posted Sep 11, 2012, 6:08 PM by Jan Willem Lindemans
On Sunday, it was the birthday of our dear colleague Ryan. He held a party in his apartment - which will be very close to the one we will be moving into on the 20st of September (Washington Square neighbourhood, that is). Ryan is a beer fan - he visited Belgium and has already seen more Belgian breweries than I have - so we had the chance to taste some very nice Philadelphian beer. Really nice. I know that you're spontaneously thinking "really nice sparkling water", but it is no true: There are some good American beers (they have a huge amount of breweries). And Philadelphia seems to be a city of beer lovers - of Belgian beer lovers too, btw. (Many breweries brew "Belgian style" beers - explicitly.) Anyway, good party. And Sarah, Ryan's wife, made marvelous snacks and pie. The croissant with sausage might have been somewhat unorthodox to the European (but not to one open minded and open mouthed as I am): the stuffed mushrooms were just classic!

Now, Ryan has given us loads of info on Philly before we arrived as well as after. Ryan does modeling and computer simulations (on philosophy of science and political philosophy topics: times have changed) and, somehow, his systematic approach spills over to his advising. This results in terribly good advice. To honor his birthday, let me give you some of my best-offs:

Legal advice Ryan-style: "Unlike Belgium, Pennsylvania has truly unfortunate liquor laws, so you cannot buy beer and wine at the grocery store.  Grocery stores cannot sell alcohol.  Wine and liquor can only be bought from state-run Wine and Spirits stores.  Beer can be bought by the bottle or six-pack from many delis and small corner markets, or by the case
from beer distributors.  No store can sell both wine and beer.  If you drive to New Jersey, they have more normal liquor laws, but if you do buy liquor from a liquor store there, be sure to go to a different store after, before you come back into PA.  Some police cars will be watching people with PA license places who go to liquor stores in NJ, since bringing alcohol across state lines is technically bootlegging, and they can fine you.  Yes, we have some dumb laws."

"Here are a few thoughts on neighborhoods: It depends on what you want.  If you really want "close
to Penn" to mean West Philadelphia / University City, for ~$1000 you could probably get a 2 bedroom place, or a just-redone large one bedroom.  The downside is that west philly isn't always the nicest place in the world. It's gotten a lot better since I lived there (now there are several more bars and such, and some restaurants), but it's
predominantly undergrads unless you live farther west, and then you can start getting into rougher neighborhoods.  I wouldn't live much past 44th st, for instance.  40th or thereabouts is where the most stuff is.  If you live a bit more to the south, then the housing is nicer even past 44th st, but then you'd want to walk around the area first to make sure that you are happy with it.

Much nicer, in my view, is to live in Center City, ideally in Washington Square West (also sometimes called "Midtown Village" now). You can take the subway or trolley to Penn, or buses, and there is just way more in terms of good bars and restaurants.  ...  [It is] going to cost you more than West Philly, but variance on price versus quality is really high.  So you can occasionally find awesome places for not too much, but there's a lot of overpriced junk too.  Philly's actually been gaining in population recently, so the housing market is adjusting upward some. A 1 bedroom can run you anywhere from $850-$1500 (or up), depending on the details.  At the $1200 mark you should safely be able to find 
something that's very nice." That's what I call thorough advice. How could we not follow it!  

"The housing stock in Philadelphia is *extremely* variable.  Some places you look at will be truly awful.  Don't get discouraged.  If you see a really great place, think seriously about just taking it.   (Philadelphia apartment hunting is very much like the secretary problem in economics, so keep that algorithm in mind when you're looking.)  Basically, look on craigslist, make as many appointments as you can, and if you like places, tell them you're interested to get things going.  ... In your downtime, I suggest walking around Philly - there are a number of apartments that aren't listed anywhere except for signs on the buildings themselves.  It's also a nice way to familiarize yourself with the city.

Apartment hunting is like the secretary problem?? 

A guide for the perplexed: 
The secretary problem is one of many names for a famous problem of the optimal stopping theory. The problem has been studied extensively in the fields of applied probability, statistics, and decision theory. The basic form of the problem is the following: imagine an administrator willing to hire the best secretary out of rankable applicants for a position. The applicants are interviewed one-by-one in random order. A decision about each particular applicant is to be taken immediately after the interview. Once rejected, an applicant cannot be recalled. During the interview, the administrator can rank the applicant among all applicants interviewed so far, but is unaware of the quality of yet unseen applicants. The question is about the optimal strategy (stopping rule) to maximize the probability of selecting the best applicant.
The problem has a strikingly elegant solution. The optimal stopping rule prescribes to reject about n/e applicants after the interview (where e is the base of the natural logarithm) without choice then stop at the first applicant who is better than every applicant interviewed so far (or proceed to the last applicant if this never occurs). Sometimes this strategy is called the 1/stopping rule, because the probability to stop at the best applicant with this strategy is about 1/e already for moderate values of e. (Thank you Wikipedia)

Back to Ryan: "keep that algorithm in mind when you're looking" means that when craigslist gives you 20 apartments which you might like, you should go and see 20/2.7... that is about 7 apartments without saying yes to any of them, and then you go on viewing stuff and take the first apartment that is better than all what you have seen before (or remain frustrated because you have to take that last place and it doesn't compare to that palace you saw the second day - if you see a palace, JUST GO FOR IT = JW's solution to the secretary problem). Anyhow, following the algorithm gives you 1/2.7 chances that you got the best apartment from the list.

For the unmarried ones out there: the secretary problem is also sometimes called the "marriage problem" (academics can REALLY be unromantic). Go ahead, and practice that algorithm! (Don't forget JW's palace algorithm though.)

Ok, I'm drifting off! Time to hit that "Save" button. 

Happy Birthday Ryan!