It’s now nearly two weeks into TASI 2005, and quite some weeks they’ve been!
For those that don’t know, TASI is a month-long program for graduate students, at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It features four weeks of lectures by experts on various current issues of string theory. It’s an excellent chance to gain familiarity with aspects of string theory that one might not have come across yet as a grad student; but it’s also an excellent chance to get to meet and talk with leading current and future string theorists. Last, but not least, it’s really tiring — five hours of lectures plus an hour and a half of student seminars a day — and it’s all high-intensity stuff.
The networking opportunities are really fantastic. I’ve met a number of people who wrote papers I’ve used recently. For instance, a few months ago we looked for a while at applying some ideas of Samir Mathur on defining black holes in geometries which do not have an obvious simple horizon, to the formulism of Lin, Lunin and Maldacena for describing 1/2BPS (supersymmetric) 10-dimensional geometries with particular isometries (SO(4)xSO(4)). Today at lunch I was discussing some of our ideas with both Mathur and Lin. It’s also a very fun group of people, and we’ve hit the night-life of Boulder more than once.
But talking of connections, there have been some small-world experiences. Amongst the approximately 50 grad students, one is a graduate of the University of Cape Town, and grew up a few kilometres from me in Johannesburg. I’d never met her before — she, like most of the students here, is a few years older than me. But we know tons of people in common, and indeed her boyfriend (who arrived tonight for the weekend) and me are co-authors of a paper dating from a few years ago. I hadn’t seen him since.
The last type of connection, though, is really literal — yes, attaching oneself to rocks. There are about eight people here who are keen on rock climbing, and I’ve been going along. I bought a harness, and have been renting shoes. We went out last weekend, and should be heading out this Friday after lectures, and probably Saturday too. Boulder is excellent for climbing and similar outdoor activities — and judging by the cars parked all along the mountain access roads, that’s what everyone does come the weekend. So I’ll be looking for a climbing partner when I get back to Pasadena!
So yes, the TASI experience certainly keeps one busy — though it is getting a little hard to get out of bed each morning for another long day of lectures!
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News just in (see here or here): the South African deputy president, Jacob Zuma, has been sacked, for implied involvement in corruption. This news follows the conviction two weeks ago of Schabir Shaik, Zuma’s financial advisor, for corruption. The corruption charges included events which implicated Zuma, such as allegations that Schaik approached foreign companies for bribes on behalf of Zuma.
Zuma himself has not been tried, and indeed an appeal against Schaik’s conviction has been filed. Furthermore, Zuma was widely assumed to be in line for the presidency in 2008, as the deputy leader of the ANC (the ruling party) traditionally becomes the leader, and by implication the president of the country. This means that a very influential political figure has been sacked over allegations that are very plausible, but not technically proved in court.
It is of course very unfortunate that there appears to have been corrupt dealings so high up in government — though of course there are many other countries where the vice-president could be accused of being a little too close to certain businesses (the one I’m currently in being a good example).
But I, for one, am very happy with the outcome, as it is a real watershed moment for South Africa’s still young democracy. Explicit proof that no-one is above the law will further strengthen trust in the govenment, both locally and abroad. In a society which is still adjusting to new patterns of wealth and influence, the message that corruption in the end doesn’t work is absolutely priceless. South Africa’s democracy has been founded on very high moral ideals, and it’s wonderful to see those ideals being implemented.
It is also going to be a huge boost for the president, Mbeki’s, efforts to convince the world that Africa really is moving steadily toward better government. The organs of the African Union and the it’s associated economic programmes look excellent on paper, but have received little tangible support from the rest of the world. Hopefully proof that Africa is willing to enforce it’s rules will get these programmes off the ground — as well as leading to similar events in other African countries battling corruption.
Boulder really is living up to the hype so far! It’s the end of day two of my month here, and two stunning days they have been. Apparently there were tornados (!) in the area on the weekend, but except for a few drops of thunderstorm yesterday, it’s been perfect weather.
We’ve been spending most of the days indoors in lectures, but the evenings have seen a trip to a local bar ($2 beers, which might interest some…); a cheese and wine reception on the top of a tower on campus which has an excellent view of the Rockies; and tonight I went rock climbing at a local climbing gym. One of the Harvard students, Michelle, drove here from Boston (!!), with some climbing gear, and was looking for a partner. Add an excellent Indian dinner, and I’m about ready for some more lectures tomorrow! Unfortunately from next week it looks like we’ll be having informal sessions in the evenings too, so the holiday will be over.
