Sunday, December 16, 2007

In memory of Dr. Walter Rice

The day before yesterday, I received the sad news that my old economics professor--both from my undergraduate days and from the MBA program--had passed away that morning.

Dr. Walter Rice was an old-timer at Cal Poly--going back to the days when the place was known by some as "Cow Poly." As I recall, Dr. Rice joined the Cal Poly faculty in 1964, the year in which I was born. Before then, he had first had a pre-college stint as a textiles buyer and then, after completing college, a career with the Department of Transportation (or some other state or Federal transportation related office). Dr. Rice developed a course in the Economics of Transportation, and his interest in that showed itself in other courses, too. One day, he prefaced an example by saying something to the effect that "Knowing my personality, you can probably guess that this has to do with transportation." Having originally joined the faculty without a doctoral degree, Dr. Rice spent an interlude receiving his Ph.D. at what was then (and until recently) known as the Clairemont Graduate School. He had, however, returned to campus years before I ever showed up.

Dr. Rice showed a great deal of enthusiasm for his field and was renowned for his constant references to "fat little dollars." One time, when the MBA Association had a contest for the design of an Association T-shirt, a group of us submitted one featuring capitalist pigs (with curly tails) "gobbling up fat little dollars." One time in class, to demonstrate reservation prices, Dr. Rice pointed out that you would obviously not turn down an offer from a potential employee to work for less than you would have been willing to pay. "You jump with joy!" he said instead.

Every year, Dr. Rice would start his MBA economics course with the story of Robinson Crusoe, illustrating first the benefits of investing time in making a net to catch fish and then diminishing returns to scale when more people joined Robinson in catching the fish. Robinson Crusoe was, of course, a profit optimizer. During my second MBA year--the course was featured in the first year--one of my classmates told me that a dozen or so people from my year had returned to hear his introductory story again.

Dr. Rice knew that some of us--especially those of us who did not have much of a math background--found certain aspects of his course rather difficult. Sadly, I no longer remember exactly what "isoquant" curves are about, but I remember those being especially challenging. One day, Dr. Rice alluded to the relief that many of us might feel after the upcoming exam was over. He then discussed a hypothetical scenario where, to celebrate the completion of the exam, we would head up to San Francisco. He suggested--illustrating some marginal phenomenon--that when we reached Gonzalez (probably about 75 miles North of San Luis Obispo--or some 300 miles North of Los Angeles on Interstate 101) and suddenly spotted him, we would want to be as far away as possible from him. Fortunately, it happened that at Gonzalez, there was an "arc" type road briefly running along the freeway, and going on that would maximize the distance from him.

Dr. Rice would often refer to "utils," a unit of utility. He mentioned that a meter to measure this quantity could be calibrated by pointing to the course text book. Finding that the utility for the book measured at -3.5, we would know that the meter was working properly. Dr. Rice's constant use of the term "utils," unfortunately, came back to haunt him when a disgruntled former student--with a vivid imagination--filed certain outrageous charges against him. Among her allegations was that the term was a secret code word used by Dr. Rice and a student assistant to refer to cocaine--or some other elicit substance--that they were allegedly dealing. Tragically, it took close to a year to clear Dr. Rice of these fabricated charges.

Dr. Rice did not take kindly to people who ditched class or failed to pay proper attention. Back in the days where few faculty recorded student attendance, he was a pioneer. One day, he announced that for those who were absent that day, the day's notes would be due at our next class meeting. Those of us who were present, however, did not have to worry about this. Dr. Rice took grave exception when, on the first day of classes, the caught a student looking through the class schedule during class. He expressed his vehement view that he considered such behavior "very rude." The last two words, in particular, thundered. One of my classmates who took a different section from mine mentioned that near the end of class, a student was startled by some outside noises and glanced at her watch. "Class ends when I say it ends!" came the stern and roaring reprimand. Dr. Rice liked to keep the door to his classroom open--presumably so that passers-by would not miss out on his wisdom. In my second year of the MBA program, a very beautiful woman in the program was taking Dr. Rice's class. I knew that I could stop and admire her--deeply absorbed in the lecture--for a few moments without getting caught. Later, she told me about not daring to fail to pay full attention in that class.

To make sure that no one--despite paying close attention--missed out on his wisdom, Dr. Rice would often repeat himself. There were also certain hypothetical entities that kept coming up--e.g, the "W. E. Rice Widget Company."

I have fond memories of Dr. Rice and will miss him. I am also very disappointed that Dr. Rice passed away years before he would have had a chance to see one of his favorite students receive the Nobel Prize in economics.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

I saw Adrian Monk knock out Santa Claus with a candy cane...

Well, it wasn't actually the real Santa Claus, but rather a criminal who ran away after he had created a distraction by dressing up in a red suit while his accomplices robbed a nearby museum.

Earlier in the episode, Adrian had astutely admonished Julie, his assistant's daughter, that "You wouldn't like [Christmas], either, if you hated it as much as I do."

At one point, Adrian was accused of shooting (albeit not fatally) the impostor when he was engaging in a previous failed attempt at distraction. Adrian, however, claimed that the impostor had come at him and that he only shot in self defense. When interviewed on TV, Adrian's reassurance to the children that he did not shoot the real Santa Claus backfired when he explained that there is no such thing.

Monday, December 03, 2007

It took me so long to find out I was wrong--but I found out

As John Lennon says in the song "Day Tripper," "It took me so long to find out, but I found out." Let me hasten to say that I am not--and have never been--into drugs. (After all, tall people are naturally high.) So that is not the reason for my mistaken impression of what I, until today, thought of as "the 'Barumbumbum' song."

In Denmark--at least until I left--I am not aware of a translation of the "Little Drummer Boy" ever being popular. At least, I do not recall ever hearing the song. Since another Christmas song explicitly refers to "the little drummer boy," I actually thought that that was the song with what title.

Imagine my surprise when--after being in the U.S. for twenty-nine years and one and a half weeks--I learned the name of the song. I also learned that the words apparently are "pa rum pum pum pum." This mistake is clearly not of the astronomical magnitude discussed in my previous post "How Could I Have Been So Wrong"--but it still stings!

Biggest points of the semester

This is the last week of classes for the semester. Tomorrow's lecture will include a reminder of some fundamental truths:
  • Income ≠ willingness to pay
  • You do not have to make a direct profit on everything you do. What matters is TOTAL profit.
  • Having a great product does not mean that consumers will (a) know this and (b) be able to find a place to buy it.
  • Selling online usually costs more than going through traditional retailers
  • Behavior of segments tends to differ. Averages are often meaningless and misleading.
  • Messing with Microsoft is stupider than messing with Jim, spitting into the wind, tugging on Superman’s cape, or pulling off the Lone Ranger’s mask.