of Communist ideology, and its replacement by a vague nationalism, bolstered by rapid economic growth

* the rise of faceless nonentities like Hu Jintao to replace monstrous giants like Mao

* the role of the People’s Liberation Army in a range of business ventures

* transmigration programs of Han Chinese into Tibet and other minority areas

Just like Golkar in its latter days, the regime has no real class base, no compelling ideological claim to power, and a rapidly depreciating “mandate of heaven” derived from the revolutionary period.

The 60 million members of the Communist Party are now, for the most part, mere card-carriers. And although the party and army leaders have their fingers in plenty of business pies, they don’t constitute an effective management committee of the ruling class. Rather they are a backward and parasitic component of that class.

All of this, it seems to me, is symptomatic of a regime that appears immovable, but may collapse like a house of cards given the appropriate push, which may come either from an economic crisis or from a succession crisis, if Hu runs into some trouble or other.

Those interested in this topic might like to look at Fabian’s Hammer, which is focused mainly on developments in China. I don’t agree with a lot of the implied background position, but I share the author’s view of the Chinese government.