What I’ve found most unexpected so far is the way that the plains and Rockies meet. I’m used to mountain ranges being preceeded by increasingly large foothills. Denver and Boulder, however, are at the end of some of the flattest plains I’ve seen, which I believe stretch for most of the central part of US. About a kilometre west of us the plains suddenly end, and the mountains rise up. From here we can even see perpeptually snow-covered peaks.
And boy, I’m really benefitting from having grown up at about the same altitude as Boulder (abour 1800m, or 6000 feet), judging by the way some of these people are complaining…
Exercise for the reader: Come here. Hey, a meal without ANY mention of string theory would be quite a novelty…
Travel can sometimes be annoying. But sometimes it can actually be quite enjoyable.
Yesterday’s travel had the required annoyances, including the need to take two different flights to get from Los Angeles all the (oh so long) way to Denver. Then in Denver, there was the minute by which I missed the hourly bus to Boulder.
But altogether I quite enjoyed it. Salt Lake City is really interesting, particularly flying over the colours of the salt lake itself. I also spent much of the time asleep, on both flights and in the terminal at Salt Lake City.
The best part of the trip, though, was being on a fixed schedule. For quite some time now I’ve been trying to fit too many things into too little time, so I’ve been constantly prioritising things in my mind, and trying to fit as much stuff in to each minute as possible. But once one gets into the car and heads off to the airport (thanks Bert for the lift!), there’s only the fixed schedule of the flights. If there’s a two hour layover in, say, Salt Lake City, that’s two hours during which there’s nothing that has to be done. I could spend as much time as I liked choosing what to have for lunch. Um, breakfast. Whatever.
There’s also the simple instant gratification of succesfully getting through each security check and onto each flight. It’s not much of an achievement, but that’s the point — it’s all one needs to achieve to have had a “perfectly succesful” day of travel.
Anyway, as you can tell, I’m
not now in Boulder, Colorado. The next month will be full of physics, as I’m here for the Theoretical Advanced Summer Institute, a seminar series in string theory. More news on that to follow!
I recently opened a Citibank Dividend credit card, which provides 5% cash rewards on groceries, and 1% on all other transactions. It seems great, and has lots of other nice features too. But they use some really dubious pricing policies for an additional feature.
As part of the signup process, they entice you to sign up for a credit protection plan, which suspends payments in the event of injury or income loss. It’s not something I need, and costs 85c/$100 of your balance each month. Nevertheless, I signed up, because the first month is free and they give you a $15 no-obligation voucher.
That was about 20 days ago. Today I cancelled the service. The service person asked my reasons, and I said that I didn’t really need it for the amount that it was costing. He immediately offered to drop the price to 65c/$100. I still refused, since anything above 0c/$100 was more than I wanted to spend. But the point is: just by complaining about the price, they offered to drop it!
Clearly what they are trying to do is market segmentation or differentiation. They’re trying to charge 85c/$100 for the people who are willing to pay that, but only 65c/$100 for those that are willing to pay that. If successful, they’ll have more customers than if they charged 85c/$100 uniformly, but also won’t be losing the 20c/$100 from customers that ARE willing to pay the higher price. Demand vs. price plots are typically assumed to be strictly decreasing functions in classical microeconomics, as higher prices mean fewer customers. For a company to maximise profit, they’d like to charge each customer exactly as much as that customer is willing to pay — then the company captures the entire area under the demand vs. price plot. As it is, Citibank’s two-price structure will (ideally) capture more of the area under the plot than any one-price structure, and so “captures” more value from the customer.
This is a common strategy. It’s why, for example, airline tickets that include a weekend are normally cheaper, as the airlines assume that weekday-only travel is more likely to be for business reasons, and so the passengers will be less price-sensitive. It’s also why gas prices are normally higher in richer neighbourhoods.
The problem is that classical microeconomics doesn’t do a good job of considering the effect of this on the customer. Studies show that if people suspect that someone else is getting a cheaper price for an identical good/service, they become upset — even if they are getting a (smaller) discount themselves. It’s like packed highway traffic — nothing is more annoying than seeing another lane moving faster than the lane one is in. This is also part of the reason for the success of low-cost airlines, with their uniform pricing strategies — people trust those airlines more.
So I really think that Citibank’s policy is not wise, because it doesn’t even try to hide the fact that they’re using differential pricing. I will likely never trust a price they quote me again, as I’ll assume it’s inflated. This means that I’ll (1) look far and wide for another company offering the same service at a reasonable price; and (2) haggle with Citibank, on the assumption that I need to find the “magic words” that will drop the price. Either way, they’ve lost out on good business.
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The way it is. Or at least ought to be. Though it doesn’t always seem to work quite the way one would hope…
The next few are also on the same topic.
Strange the power that the exotic has over the subconscious.